Broadcaster, formerly "ashergrey"
- May 5, 2012
The sizzling sensation of ultraviolet on scorched skin. The heat of fluid building between epidermal layers. The skeletal ache of impact, repeated ad nauseam.
Almost there. Home stretch. Just a couple miles to go.
A small tube of sunscreen sat rolled up and empty in my pocket. Breaking out of the trees, I tilted the brim of my hat down, trying to shade my face from the sun. Gaze down, watching the ground.
All downhill from here.
Then, in the periphery, motion. Looking up, I spied two people down the trail at a distance of about 50 yards. A man and woman, waving hands in my direction. As our stares met, they turned and pointed up the slope to the left of the dusty trail. My eyes narrowed for better focus in the afternoon glare, following the line of their outstretched arms.
More bighorns? Another goat? Or…
The muscled bulk of its shoulders came into view first.
I must have given some sign of acknowledgement because the couple who'd alerted me started to move cautiously down the trail. The man had his spray canister in hand. In a single motion, I drew my own. Scanning the hillside again, I again put eyes on the bear.
Correction: bears. A mother and one, two cubs.
They were browsing in the bushes, heads down, moving in my direction. Glancing over my shoulder, I noted there were no other people visible behind me not the trail. When my eyes turned forward again, the couple was gone. I was alone.
This is exactly what people describe as the worst-case scenario, I thought.
The grizzlies were closing the distance. My thumb slid the safety off the spray canister. Raising her head, mama bear started to sniff. She was close now, roughly 25 yards away and clearly visible. Did she see me?
I could hear the sucking sound of air being drawn into her huge lungs. One of the cubs stood at her shoulder. He was not the tiny, cuddly, Teddy Bear size of a baby but instead a thick, dark-coated juvenile.
He mimicked his mother, lifting his muzzle for a sniff. I saw strings of slobber dangling from it, catching highlights from the glaring sun. He huffed his breath, the big dog-like nose flexing with each inhalation. Then he grunted. Not once, but over and again. He was woofing. Woofing at me.
Side-stepping slowly, down and to the right, I left the trail. It was a gamble. I had no idea if the three bears I could see were the only ones in the vicinity. But as the grizzly family had been pushing up trail, from the direction I'd just come, it didn't seem prudent to retreat that direction.
My goal then was to increase the radius of distance and get out of the bear's zone. Doing so though broke my visual contact with the bears. I scrambled through the scree and brush, coming back up to the trail behind where the animals stood. They were partially obscured in the brush.
With spray canister still tight in hand and thumb on the trigger, I swung my camera around from its shoulder-slung position and brought it to the ready.
Mother bear and the second cub had by now started moving away, entering a thicker patch of bushes. The curious youngster who'd scented me continued to look at where I'd been before stepping off the trail.
Thankfully, he'd given up woofing. I stood still as a statue, index finger on the shutter release, working the zoom ring on the hefty telephoto lens. Through the viewfinder, I could see his curious face.
Then, with my left eye cracked open, I again spotted motion. Another solo hiker came ambling down the path, oblivious as I'd been to the presence of the bears. I dropped the camera, letting it fall free by the strap attached via carabiner to my pack. My hand shot out in his direction, palm flat and fingers skyward.
He froze, seeing at once the bear spray at the ready in my right hand. The hiker drew his own and scanned the hillside, struggling to see the threat. I changed my gesture, raising only three fingers to signal "three of them." Then, I pointed two fingers at my eyes before extending my arm in the direction of the bears. He nodded.
Somehow, I sensed that I'd left the most dangerous part of the encounter. Unfortunately for this stranger, he'd taken over and was now closer to the bears than I'd been. Seconds were unfolding like minutes, moving in slow motion. We stood locked in those poses for what felt like a long time.
In reality, only few short moments elapsed before a larger group of hikers came around the bend up the trail. The other hiker motioned to them, just as I had him. The group though, unable to see the bears clearly and obviously feeling more secure in numbers, did not halt in place. They moved forward cautiously, congregating around the spot where the other hiker stood.
