Tuesday, August 10, 2010

BEARS! And the most beatiful place on earth...

I have written before about Rebecca's fear of bears. We have slept with bear spray, with knives, and for the last few nights in Glacier, with a Kryptonite U-Lock by our sides. We have walked down trails making all sorts of ridiculous noise (humming, singing, whistling, clapping, talking loudly), and we have tried to be conscious of where the wind was blowing to and from. We have been mindful of bear indicators--scat, fresh tracks, tree rubbings, and places where bears might feed (they are crazy about huckleberries and elk/moose carcasses).

Two days ago, 10 minutes into our ranger led hike up to Iceberg lake, we saw a bear. And not just any bear: a grizzly bear. (Or "Griz" as Ginny West, our faithful and much beloved Ranger referred to her.) And not just any grizzly bear: a cinnamon colored griz with not one, not two, but three cubs, which we learned from Ginny was extremely uncommon.

Now if you study the photograph you will see the trail we were walking on in the lower left corner of the image, and two insanely adorable (and much darker brown, almost black) cubs frolicking behind the bushes. The cinnamon griz was aware of our presence (as soon as we saw her all 20 of us clumped together and then backed the hell off), but didn't seem all that concerned about us. She ambled over the hillside, snacking on vegetation, guiding her cubs. She moved towards us several times, even coming onto the trail in our direction, causing us to clump further together and back further off. One of her cubs stood up on the trail on his little hind legs and stared at us with adorable animal curiosity. The cub looked like a prairie dog.

Ginny was on her radio, talking to the bear patrol down in the valley, advising them of the situation at regular intervals, and there was something profoundly comforting about the radio. Perhaps it was the notion that if the bear decided she was really hungry, a helicopter would shortly be on its way to pick up our scattered remains. After 15 minutes or so of intense bear watching (you would be amazed how easy it is for a very large brown bear to disappear behind a shrub and then reappear 20 yards closer to you), the bear and her progeny wandered down the hill. And that was it. We kept on moving up the hill to iceberg lake. News of the bear spread fast, and a couple of other hikers who had started out on the trail that day by themselves joined our group. By the time we got to the Lake, we had picked up another 8 hikers.

The lake itself (the destination of our hike) was the headland of an old glacier, one of the 150 or so that used to grind away at the mountains here 100 or so years ago. There are 25 glaciers left in the park. Most of the rangers here talk about when not if the glaciers will disappear. Interesting tidbit: the park isn't actually named for the glaciers themselves; it's named for the glaciated mountains that were left by the retreating glaciers. The lake was about 34 degrees, and there were large chunks of ice floating in it. And when we got to the top of the trail it was raining pretty heavily, and at 6,000 feet or so it was very, very cold. But none of those things stopped a group of teenage boys, egged on by their moronic uncle Chuck, from taking a dip. Ginny quipped: "I really don't want to have to lead a rescue."

I forgot to mention that Glacier is the most beautiful place on earth. The Blackfoot Indians, who originally sold the land that would become the park to the US, called the mountains here "the backbone of the world." And there is something very apt about the name.

A view of the valley from the high-line trail on our last day.

A view of the mountains on our way in on the Going-to-the-sun road.

Sunrise from our campground at St. Mary's.

A few other things of note about our time in Glacier. We saw the Johnson family (again), and they took us out for a fine dinner at the St. Mary's lodge(I had elk and bison chili), then we roasted marshmallows and watched the stars. The whole "big sky" Montana license plate is exactly true (although we're not sure the sky in Idaho is any smaller). The sky here is huge, and at night the sky is a dizzying array of blinking majesty and shooting stars and the milky way is perfectly visible. Our necks hurt from staring up for so long.

We drove the Going-to-the-sun road, which is also aptly named. As the story goes the laborers who built it in the early 20th century dangled off of cliffs on ropes to blast it out of the sides of the mountains. It offers some pretty amazing views of the valley and some amazing vertigo. On our way into the park we crossed the continental divide (for the second time); on our way out we crossed it again (for the third and final time on this squirelly adventure). There was a long, long line for photographs of the divide on our way out of the park, so instead of posing (again) we just took a picture of the line. We also passed the 7,000 mile mark and expect to hit 8,000 before we land in Eugene.

On our way out of the park we ran into a group (I almost wrote "flock") of wild mountain goats. I was surprised at how cute they were (I have eaten goat in Greece, and the Greek goats always seemed scraggly and scruffy and dingy and much less cute than these).

Baby goats are heart-breakingly cute.

I don't care for the whole "a picture is worth a thousand words" cliche, but if that's true then actually seeing glacier is worth a thousand pictures of it. Here are four more.
Coming down from Iceberg lake.
Self-timer on the high-line trail (note: we passed a man walking back on the trail who said: "This is not the trail for an acrophobe.")

Ice-cold lake and a clouded peak.

Peaks and waterfalls from the Highline Trail.

We're lounging it up in the Davenport Hotel in Spokane; on to Olympic National Park today. We should be in Eugene on Friday.

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