As these words find form, my heart is thumping. The heat of the woodstove is chipping away at the frost which is poking countless pinholes in my cheeks. Cold is radiating off my clothes. I’ve just come back inside, and the fresh air has stolen my breath. A look out the window reveals brilliant sunlight reflecting a healthy snowfall on the mountaintop across the way. Down low, there’s barely a skiff. The high today made it out of the negative numbers – barely: it’s zero degrees, Fahrenheit. The low last night was -8, tonight the weatherman says -14. It’s cold, but not the coldest I’ve experienced – that was -30 a few years back – and let me tell you, that’s a different world.
On days like today, when the sun is shining, it is oh so deceiving. The sky is as brilliant a cobalt blue you’ll ever see. The mountains stand prouder, the trees taller. The creeks seem to run a little faster. Okay, that last one is a bit of my imagination, but to keep from freezing I know I would. All in all, winter is Montana’s grandest season. For those who’ve only experienced Montana’s charms in the summer, you’re missing out, but I can’t say that I blame you, I can relate. When I first started dating Tammy, I was petrified of the idea of a Montana winter. It carries a mystique. Back then, the worldly east coast boy that I was knew of its reputation. What I didn’t know it is the season when Mother Nature reveals her most beautiful self, but like so many beings that possess alluring attributes, she harbors a harsh side. For the adventurous, she is a siren, her cry seducing you to frolic in the elements.
In this my eleventh Montana winter – a tenure in which the old-timers no longer consider one a rookie – I’ve seen my fair share of people wanting to test their mettle. I’ve seen success and I’ve seen people flee as fast as the first plane ride south. I can’t help but think of the thirty-something couple who ‘retired’ from the whirlwind of Washington D.C. to the refines of a remote cabin. In there weekly sojourns to the bar, the cost of their lifestyle decision echoed from their expressions to their posture. What was once a refreshed smile soon morphed into scowls and hunched shoulders. Soon they were gone, together a victim to one of Montana’s seductions – Quaintness. It’s understandable, especially coming from inside the Beltway. What could be so difficult about living the ‘simple life?’
The reality is it isn’t so simple. It takes preparation and a willingness to forego. It’s one thing to winter in a city like Missoula or Billings, it’s a different story in the hills, where high-culture very likely is a conversation held atop a barstool, and a quick trip to the C-store for a loaf of a bread or a gallon of milk is an impossibility. On a bitter night, a flat-tire could mean the difference between life and death. Especially if one’s not prepared. What’s that? I have AAA. Forget about it! You’ll most likely not have cell service.
“Screw that,” I hear you say. “I’m staying home.”
Oh my. Cabin Fever is a real thing. I’ve experienced it. It’s the closest I’ve come to literally jumping off a bridge. It explains why so many people go crazy in the mountains and it leads to the philosophy that there are only two types of people who live here: Those going crazy and those already there. Cabin Fever is like Chinese Water Torture without the water. Each hour another drip of frozen nothingness dinks off your forehead. Soon objects within the paintings on the walls start moving. Some of them have conversations. Some of them stare at you. You feel it and turn around only to find your dog giving you the evil eye. It’s so cold, that unless Fido is a Husky, it’s hunkering down in front of the fireplace cursing you for not having an indoor bathroom for your best friend. “Will you stop looking at me,” you bark at the dog.
When it’s time to throw another log on the fire, you realize more firewood is needed. With a deep breath, you turn to the dog and say: “I have to go outside, you’re coming too!” You open the door and step outside. You’re met by the Seductive Paw. No, it’s not a bear out of hibernation who suddenly looks like a good option to cuddle with, it’s the feeling you get when you step into the cold. It’s a brisk kiss on the cheek. It’s not so bad. Even in a hoody, zero doesn’t seem horrible. Maybe you fall for its allure and you take your shoes off and jump barefoot into the snow. Even if you’re not like me and would never do something so foolish, it’s only a matter of time before the paw slaps you across the head. It starts with realization that your cold and it quickly morphs into the shivers. Only the cold isn’t skin deep, it burrows deep, digging into the marrow of your bones. You can’t stop shivering, but you don’t want to go inside.
“Wait a minute John, why wouldn’t I want to go back inside?”
