Tag Archives: Bears

It’s Always an Adventure!

The climb towards Pitamakan Pass

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

Old Man Lake – Little did I know the challenge that would be encountered on the other side of the mountain.

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.

About two hours in.

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

Shangri-La Garden

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.

Pitamakan Lake

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

Pass resident

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.

Paydirt… Looking from Pitamakan Pass at Rising Wolf MT.

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

The trail along the Continental Divide.

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.

“Against the wind.”

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

Above the Treeline

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.

 

Bear Stories

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.

Shannie-Biscuit

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

“Moose,” I said over my shoulder to my friend

Grizzly… Confused? I was.

trailing behind.

“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.

The feeding Griz

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.

My imagination’s take on the Huckleberry Patch Incident!

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.”