"What is it?" I heard them ask in subdued tones.
"Grizzly," he answered.
From my vantage point, I could see the bears clearly. Mama was walking uphill into dense cover. One of the cubs was already in the thick of it. The curious cub had surrendered his vigil and was following reluctantly behind his mother. I edged forward to where the group stood.
"Three of them," I said. "A mother and two cubs. Up in the bushes."
More people came down the trail. The group started to grow. They pulled out their cell phones, taking pictures of nothing since the bears were by this point deep into the brush and not well visible from the trail.
One of the hikers who came down carried a well-worn multi-day pack. He was standing next to me when a lady in the burgeoning throng turned her face in the up-trail direction.
"Hey," she shouted. "There's a grizzly here!"
Although strangers, we all collectively cringed. The multi-day guy, speaking to everyone and no one, hissed under his breath.
"Idiot! That's the absolute worst thing to do." Then, turning to his companions, he added. "We need to get out of here. Someone's going to get charged. The more we keep standing around here, the more people will stop."
Smart advice. The photographer in me was not happy with the couple quick snaps I'd caught when the bears were in the open. I'd stuck around in part to watch out for anyone else coming down the trail unawares, but also in the hopes of catching a better shot (albeit from a safe distance). But with so many people lined up on such a popular trail, it wasn't going to happen.
Instead, at a quickened pace that felt almost painful given the long miles already tallied on my boots, I retreated to the Many Glacier Ranger Station to let them know about the sighting.
The idea of doing Glacier National Park on short notice, over a weekend and coming from Utah seems kind of silly on the surface. It deserves so much more time and attention. The distance from Salt Lake City makes just getting to and from the park timely, expensive or both. It's a place where venturing out solo is strongly discouraged, given the presence of grizzly bears and other hazards.
Circumstances though sometimes align in fortuitous ways. The 24th of July, a state holiday in Utah, fell on a Monday in 2016. That left me with a long holiday weekend and no solid plans. The usual summer suspects came up in discussion with my brother and sister: the Uintas, the Wind Rivers. Scheduling conflicts arose, so by early July it became clear I was on my own. An idea popped into my head: why not Glacier?
I've wanted to visit Glacier for years. As a kid, I'd passed up on opportunities to go the with my dad. He worked as a pilot and occasionally had long layovers in Kalispell. At the time, my interests were more focused on friends, girls and video games instead of outdoor adventuring.
Now, in my 30s, the siren song of the Crown of the Continent rang in my ears.
A look at airline schedules proposed an interesting itinerary: Delta flew a daily flight from SLC to FCA departing weekdays at 10:20 p.m. The return flight on weekdays departed Kalispell shortly after 6 a.m. This meant I could leave for the airport straight from work on Friday the 21st, arrive in Montana after midnight and head straight for Glacier. That would give me three solid days in the park. Then, on Tuesday morning, I'd fly back to Salt Lake City and go right from the airport to work.
Next question was where to stay. The lodges in the park were all booked solid. Backcountry sites were mostly locked up as well, at least the ones available for reservation. Then, by a stroke of luck, a single campsite came available for the whole weekend in the Many Glacier campground. It must have been a cancellation and I happened to be on recreation.gov right when it opened up again.
Plans were coalescing. I reserved a rental car and went for it.
My late arrival meant I had to find all of my food and non-plane appropriate gear at 1 a.m. in rural Montana. Thank goodness for Super 1 foods. I was able to get bear spray and stove fuel there, along with some foodstuffs before starting the long, dark drive over Going to the Sun Road.
I didn't roll into the campground until about 3 a.m., in a much drowsier state than was safe. Looking back, this part of the plan was overly ambitious. I really should have stopped and slept sooner, rather than crossing the continental divide while half-lidded. Nodding off at the wheel and going over the side of that road would have not been a graceful way to end this life.
