Friday, November 20, 2015

Ten Steps to Hiking in Grizzly Country

I arrived in northwestern Montana this April thinking I was an experienced solo backpacker.  Because I’d dealt with black bears in “problem areas” like the Smokies and Yosemite, I thought I would easily adjust to hiking solo here, in grizzly country.  I thought that fears of grizzlies were overblown. 
Trailhead sign in Glaicer NP.
Turned out, it was more complicated than I'd assummed. 

After eight months, I’m certainly no expert.  Learning the best practices for hiking in grizzly country was straitforward: make noise, be constantly alert, take care with food, keep food and food smells away from camp, carry bear spray.  But the mental aspects required significant adjustment.

I found little information about solo hiking around grizzlies.  Signs and guidebooks simply say don’t do it. The vast majority of locals say don’t do it.  "Why?" I kept asking.  "Is it really that much more dangerous than going with a partner?" 

I am not making any recommendations.  Its best to follow the official advice.  Or avoid Montana.

But here is my story of the ten steps that I took to hike here, alone:

1. Study reports of grizzly attacks.  Realize that the risk of death is low, but maulings happen more frequently.  Statistically, drownings and falls present a more serious danger.  Try (and fail) to identify patterns in the attacks.  Did the victims make obvious errors? Which areas have problem bears and the highest bear concentrations?  Listen to some people say that the Bob is safer because bears are more wild, while others say Glacier because it’s heavily monitored and bears are sort-of habituated.  Realize that bears are unpredictable, that they could be anywhere.  Even experienced hikers taking all the precautions have been attacked. 

2. Practice skills for hiking in grizzly country;
    -  How to make noise especially around blind corners.
    -  How to distinguish black bears and grizzlies, and how to respond to each.  
    -  How to carry bear spray on a belt so it says with you when you take off your pack, and doesn’t fall down a cliff and roll into a freezing cold lake.
    -  How to keep the safety on the bear spray covered so it doesn’t break in your car, and then accidentally fire into a fellow hiker’s face at the trailhead, causing all sorts of pain and leaving you feeling totally mortified and too embarrassed to ever hike with that group again, even though they were probably your best hope to find hiking buddies.

3. Practice wildlife avoidance tactics.  Choose popular trails.  Wait at empty trailheads for other hikers to arrive.   Avoid trails with grizzly signs.  Avoid hiking at dawn and dusk.  Inquire about bear activity at the backcountry ranger office.  Question everyone you pass about what wildlife they’ve seen.  Hike 10 miles to a campsite where you have a permit, only to hear about a grizzly in the area when you arrive, and hike the 10 miles out again so you don’t have to camp there alone.
Do I really want to camp here?
4.  Seek guidance from experienced solo hikers.  Discover that most of the badass female backpackers did not go through Montana alone when they were on the CDT.  Identify two superheros of backpacking and get up enough courage to ask how they went solo.  Listen carefully as they emphasize that mental state is key.   “Know your place on the food chain."  "Accept the risks you are taking."  "It’s complex,” they say. 

What does that even mean?  You have to find out on your own.

5. See grizzlies up close with other people.  Walk by a grizzly that you could reach out and touch with your hiking pole.  Camp in a place where a grizzly walks past the tents.  Feel what it is like to know your place on the food chain.

Notice that there is a risk to hiking with other people because you are less cautious, less aware.  Discover that hiking with other people doesn't feel that safe either. Especially when other people run from bears, or do other stupid things.
Two women running from the grizzly bear towards us on the Highline Trail.
Roadside grizzly at Logan Pass, Glacier Nationa Park.  This makes me uncomfortable for a number of reasons.  People think they are at a zoo.
6. Go solo hiking, and experience the discomfort.  Drive yourself crazy shouting and clapping and making noise.   Lie awake at night, startling at the smallest rustling.  Question whether you are cut out for Montana.  Cry at the incredible beauty.  Wish this place could feel like home.
Solo trip to Lincoln Lake.
7. Decide to stay home.  Have a backcountry camping permit and your backpack packed for the weekend, but then read the day’s news reports of a bear mauling and the FWP press release saying that bear activity is on the rise.  Call the backcountry permit office and cancel the reservation.  Try to think of something else to do, but fail to come up with anything to do at 5 AM but hike.  Face the reality that you are a hiker and your heart longs for the woods.  Spend the day lying in bed feeling depressed.