“The essence,” I answer.
Even in the light of a crescent moon, shadows from the trees reach out to embrace you. It’s so quiet that you can hear the shadows stretching for you. If the creek isn’t frozen, the tumbling water plays a soundtrack so sublime that mountaintops appear to be dancing with the stars. If it is in the deep of winter and even the creek is in slumber, the silence is such that you can almost hear the earth coasting in its orbit. But it’s the stars that are, well, the stars of the show. Thousands of them, shining brightly as they watch you catch a glimpse of the Milky Way. If you’re really lucky, the cry of a faraway wolf or the hoot of an owl will rattle your soul. In that moment, that fleeting moment, you’ve felt it. The essence of being alive; the essence of what a miraculous place we call home.
Now that the firewood is split, stacked, and the last of the warm afternoon sun has been sucked from Indian Summer, it’s time for a story. A story that involves glimmering leaves, an insane sunset, fourteen moonrises and a road name from a Stephen King short story. So throw a log in the fire – or turn the thermostat up – and put your feet up. Hopefully by the time you’ve read this, you’ll understand the knot in my stomach or maybe even feel the chill that reverberated up and down my spine.
Every October, my better half gets a hankering for us skip over HooDoo Pass and explore one of the many endless primitive roads that snake through the Clearwater Forest. She really has to twist my arm to cooperate. Can you sense the sarcasm? I too, enjoy seeing what’s around the next corner or over the next hill. This year’s pilgrimage had plenty of both. Not that I had a bad feeling about this trip, but my antenna raised a bit the morning we set off. Maybe it was because that week, the alternator went kaput on Tammy’s car and only the kindness of a nearby neighbor rescued her from a five mile hike home – in darkness, uphill, and in snow. Armed with a new alternator, topped off with fluids and a full gas tank we nosed the Subaru over the funny sounding pass and into the never-ending forest.
The previous year’s journey saw us travel a hundred miles off asphalt until we came across a town in the middle of nowhere. It was a two bar, one gas station kind of place, where the favorite color was camouflage. I immediately fell in love with the town, but my infatuation may have had more to do with 1970’s gas pumps than the personality of the town or its inhabitants. The girl at the gas station didn’t seem to know any of the town names I inquired about. And they didn’t even have a map.
“John, what about your GPS?” I can hear you ask.
“Really?” If you know me, you know I don’t carry that kind of tech in my vehicles. Tammy and I like to dead reckon. Heck, we drove to the Oregon Coast without getting on any interstates. At one point during that trip in some remote ranching area of eastern Oregon we followed a truck and decided that whatever direction it turned we would go in the opposite direction. It’s just how we roll; the adventure is more important than the destination. But I digress. It wasn’t until we got home – after this year’s trip – that I looked at a map and saw that we were merely thirty miles from our goal, and by paved roads to boot. But over a burger and without the luxury of hindsight we decided to call it and we retraced our steps through the Hundred Mile Forest. It was during this jaunt that we bantered away and came up with one of our most memorable sayings – Karmamyalgia. The term is a reference to a certain pain-in-the-ass that got what was coming to him/her – in the form of chronic pain. Used in a sentence, it would go something like this: Luther’s Irritable Bowl Syndrome metastasized into Karmamyalgia, what a shame. The term will make its debut in my upcoming novel Montana Rural, until then, it’s our secret.
Anyway, this year I decided that when we came to a certain fork in the road we would go in the opposite direction than the previous trip. When we passed a place called Scurvy Creek I had images of our car breaking down and us contracting scurvy and our asses falling off or something like that. Why would I have such visions? On a road trip similar to this – one much closer to home – we got stuck in a snow bank, had to sleep in our vehicle and hike out the next morning. Getting stranded is a common nagging fear, especially the more you take silly adventures, especially over roads where vampire rocks like to jump up and sink their fangs into oil pans. Because why my wife is the queen of preparation, I don’t fear bodily harm or even death – I’m certain we could weather just about any storm. No, what I fear of dealing with the inconvenience of hiking fifty or so miles and then returning to rescue the vehicle.