First thing Saturday morning, I popped into the ranger station to see if I could score backcountry site or two. Unfortunately, the site I'd wanted (Cracker Lake) was tied up for the whole weekend. Most of the others available were in distant sections of the park. In the Many Glacier area, both Elizabeth and Helen Lakes were available Sunday night. Helen looked gorgeous, but it was a bit too far to travel in a day. So I settled on Elizabeth head, obtained my permit and then set off for a day hike to Grinnell Glacier.
This deer didn't mind me at all.
In fact, most of the ungulates in the park seemed to disregard humans. I reasoned this was likely a consequence of having such a large area off-limits to hunting for so long. Generations of animals have become conditioned to seeing humans in their landscape, but not as predators.
Looooong way down. When you tell someone to take a flying leap, this is a good place to recommend.
About halfway up the trail, I heard the signature buzzing of a DJI Phantom quadcopter. I could see it ahead, bobbing in the wind.
A man, his wife and two kids were standing beside the trail as I came around a bend. I informed them as politely as I could they were breaking the law by flying within a national park. The operator played dumb, promised to bring it in… then went right ahead with his flight. Rather than push the issue, I continued up the trail. When I turned back, a small group had thronged around to watch him fly.
Annoyed by his flaunting the regulations, I unshouldered my camera and started snapping pictures. At one point, he looked up to see the barrel of a telephoto lens pointed his direction. He seemed to hustle up his recovery efforts at that point.
On a side note, I'm a big believer in the value of small unmanned aircraft. But I'm sick of idiots using the tech indiscriminately. I'm posting this guy's photo to make a point. He set a horrible example for his kids and for everyone else on the trail that day. If you fly, follow the rules. Ignorance is not an excuse.
A bachelor herd of Bighorn Sheep were grazing around the glacier.
I see you...
They didn't seem too fazed by all of the human company.
Horns double as a built-in backscratcher.
Clouds were moving. I tried some long-exposures, but the skies were a bit too thick.
Those clouds had been clinging to the Garden Wall all day.
They started spitting cold rain.
The storm lasted 10 or 20 minutes.
When the sun returned, the ice-smoothed rock seemed to glisten.
Most of the day hikers had scattered during the storm, rushing back down the trail for cover. Their loss. The afternoon weather was perfect.
The wildflowers were popping. The variety and vibrancy demanded attention.
By the time I started back down, there was very little company. That was in contrast to the way up, when people were plentiful.
This friendly little fellow was headed up the trail. I stepped off to let him pass.
Grinnell Lake's beautiful glacial color seems to change depending on the intensity of the daylight.
The head of Lake Josephine...
...and the foot of Lake Josephine.
[PARSEHTML]<iframe src="http://www.mappingsupport.com/p/gmap4.php?q=https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/3847512/GPS/Grinnell_Glacier.kml&t=t4" frameborder="0" marginheight="0" scrolling="no" width="800" height="800"></iframe><br><br>[/PARSEHTML]Upon returning to camp, I had some dinner and took in the view.
This spot was about 50 feet from where I pitched my tent.
Down the road at the Many Glacier Hotel, a group was unloading musical instruments for a little acoustic jam session in the lobby.
I watched the sun set from the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake then called it a night.
Sunday morning, I overstuffed my day pack for an overnighter as this gal wandered down the creek next to camp.
Then I handed off my site in the campground to a lucky latecomer.
The Ptarmigan Tunnel beckoned.
My goal came into view from the from the far side of the tunnel, way down in the bottom of the Belly River Basin.
It's a long way down. Don't take the shortest route.
Helen Lake came into view up the basin and I briefly regretted not reserving a spot there. Then I considered my aching feet and the miles still to go and quickly came to terms with it.
While lunching at Red Gap Creek I heard the sound of voices. Two young women rounded the bend to see me sitting alone on the footbridge, eating a sandwich.