Learn that there is a measurable risk to staying home, to NOT hiking solo.

8. Feel the fear.  Have a solo bear encounter.  Feel the clarity of mind when you know danger is that close and make those smart decisions.  Have everything go well- the bear stands up on two feet to get a good look at you, then you realize it's only a black bear as it runs off.  
Completely realistic likeness of the solo black bear encounter in Glaicer.
 9. Watch Night of the Grizzlies and the next morning hike to one of the sites of the maulings.  Sit at the edge of Trout Lake for an hour in a hail storm by yourself.  Think about death.  Feel what it is like to be completely alive.
Trout Lake-- site of one of the 1967 grizzly attacks that changed attitudes towards bears and led to our modern managment system.
10. Accept the risk of going solo.  Feel the mental shift that has happened.  Measure the risks, find ways to mitigate the risks.  Feel the fear but also the even stronger drive to be out in this beautiful grizzly country.  Value the wildness of this place.  Respect that you are traveling through the home for these endangered creatures.  Realize that you probably shouldn’t even be here, but that having this experience is powerful and is challenging you in ways you had never imagined, certainly would never have asked for.  Be grateful for all of this.
Solo trip to Dawson Pass, near Two Medicine.
Again, I'm not saying I recommend going solo.  But as someone who previously backpacked solo for many years, and as someone who had trouble finding available hiking buddies, this is what I did.  Because I weighted the risk of hiking solo with the risks of staying home.

I hope this will give you some idea of what they mean when they tell you not to hike solo in grizzly country.

If you have questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.  My email address is listed on my "about me" page.

For more information:

Night of the Grizzlies -watch the documentary or read the book

Good article on food protection by Andrew Skurka

Glacier National Park's bear advice and video

Bear biology and research

Monday, September 21, 2015

Park Creek in Glacier

Last mountain goat survey of the season: Park Creek, Glacier National Park.

I can tell why they needed someone to do this site— it’s 11 miles into the backcountry.  To pull it off in one day requires 22 miles.  Plus, this southern section is not a popular area.  One friend say this area is “boring” and that it’s “just trees.” All of this suits me perfectly!
Just trees.
At the survey site, I spot them quickly: three mountain goats, mere specks on the distant cliff.  Now that I’ve got the search image after a whole season of doing surveys, they jump out at me.  Still, I scan for a full hour, just to see if I missed any.
Borrowed gear for the mountain goat survey.  As a VIP volunteer, I even get an NPS radio!
Doing surveys on my hikes gives me purpose in where I go on my days off.   It is fun to be engaged, to be observant for a reason.  To wonder about the goats, to feel like I'm doing my part to help them.  Like I am making an effort to protect this place and the wild creatures that live here. 
Can you see the mountain goat on the distant cliff face?
Afterwards I find out I have volunteered over 160 hours this summer doing surveys at 22 sites.  I may not have hiked anywhere near the number of miles that I did last year, but somehow seeing the tally of my volunteer hours fills me with a deep satisfaction that can’t be quantified.

How else can you respond to this overwhelming beauty?
Fall in Glaicer.
For more information:
Volunteer for Glacier National Park's Citizen Science Program
Hike the Park Creek Trail from Walton Ranger Station.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Gunsight Pass