Now my gut told me that Highway 12, the closest known paved road and what I deemed the Yellow Brick Road back home, had to lie somewhere over one of these mountains. And as long as we had over a half a tank of gas I was willing to press forward finding the elusive way out of the endless forest. Further we drove, passing waving fishermen and gawking hunters. Then we hit paydirt. A sign. Highway 12 55 miles. Yes! Instincts had served me right. Little did I know, this is where the adventure began.
Math told me it would be at least a five hour trip. When the going was good, top speed would be fifteen miles an hour. The car climbed this hill, rounded that corner. With each new scene, both of
us craned our necks to see an elusive Jackalope or maybe a bear or moose. Mile after mile, only rocks and ruts greeted us. To the side of the road, hillsides gave way to canyon walls and deep ravines. In the distance snow speckled mountaintops. “There the one’s on the other side of Highway 12. That one’s in the Selway,” I said brashly, so sure of myself.
Soon the afternoon passed to early evening and we were climbing as the sun was sinking. We rounded this mountain and the next until we appeared to be hand in hand with the sun. Did I mention that we started to pass over snow on the road? Not much, but enough to let us know it was there. Across ravines, more snow glowed pink in the dying light. We stopped the car. We got out. A chorus of wolf howls greeted us. Look at the sunset pictures and imagine the soundtrack. Unfortunately we didn’t see them, they were somewhere along the mountainside that we had just passed.
Refreshed and energized we set forward. Headlights on we eventually came to an unmarked intersection. We had two choices, go to the left and head uphill, or go right and downhill. As far as I know, rivers and the roads that follow them don’t run on mountaintops, so off to the right we went. Soon the full moon peaked over the mountains. With the moonrise came the willies, and it’s not easy to admit being creeped out by one of my own creations. I wrote a story about a ghost that feeds off the energy of the living, and he happened to stalk his prey under the light of the full moon. In a place where the nearest electric light was miles and miles away, maybe such demons really do lurk. Around each corner I prepared myself to see a dead three year boy waiting for us. The pitfalls of a creative mind, you know – we’re mostly our own boogeymen.
All that was well and good until we came to another intersection and were faced with a sign directly out of Stephen King’s Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut. It’s a short story about
a lady who is so insistent on finding shortcuts that she starts finding roads that aren’t there. As she finds more and more they become stranger and stranger, more challenging and frightening, until she comes across Motorway B in the Maine woods. The payback was her adventures turned her mortal being into a goddess. We weren’t in Maine, but we did find a motorway – Lolo Motorway. Though it wasn’t paved. It was a glorified two-track road with ravenous vampire rocks. Again we were posed with another choice. And this time, I made the wrong choice. At least I thought I did. To the left was blankety-blank saddle and to the right was so and so creek. Hmmm, creeks are lower than saddles so we again turned right. We started to climb. And climb. And climb. We climbed so far that we saw the moon rise two more times as we gained back all the elevation we dropped. At points the road got narrower and the limbs of trees snatched at our passing car. Snow began to line the road. I started looking at the gas gauge, sure that whatever was left in the tank wouldn’t be enough. An hour passed. Below us, deep canyons shimmered in moonlight. The road turned back into the forest and continued climbing. My patience was growing thin. I just wanted to find Highway 12.
And then we came to an intersection and my wife, whose Indian name is One-who-doesn’t-read-signs cried out: “Highway 12, 10 miles.”
I slammed on the brakes. I looked to the left and smiled. I saw the sign. Then, I had a moment of panic. The road was blanketed with a foot of snow. Remember, we once got stuck in a snow bank on a remote mountain road. I took a deep breath and turned the steering wheel. I pressed down the accelerator. We hit the snow and started to plow. The tires dug in and then they slipped, the front end of the car pointed towards the mountainside. Tammy barked orders from the passenger seat. I don’t remember what she said. I was too focused. We climbed further and plowed more snow. We sailed over the crest of the mountain and just like that the road was dry. I turned to her and said that we should be in a Subaru commercial.
Just when I thought we were out of the woods another fear arose. I turned to my wife and asked: “What if the gate is locked?” For those of you who don’t know, most mountain roads are gated and come October the Forest Service comes along and locks them for the winter. Primarily for wildland preservation, but another unspoken reason is to save people from themselves. With each passing milepost counted down to the moment of truth. What would we do if the gate was locked? We didn’t have enough gas to turn around and go back where we came from, and I also knew I didn’t have the nerve. Mile Marker 3, Mile Marker 2, Mile Marker 1… What would we find?