"They said to make noise, especially around blind corners and running water. In case of bears," they explained.
"Sorry," I said. "No bears, just me."
Sun dipped behind the mountains as I rounded the northern end of Elizabeth Lake.
The final stretch of trail along the lake's edge kept climbing and descending small hills, making that last mile feel longer than it should have.
[PARSEHTML]<iframe src="http://www.mappingsupport.com/p/gmap4.php?q=https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/3847512/GPS/Elizabeth_Lake.kml&t=t4" frameborder="0" marginheight="0" scrolling="no" width="800" height="800"></iframe><br><br>[/PARSEHTML]Summer in the northern latitudes means last light comes late and sunrise early. Photographing both leaves one short of sleep.
I stayed up a bit hoping for some stellar light for photos, but Sunday's sunset fizzled. The few shreds of clouds dissipated before they could catch any color.
As I worked around Elizabeth Lake's southern end shooting pictures, a very annoyed beaver swam nearby, slapping his tail. His little nose stuck out of the water like a periscope. It would slip up close to where I stood, then the beaver would smack the surface of the water and dive for cover, as if to say "made you look."
The reason for his irritation became apparent when I found his stash spread out on a nearby beach.
I woke at about 6 a.m. on Monday to find daylight already well established. The plan called for doing the same route as Sunday, only in reverse.
That meant a long uphill hike to the tunnel, much of it sun-exposed. I wanted to do as much of this in shade as possible and endeavored to strike out early. After a quick breakfast, I broke camp and was underway.
A huge covey of birds flushed from the scrub as I breezed past them in the morning light.
The trail leaving Elizabeth Lake switchbacked right up the side of the mountain. Having done two long days on trail already, I was feeling a bit beat.
A couple of black-footed ferrets raced around as I took a breather again at Red Gap Creek. In my head, I tallied up the animals I'd seen so far in the space of three days: bighorns, mountain goats, moose, deer, beaver, ferrets, grouse, marmots and countless squirrels and chipmunks.
But no bears. That left me feeling grateful but also a bit disappointed. While I didn't want to come nose-to-nose with a grizzly, part of me longed to spot one from a distance. A number of people I'd spoken with mentioned spotting bears just days prior along the same trails I'd traveled. Still, the menagerie of this place had already impressed me plenty. No bears was okay.
Elizabeth Lake doesn't look quite so big from up on the slope. Head (where I camped) is on the left. Foot is at far right.
A closer look at Elizabeth head. Hitching post is at far left. You can see a couple people near the alluvial deposits at the inlet.
My plan to beat the heat didn't work so well. At one point on the narrow path up to the Ptarmigan Wall, so much sweat and sunscreen ran into my eyes I was effectively blinded and had to stop. Some eyedrops helped flush the salt and chemicals.
Then, through the stinging and redness, I said goodbye to this beautiful view while vowing to some day return and actually camp at Helen's edge.
Up, up, up to the Ptarmigan Wall.
Looking back, with just a hint of Elizabeth Lake visible and the trail I'd taken leaving it on the right.
Ahern Peak and Ahern Glacier.
Head in the clouds. The sheer vertical relief in this place awed me. There's a three-dimensionality to Glacier that I had not anticipated. So many deep basins are stacked side-by-side, they present views both high and deep.
Almost to the tunnel.
Hearty wildflowers kept proving their willingness to grow anywhere.
The rock and masonry walls along this section of the trail provide a lot of psychological comfort.
Back at the door, the end of a long climb.
Ptarmigan Lake sitting pretty in its cirque.
The wide-angle perspective undersells the vertical relief between Ptarmigan Lake and the tunnel.
Only a mile-and-a-half were left to go when I came around a long corner on the trail and spotted the couple in the distance ahead, eyeballing the grizzly and her cubs. The pictures I managed to nab won't win any awards, but I checked the box next to 'grizzly bear' on my mental list and considered myself lucky to have come away from the experience a little smarter for next time.