A classic overnight backpack in Glacier National Park- Gunsight Pass.  WITH FRIENDS!
Hitchhiking from McDonald Lodge to Jackson Glacier Overlook.
Deadwood Falls.  We hypothesize that they have given the prettiest places in Glacier unattractive names for the purpose of trying to decrease visitation.
One at a time.
Just as we were wondering what makes a glacier different from a snowfield, we meet three volunteers who can answer our question: glacier MOVE, and are greater than 25 acres.
If gale force winds weren’t making us feel unstable enough, remains from a recent snowfall keep us conscious of gravity.
Why are the rocks so many colors?  No geologists showed up to answer this question, unfortunately.  Will need to research geology references for this area.  Anyone have recommendations?
Having trouble fitting all this NATURE into my camera.
"Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower." -Albert Camus
Folded strata of Gunsight Mountain.
Switchbacking down the cirque to Lake Ellen Wilson campsite.
Habituated mountain goats circle our campsite during the night and brush against tents/ tarps, seeking salt from our urine and sweat.
Another camper reported being stalked by goats on his 3 AM trip to the privy.  He joked about it in the morning, but said it wasn’t funny when he was in the pitch dark wearing only his boxer shorts!
Overall, this was a gorgeous hike and I'm delighted to return to Lake Ellen Wilson after my first "failed" attempt to camp here.  Much better this time with friends. 

More on mountain goats
Reading Chadwick's A Beast the Color of Winter, has given me a much better understanding of the goats.

Read Glacier National Park mountain goat action plan here.

Here is another article about the habituated goats in Washington with more about why they are attracted to urine. 

Do your part around habituated goats-- try to pee in the privy, and if not be sure to pee on rocks (to prevent goats from digging up plants).

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Grinnell Glacier

If you hike popular trails in Glacier National Park during early September, you do not hike alone.  Especially not on the trip to Grinnell Glacier from Many Glacier.
Water and rock on the trail to see the glacier.
The hikers I pass are talkative, sharing delight in the scenery and assuring me the climb is “worth it.”  (Guess they don’t know that I love the climbing part.)  I get the impression that because I am solo, they are more open to stopping to chat. A few seem worried about me hiking by myself, and leave me with a cautionary “Be careful.”  How do they all seem to know I’m solo, and not just ahead of my hiking partner?

A few miles in, I start to hear stories of the grizzly and her two cubs.  Each passing version of the story has a different angle.  “The grizzlies were above the trail.” “They went down the valley.”  “Those tourists ran towards the grizzlies and got close to the cubs!”  “Look at this photo of the crazy tourists getting right up close to the mama and cubs—they are such idiots!” 

Two hikers are stopped with binoculars pointing across the valley.  They point and finally I can see the grizzly followed by her two cubs, tiny specks on the far hillside. 
On that far cliff is the grizzly and cubs.
I’m glad I didn’t see them up close.  They traveled quickly, to now be that far away already.

I keep climbing up to the glacier.  Making extra noise.  Then the sight takes my breath away.
WOW this is Grinnell Glacier!  What a sight!  It is worth it!
All of these glaciers and ice fields used to be one continuous glacier, but are now getting smaller and breaking up as a result of climate change.  I'm glad I got to see this glacier now, while it's still here.  Because it'll be gone soon.
On the return trip, I wonder if I will see the grizzlies again.  There are long stretches without any other hikers, so I sing and make noise around blind corners.

All is clear though.  
For more information on this hike:
Grinnell Glacier

Friday, August 28, 2015

Kintla to Bowman, Part 2

Every backpacker we passed our first day told us about the grizzly at Hole in the Wall campsite. 
We had permits our second night for Hole in the Wall Campsite.
Some said they passed close to him on the spur trail between trail and campsite.  Others said he hung around the food prep area at the campsite.  A few said he was a “friendly” bear.  None of this sounded good to me.  I’d rather stay far away from grizzlies.  Twice I have not camped in sites that I had reserved after learning of bear activity there the night before.  But D. was excited about seeing a grizzly and wanted to get a photo.  And we had one more mountain goat survey.

When we descended into camp, we got lucky and the grizzly was far away from the camp and trail.  We met M. who had been watching the grizzly and we were glad to be sharing the site with another camper.  We turned into bed early.

M. had a story in the morning though!  When he’d unzipped his tent at about 6:30 AM, the grizzly was right outside his door.  After a moment of being face to face, the grizzly ran off. 

After packing up, D. and I scanned the valley with our binocs to locate the grizzly before we left camp.  Hole in the Wall campsite lies at the bottom of a hanging cirque lined with huckleberries like a huge berry bowl with the main trail at the rim of the bowl.   Would the grizzly be on the spur trail that we needed to take back up to the main trail? 