An open gate of course. It was hunting season after all. After we hit pavement I realized Mrs. Todd was onto something. Each adventure seems to be a bit more unnerving, but in return we are paid back with incredible sights, wonderful memories, and a spirit that is fed and refreshed. At the start of a new journey one can’t predict what will be found, but one thing is for sure, I never imagined coming across a Motorway in an Idaho forest.
Lately I’ve been pondering life’s imponderables, and recently found myself paying heed to an activity which the average person spends approximately one hundred to one hundred sixty odd days of their life engaged, and quite involuntarily as a matter-of-fact, there’s no choice in the matter. That’s more than enough time to slog through War and Peace or Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search in of Lost Time’ or if you’re adventurous, maybe both. Hell, if you’re a warrior maybe you could throw in James Joyce, because in my opinion, Finnegans Wake is the cure for constipation. That’s right sports fans, while driving the other day I found myself doing the math and figuring out how long the average person spends answering the call of nature, and I’m talking about the Number Two Son.
You’re probably asking why would anyone be inclined to think of such subjects. My answer is that engineering firms are paid $Billions to make sure we don’t give poop a second
thought. Not to mention that I don’t listen to a radio when I drive and that allows my mind to go into uncharted territory. Driving is my alone time, I often think of plots, characters, and events when I’m behind the wheel; it’s kind of like time travel, because when I get lost in thought the next thing I know I’m at my destination without remembering most of the drive. If you have ever driven past me, it explains my spaced out look. But I’m rambling, lets get back to the subject at hand.
So, how did I come up with such a number? I know there are theoretical physicists waiting with bated breath for my answer. Here is Zunstein’s theorem of Scatology: A * BMY / H *HPA * ALS / 24 = DSP I know it doesn’t look impressive to many of you, but for a mathematical retard such as myself this is a breakthrough accomplishment, especially considering I did it in my head and without the aid of a calculator. Long drives in the mountains certainly produce miracles. Heck, one drive produced the word Karmamyalgia – whose meaning will be explained in my upcoming work Montana Rural.
Here’s the formulaic primer:
A = Average Time Spent on Hopper. For the sake of argument and simplicity, I will use five (5) minutes a session as a baseline.
BMY = Bowel Movements per Year. Again a major variable, but, I have to start somewhere, so I chose four hundred (400). It allows for both good and bad days and those in between.
H = sixty (60), for minutes to hours conversion.
HPA = Hours Per Annum spend pondering on throne.
ALS = Average Life Span. Another Variable, for this example I’m using 80 years.
Twenty-four (24) = A number between Twenty-three (23) and Twenty-five (25), used for the number of hours in a day.
DSP = The magic number: Days spent pooping.
Placing these assumptions into the formula, I will walk you through the process and allow you to see how much time you’re devoting to literature, posing like a Greek statue, and/or other pursuits of pondering.5 * 400 = 2000 2000 minutes a year doing the act. Divide 2000 by 60 to determine the hours a year you’re spending to keep air-freshener companies in business. By my math the answer is 33.33 hours.
33.3 hours multiplied by 80 =2664 hours in a life time. That a year’s worth of full-time labor plus a healthy dose of overtime. Divide that total by twenty-four to convert hours into days. Again by my math, and for this example, the person in question spent one hundred ten (110) days on the hopper. I know people who haven’t taken 110 days vacation in their life. I’ve also known people who haven’t worked that many days. If you’re looking to catch up on your reading and want or dive into the classics, just add two minutes a session and by ZTS (Zunstein’s Theorem of Scatology) you can increase your DSP to one hundred fifty-five.
Don’t feel that time spent is limited to reading. Other skills are waiting to be developed. Just last month I improved my observational skills by noticing a face in the linoleum floor at the foot of my throne. (I really didn’t see Hitler in bunny ears, but as of this writing I misplaced my camera and the pictures of the coy phantasm.) When I told my wife this, she suggested that I see a psychiatrist. I almost took her up on the offer, but not for the reason you may think, it was more of the creep out factor from not noticing a face staring at me for the better part of ten years. She still claims not to see it. I think she’s in denial. She says that a creative mind lingers on a precipice. I just shrug my shoulders; she’s taught me that arguments such as these are unwinnable.
On the other hand, if you’re stressed out and don’t think there’s enough time to do your honey-do list or whatever chore that is torturing your thoughts, just cut a minute from your bathroom time and add twenty-two days to your life. Just think of the possibilities! You could go to Hawaii, explore Alaska, or go on an African Safari just by eliminating one minute of elimination time. The world is your oyster, just be careful shucking.
I had the feeling it was going to be an adventure, but than again, whenever my friend Joe is involved, even a drive down a mountain road can turn unpredictable. Heck I have it on good information that Maistoinna, the lovable lummox in Shangri-la Trailer Park, might be influenced by Joe and his exploits. But this story isn’t really about Joe, other than he was there and the hike was his idea. The real star of the story was the hike itself.
From the moment I first stepped into Glacier Park in the late spring of 2000, Rising Wolf Mountain and the trail that circumvents it, the Dawson-Pitamakan Loop, has called out to me. For whatever reason, I have ignored its summons until this year when Joe suggested this hike.
From the moment we agreed to give the hike a stab until the first steps from the trail head my gut was telling me this was going to be one for the ages. Not to disappoint, a half-mile into the nearly twenty mile hike a movement caught my attention.
“Bear,” I called out, breaking the silence. To our left, a black bear was foraging on a bench – the geological term, not a resting place for a tuckus, though I’ve rested mine on this type of bench before. We immediately slammed on the brakes, that’s when I noticed a second bear, a much smaller cinnamon colored cub in the middle of trail. “Second bear, a cub,” I remember commentating.
As far as Mexican Standoff’s go, this one was disappointing, and I wasn’t disappointed that it was disappointing. After a few seconds mama scurried off into the woods, affording us the chance to watch junior stand on his hind legs watching his mother before taking off after her.
It’s too bad I’m not the photographer I used to be, because I may have reached
for my camera. I think years of bear encounters have taught me a thing or two, whatever the excuse, the real reason that there isn’t any pictures is I was too busy reading Mama bear’s body language. We were a few steps away from being in that most ugly of situations – getting between a sow and her cub. Usually such an encounter is the highlight of any hike, this time around it was one of many treats Mother Nature had in store.
Soon we were trudging through sub-alpine meadows climbing towards our first goal – Pitamakan Pass. Little did we know that the breeze would soon morph into the real story of the hike. Was it my imagination or was the wind resisting our every step. As we climbed higher and higher the wind talked a little louder and shoved a little harder.
And then, when my heart rate was about to match the elevation, the wind
stopped. We entered what I dubbed Shangri-La Garden. I felt calm places before but never anything quite like this – the place felt like good medicine. Maybe it’s my age, in as much as such exertions don’t come as easy as they used to and the climb was really kicking my ass. Or maybe it’s because the terrain leveled out a bit and the reprieve was appreciated. It was about this time my mind started thinking woo-woo. I had the idea that when I die, this is where I want some of my ashes spread, which got me thinking about the area, and its significance to the Blackfoot. They call the general area the backbone of the world and the particular region is called Two Medicine and it is the tribe’s holy land. I toyed with the thoughts through the remainder of the climb over the pass into the teeth of the strongest wind I’ve ever experienced.
As we climbed the views got more breathtaking, or maybe it was the wind, whatever it was the hood went on. Suddenly the trail wandered upon a shelf in which a part a Glacier laid beneath us like a map. Beyond an alpine lake which I later learned was Pitamakan Lake rose Medicine Grizzly Peak which loomed over another great hike from my past. If you ever have a chance, hike to Medicine Grizzly Lake and Triple Divide Peak, you won’t be
disappointed. There’s a good chance you could encounter a Griz on that hike. I encountered a Griz on the trail to Medicine Grizzly Lake and since been told the area has the highest concentration of the bear in Glacier.