“There are two grizzlies now!” I am horrified.  We watch them move closer together, foraging for berries.  They bluff charge each other, and their grunts and growls can be heard all the way across the valley.
Two grizzlies!  Photo by D.
It is like watching a nature video, but it is real and there is no screen.  Boundaries of trail and campsite are an illusion.  Was the territorial behavior causing hormones to surge in their veins?

The other campers all agree to hike out past the grizzlies together.  The five us us form a tight line.  We loose sight of the bears as we drop down into the bowl.  We sing and make noise, bear spray clutched in our hands.  Ever turn is a blind turn.
D. leading the way with her bear spray out on the narrow trail.  She's one brave woman.
And then, there he is, right above the trail behind some small trees, right on the switchback.  JUST KEEP WALKING AND DON’T LOOK DIRECTLY AT HIM.  We hold our formation, tight, bear spray out. 
Of course we were all gripping our bear sprays, so no photo, but the grizzly, like this one, was right behind the small trees directly above the trail. Artwork by Bev Doolittle.
There he is, so close I could reach out and touch him.  The grizzly could reach out an touch us too.  But he doesn’t.  Then we are past.
Looking back at Hole in the Wall Campsite after we made it past the first grizzly.  I remember having a vague sense that the area was scenic and that I was missing the beauty.
Where is the other grizzly?  A steaming pile of scat on the trail provides part of the answer.  I spy him down below the valley below Brown Pass.  Or is it another grizzly?  How many are there?

At our goat survey site, the other hikers hurry ahead.  I scan the cliffs for goats while D. keeps her binocs trained on the grizzly.  He’s grazing for berries and moving in our general direction.  I’m suppose to look for goats for a full hour.  I manage two full scans of the cliffs.  My pulse thundering the minutes ticking by.  It’s only been 15 minutes but the grizzly is now too close.  We abandon the survey and hike on.
Going down Brown Pass, happy to be leaving the grizzlies to their berries.
I don’t understand the people who called them friendly.  That strikes me as disrespectful.  On the other hand, it was fascinating to watch them so long through binoculars across the valley.  To see how fast they ran when they charged each other.  I wonder if it was right to camp there though.  They have so little space.  I felt like I was encroaching on their home, overstepping. 

Moving to Montana, I didn’t realize the ramifications of being in grizzly territory.  I know my imagination probably runs too wild.  Statistically, problems are rare, and I’m still much more likely to fall off a cliff or get hit by a car.  Maybe it’ll get easier over time.  This place is so gorgeous, it feels worth it… at least most of the time.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Kintla to Bowman, Part 1

The backpacking trip from Kintla Lake to Bowman Lake over Boulder and Brown Passes is one of the most spectacular in Glacier National Park.  We didn’t know if we’d see anything with all the fires, but we were signed up to do mountain goat, loon, and pika surveys for Glacier’s Citizen Science Program, so we decided to brave the smoke.
Still Waters, my old (hiking) partner from way back when, drove up from Colorado to visit.   
I was also backpacking for the first time with D., another citizen science volunteer who would be showing me how to do the pika surveys.

Kintla and Bowman Lakes are tucked away in far northwestern part of Glacier National Park.  The unpaved North Fork Road out there is notorious for being washboarded out— but it keeps this area quiet and preserves the experience.  We drove out the night before our backpacking trip to car camp at Bowman Lake.
Hanging out at Bowman Lake Campground
The smoke was thick above Kintla and Upper Kintla Lake.  Fortunately, it didn’t interfere as much with our surveys but at times it felt like it made it harder to breathe.
Smoky surveys.
We didn't see pikas or hear their characteristic "eek" calls, but we did find their little round scat.  I'm sure you're glad I'm including this exciting photo.
Smoky but still gorgeous views on the Boulder Pass Trail.
Feeling on top of the world at Boulder Pass.
For the excitement on our second night...  See Part 2...

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Harrison Lake in Glacier

My original plan had been to hike in the Bob, or a section of the CDT in Montana.  But with all the fires, I can't figure out where to go that isn't closed.  Smoke is thick and I can't think straight and I just want to be hiking.  So off for another mountain goat and loon citizen science survey in Glacier National Park, because at least that way I'll know I'm doing something worthwhile.