But I digress, Turning away from the Marmot pictured to the right, the final climb to the Pass stared us down, and the wind was getting crazier. Up here it swirled, blowing hard in one direction, stopping, giving a moment of calm before slamming back in the other direction. Half-way up the final approach it knocked me off my feet. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been knocked over by wind before, I can tell you for me, the experience was humbling.
At the top of the pass, we took a breather, hunkering behind a boulder to hide from the wind. I swallowed hard when I glanced around the boulder. The trail was carved into the side of the mountain, its widest part maybe three feet. I didn’t say it, but I was sure thinking about turning around. Taking a deep breath, I stepped into the wind and onto the Continental Divide. During this segment, I understood, no felt, why airplanes take off and land into the wind. It provides more lift, more control. I wouldn’t have enjoyed this part with the wind at my back. I know this because, a mile or so later, as we turned a corner and rounded the backside Flinsch Peak the wind again shifted and we were met by the swirl.
My hood was flapping so loudly it sounded like helicopter rotors and about
then I realized an arm to my sunglasses was bent by the pounding it was receiving. When we came to a wide shelf, I did an experiment: I threw myself backwards with my arms splayed and I was held upright by the wind. I know if the wind would have suddenly stopped, I would have landed hard on my keister.
As we approached Dawson Pass, I couldn’t watch Joe anymore. It was too frightening. He’s a tall, clumsy guy who was really struggling to maintain his balance. I was convinced the wind was going to knock him off a cliff. Every time he stumbled, I closed my eyes expecting when I opened them he would be gone.
After the hike Joe claimed that prolonged exposure to wind can screw with one’s mind. Of course I poo-pooed the idea, but I can tell you for me it stirred creative thoughts. It was then I went inside my mind and philosophical thoughts about the wind which were inspired by the aforementioned Blackfoot mythology. They went something like this: If this is the backbone of the world, it must mean this is the home of the Gods, and if this is their home they’re dreaming up their intent for everybody – everything. And how is it delivered? By the wind of course. So the wind is blowing so hard because it’s so close to its source. So if you stay up here long enough, you could catch the wisdom of the gods.
I think Joe’s right, prolonged exposure to the wind can fuck with your mind.
Once we dropped off Dawson Pass and dropped back into the treeline, the wind
resided and the sounds of the forest replaced the constant blowing. It was no longer necessary to yell to communicate. It was then the real challenge began. Say what you will, but I much prefer the climb to the descent. I’ll take a racing heart and burning lungs over screaming knees and gimpy ankles that protest every downward step. The next eight miles were bespeckled with great sights, minimum conversation and the knowledge that that was one hell of an experience, worth a day or two in the pain-cage.
On a recent drive through our neighborhood the wife and I spotted a big ole burly black bear. For an Ursus americanus he wasn’t a bashful guy, which means he didn’t immediately bolt into the woods. He regaled us by running down the road in front of our car, his big butt lopping a hundred or so yards before slipping into a thicket, crossing a creek and lumbering up a steep hillside. When he felt safe, he turned around and stared us down. We met his stare, savoring every second he shared with us.
For me, there’s something special about bears. I have no idea what it is about the animal that instills such meaning. It’s a personal thing – they’re my totem, whatever that means. If you read Shangri-La Trailer Park you’ll get a feel of how they influence my psyche. My little writing nook is adorned with bear things. Even my winter hat is a bear. When I’m not wearing it, it spends its time perched on a light next to my computer.
Knowing this, you can imagine how empty a summer can seem when it lacks an encounter with a bear. In that spirit, I started thinking about my top ten bear encounters, without further ado, here they are in reverse order.
10) Chocolate Legs and her cubs:
If you’re nice to me, I’ll tell you a place in Glacier National Park where you stand a good chance of spotting a Griz. We met Chocolate Legs there. I’m fairly sure she’s a descendant of the ‘famous’ Chocolate Legs that Roland Cheek wrote about. If you’re interested in bears, pick up the book, it’s a great read.
What makes this encounter so special is that we spotted the sow and cubs two years running, when they were cubs of the year and the following year when they almost equal to their mother’s stature. It was special knowing their lineage and seeing the continuation of the genetic line.
9) First Encounter near home.
A few miles from home there’s a trail that leads to an overlook where, if you’re lucky, you can spot big horn sheep. Tammy and I had a luck of a different sort on a long ago Sunday morn’. We were identifying berries when we heard something behind us. I looked over my shoulder to see a black bear a few hundred feet up the trail looking at us before bolting into the woods. We took its hint and skedaddled.
8) Black Bear on Deck.
It was an early November’s night. I was roughhousing with Shannie-Biscuit on the floor when she stops, threw back her ears and growled. I turned on the outside lights and was met by a big Black Bear on the deck on the other side of the window. It looked at Tammy and me, snorted and lumbered off the deck and into the woods.
7) Smirking Bear.
In Shangri-La Trailer Park, a young Maistoinna tells his grandfather he likes how bears always seem to smirk. Well, that idea came from this encounter with a smirking cinnamon bear in Yellowstone. The bear crossed the road in front of Tammy and I and without interrupting its lazy pace, the bear titled its head, bared its teeth and gave us this ‘F you buddy, these here are my woods look’ and continued on its way. Despite being mere minutes after seeing my first Grizzly, the smirking bear stole the day.
6) Local Griz
Though it’s thought my neck of woods doesn’t contain resident grizzlies, they have been known to wander on through. Just a few weeks ago, I stumbled across tracks mere yards from the house. But, the bear I’m referring to was spotted barely two months after I moved in.
Late one evening, along with a niece and nephew, we were exploring a jeep road near the homestead. We rounded a bend and found a heaping, steaming pile of scat. I got out and investigated. At the time, I bought into the general theory that Griz didn’t wander south of the freeway. I was about to learn first hand how wrong this theory was.
I hopped back into the jeep and continued onward. Around the next bend we spotted the guy. It did this half-stand, half-turn and looked at us before dropping off the road and into the forest. What I remember the most was its size and its golden eyes.
Minutes later we turned around and nearly in the same spot, a bull elk ran in front of the jeep from the direction where the Griz descended. Two great spots for the price of one.
5) The Biscuit trees a bear.
One fall evening, when Shannie-Biscuit was less gray and had a bit more spring in her step, she earned the title: “The Protector of the Homestead.” I had just walked outside and she took off barking. As I rounded the house my eyes followed Shannie’s trajectory and watched a small black bear run up a tree like you and I would run across flat ground. It was one of the most impressive sights I’ve ever seen. The strength, agility, and shear athleticism to climb a vertical balance beam while simultaneously defying gravity was mind blowing. Even though the bear was small by bear standards, it still hulked over my dog. The Biscuit ignored my shouts to come back. She jumped at the base of the tree displaying her meanest bark. Despite the dogs histrionics, it was only a matter of time before the bear tired of such nonsense. So I had to march up the hill and drag the dog away kicking and barking. That wasn’t the last close encounter the Biscuit and I were involved with.
4) Medicine Grizzly Lake:
Another Glacier Park story, though this is not nearly as dramatic as others, this made to list simply because of proximity. A buddy and me were hiking out of the above mentioned lake when I looked into a small overgrown meadow aside the trail and saw the ridge line of what I thought was a foraging moose.
“Moose,” I said over my shoulder to my friend
“Um, that’s not a moose,” he replied.
I looked back into the meadow to see a Griz staring at us while chewing on grub. Without another word, we kept on walking, with wary eyes over our shoulders.
The Griz resumed lunch.
3) Griz Makes a Kill…
… and I have the pictures hanging on my wall, except damn it, I took them with an old film camera and as of this writing, I can’t find the scanned version. When I do, I will post them. Anyway, it’s not as dramatic as it seems, unless you were the marmot it snacked on. Here’s my take on the drama:
We were in Glacier again, in that sweet spot where you can almost bank on seeing a Griz, when here he comes lumbering along a hillside. He looks in our general direction and goes from zero to sixty in 2.5 seconds. The acceleration was astounding. As it hits the brakes, it pulls back its front right paw and swats a rock and sends it flying. For a few seconds he pokes his snout around before coming up chomping.
After a few seconds of chewing and a big swallow he continues on his way. The picture on my blog’s home page and on my Facebook page is this bear as he is about to slip from view.
2) Fornicating Grizzlies and a Celebrity.