10 AM 
I see him before he sees me.  I say hey bear and he runs off.  I like that.  It is reassuring that not all bears here in Montana are bossy and bold like that one from the Highline.
Doing loon and mountain goat surveys for Glacier's Citizen Science Program.
4:40 PM
At the head of Harrison Lake, one adult loon is swimming and diving.  I record the time and location on my survey sheet.  Then, I loose sight of him. Where could he have gone?

5:03 PM
At the mountain goat survey site, I see no mountain goats.

5:34 PM
Still no mountain goats.  Oh well.  I tried.

6:46 PM
Back near the campsite, on the shore of the lake, looking for the loon again.  Instead, a moose on the far shore perks its ears, looks around, and walks into the water.  It’s swimming!  Then, it starts swimming in my direction.  Do you know how fast moose swim?  Why is the moose swimming towards me?
That speck is a moose and it's getting closer.
I get scared when I remember stories I've been told of aggressive moose.  I don't know anything about moose.  Was it just out for a dip to cool off?  Or was it coming to check me out?  Are they territorial?  What are you suppose to do if you encounter a moose?

I dart back to my campsite and hide in my hammock.  Maybe it won’t find me. 
Nothing bad has ever gotten through my camo cuben fiber fortress.
7:26 PM
I feel silly being afraid of a moose, so I creep back down to the lake.  The moose is still swimming but now down-lake, making a wide circle back to the far shore.  It leaps up on the bank and disappears into the brush.

8:12 PM
The lake grows calm as the sun goes down.  Mating dragonflies buzz by.  Everything is beautiful and eerie.
Smoke hangs low between the mountains.
8:25 PM
Why aren't there other people here?  I’ve see no one else all day.  Isn’t this suppose to be the height of tourist season in Glacier National Park?

This is only my third solo backpacking trip in Montana.  Last year I camped countless nights solo on the PCT solo.  Why does it feel so uncomfortable to be solo out here?  I wish Arizona were here.  I wish anyone were here.  I wish I had other hiking friends in Montana.  I wish this place weren't so freakin gorgeous and wild.  That the views didn't bring me to tears and the climbs didn’t make my heart sing.  I wish this place didn't make me FEEL so much passion and longing and heart wrenching fear.  I wish I weren't so curious to learn Montana’s secrets: why the moose swims, where to goats are, where the loon disappears to.

I climb into my hammock.  Everything smells like dirty hiker.  It is the same stuff I had on the PCT.  My long underwear has holes from when I got scared going down Glen Pass and slid on my butt.  I sigh at how many times I've been scared.  Why do I keep putting myself in situations where I'm so uncomfortable?

12:00 Midnight
I awake to breaking branches and rustling too big to be a chipmunk.  It’s getting closer so I try not to breathe.  Images of the bear and moose swirl in my head.  Please don't let claws slice through my tarp.  The rustling moves past.  My watch says exactly midnight, how horror movie corny. 

12:43 AM
I remain awake listening to the silence.  Trying to convince myself the sounds are a large bunny, plump with huckleberries.  Being out here alone makes life vivid and real.  I have to quiet the fears, trust my instincts, tune into this place.  I count the sounds around me, slow my pulse, pull my quilts around me, and fall asleep again.
After surviving encounters with bears, moose, dragonflies, and loons, my last feat is to ford the mighty Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
5:30 AM
I realize with the clarity of morning that the battle is "Joan vs Joan's Fears" rather than "Joan vs Beasts".  What's scary is the prospect of giving up on Montana, of finding it too exhausting to be in the home of these large (and small) creatures, or of deciding it's not worth pushing beyond the comfort zone.

For more information 
Harrison Lake in Glacier National Park: Pick up directions to the ford from the backcountry permit office in Apgar.  From the ford, it is a brushy 6.3 miles to the Harrison Lake campground, following the Boundary Trail and then turning off onto the Harrison Creek Trail.  Permits are required.  Walk-in permits are easy to come by when there are fires everywhere.

Check out Glacier’s Citizen Science Program