It was a damp, dreary June morning on a back country trail in Glacier National Park. The above mentioned nephew, Tammy and myself were suffering through a miserable hike. At the time, my nephew was a pudgy teenager and I didn’t want to let him off the hook and call it quits. He later told me, though he wanted to stop, he was determined to push on. We were well rewarded for our efforts.
At a small creek that dropped into a hanging valley below the trail, we took a break. As I was refilling our water bottles, Tammy and my nephew spotted something below, but couldn’t make it out. We didn’t have binoculars, but I did have my camera with a burly zoom lense. Looking through the viewfinder, I witnessed two Grizzlies making cubs. The three of us are taking turns watching the amorous couple when two hikers approach.
“What do you see?” one of them asks.
My nephew starts whispering to Tammy and is obviously excited. I’m oblivious and tell them about the great sight below and hand them the camera.
“Excuse me sir…” My nephew begins. “Are you John Lithgow?”
“As a matter of fact I am,” Lithgow answers.
“I think you’re awesome,” my nephew continues.
“It’s no big deal, it’s what I do for a living,” he tells my nephew. He and his brother spend a bunch of time with us watching the bears and a pair of elk who are trying to sneak past the griz on their way to the creek.
In the meantime, my nephew asks for an autograph, we can’t find a pen in our packs and the celebrity does something that forever endears himself to me. He says to my nephew: “Why doesn’t your uncle take a picture of us.”
Moments after we part ways, Tammy finds a pen somewhere deep in her backpack. My nephew tracks Lithgow down and the celeb draws a picture of a bear and writes a great personal message. The man has class.
You would think that would be the number one experience, and it would have been but for:
1) Face to Face in a Huckleberry Patch:
It was a hot August afternoon and I load Biscuit into the jeep bound for our favorite huckleberry patch. Biscuit is also a huckleberry hound, she loves going picking and forages the tasties right of the bush. Upon arrival I get right to business and Biscuit sets off on an adventure.
Moments later I hear a heck’uva ruckus. I look up and see a large brown animal running directly at me. My thoughts went like this: Why is Shannie running at me, wait that isn’t Shannie, that’s a big dog, oh shit, that isn’t a dog, that’s a f’ing bear!
I knew it didn’t see me, I was squating in the bushes picking hucks. It rapidly closed the distance, oblivious of an impending surprise. I stood up and the bear slammed on the brakes. It’s backside jackknifed like a tractor trailer as it came to a screeching stop.
And there I was: Face to face in a Mexican standoff with a cinnamon black bear. It golden eyes stared up at me, unblinking. Its fur was heavily matted. I could have reached out and touched its nose. If I did, I wouldn’t be writing this bit. My writing career – my living career would have ended there.
The thoughts one has in such situations are astounding. My first thought was hazardous to my living career: I’m going to feed a bear a huckleberry and live to tell about it. Luckily, common sense overcame insanity and everything I’ve ever read about bear encounters kicked in.
My next thought was: It ain’t getting my huckleberries!
Here’s the deal… Black bears are generally skiddish, they try to avoid human contact. But, if they attack, it’s over… hope you’ve had a nice life, you know what I’m saying?
Knowing this, I went through this litany in my mind. It’s male, it’s sub-adult, ah, it’s like meeting a teenager in a dark alley – you got to show who’s boss. Easier said than done, especially when those lifeless golden eyes are staring you down.
Not breaking eye contact I proceeded with the craziest action I’ve taken in my life. I reached down, picked up a stick, jumped in the air while swinging the stick and yelling at the top of my lungs, which probably sounded like a twelve year old girl.
To my astonishment and relief, the bear yelped like a puppy, turned tail and ran off into the woods.I stood in shock for a few seconds before pacing back and forth while muttering something to the effect of “I just went face to face with a bear in a huckleberry patch.”
Mind you, the entire encounter probably took 5 maybe 10 seconds… but let me tell you, time stood still.
What about The Great Protector? She broke my trance when she came running up on me with tail wagging and tongue drooping. If she could speak, I’m sure she would have asked: “Did you get my present? Did you get my present?” The goofball had stirred up a sleeping bear and ran it right to me. Obviously, she hadn’t heard the expression ‘leave sleeping bears lie.”