Monday, April 27, 2015

Avalanche Lake in Glacier

I finger the bear spray at my waist, which my new coworkers insisted I carry.  I read the trailhead sign again, and glance around the deserted parking lot.  I am alone.
Hiking alone is not recommended.
The guidebook says Avalanche Lake and the Trail of the Cedars are the most popular trail in Glacier National Park, so where is everyone?  It seems really late in the morning to me, like there should already be a ton of people here by now.  Why am I the only one here? 

Alone, I walk up the trail through the ancient grove of cedar and hemlock.  Massive trees block the early sunlight.  It’s incredibly quiet.  I keep thinking of the cautions of the locals I’ve talked to, their grizzly stories have my imagination running wild.  Are there really grizzlies lurking behind every tree?  Glancing around, back over my shoulder, my voice sounds strange as I shout “hey bear, hey bear” into the shadows. 
Big trees.
I should feel safe in this forest, it smells safe, my gut says safe.  I've hiked 1500 miles on the PCT, much of it solo, aren't I a tough hiker?!?  But I am conflicted.  I’ve encountered dozens of black bears while backpacking solo in California (including Yosemite) and in Georgia and North Carolina. I though I’d gotten over my fears of bears.  But apparently these grizzlies are a totally different thing, or so I’ve been told.  Aren’t they?  They require bear spray and constant vigilance and don’t go hiking solo or else.  Is that true?  Or is this like when I moved to Georgia after that murder of the young woman at Blood Mountain and everyone told me not to hike solo, and it took me a good year to realize I just had to ignore that advice.  I discovered the joy of backpacking on my own.  I want to go backpacking here in Montana. I’m so antsy and feeling trapped just doing dayhikes.  I can’t find anyone with my same days off and I want to go alone but is that safe? I don’t know.

 Suddenly, there is something big, huge and brown rustling behind a tree…  OH NO!!!!
Scary wild beast.
Why am I so easily spooked out?!?!  I don’t know what to think.  I miss the safe feeling I find in the woods, miss feeling at home amid the towering trees.  I start to cry.  Fed up with myself, I turn around and trace my steps back to the trailhead.   Back at my car, I pace around, a trapped animal.   I’m driving myself crazy with this fear.  I look at the sign again.  Don’t hike alone.  I can’t tell if my fear is rational or irrational.  So I wait.

Finally, three cars arrive at the trailhead. They are going to Avalanche Lake!  I put on my pack and take off up the trail. Oh silly me.  I can do this.  It’s the most popular hike in the park.  I’ve got hikers behind me. 

I bound up the trail to the lake with confidence through the magical forest.  The forest is now all friendly.  Sunlight streams down.  It’s the opposite of scary.  No shadows here. 
Friendly forest.
There is still no one ahead of me when I arrive at the lake, I have it all to myself for a while.  Deep green water reflects the snow-covered peaks.  Glacier lilies shine brightly in the sun. 
Avalanche Lake.
I take off my shoes and dip my feet in the water and watch the ducks frolic and play.  I breathe it all in. 
I can feel myself being restored.
On the way back, I pass the group from the parking lot and they take my photo and say they will send it to me so I give them my card with my email address and they laugh that my name is “Hemlock.”  They all jokingly give themselves tree names too, and I laugh.  Silly trail names.  But hearing my old trail name reminds of those instant connections that I made on the PCT last year, of those deep friendships, of that amazing trail community that feels so far away. 
Thanks for sending me this photo of myself, K.P.
Further down the trail, there is a middle age guy carrying a fancy camera with a big lens and wearing shinny leather loafers like he just got out of a meeting.  He is a local, and tells me his favorite hikes in Montana, about must-see alpine lakes and waterfalls.
Along the Trail of the Cedars.
As we hike, I relax into friendly chatter.  I ohh and ahh at the trilliums and exclaim about how wonderfully furrowed the cottonwood bark is.  Somehow we end up hiking the whole way back together, go for another loop around the Trail of the Cedars (this time I can enjoy it cause I’m not scared), and then depart ways back at the trailhead. 
Trail of the Cedars.
Then, I start second guessing myself, like perhaps I talked way too much about where I work and live like I didn’t just meet him 15 minutes ago and sheesh I don’t need the internet to meet sketchy people because I can do it all in person.  But what is sketchy anyway?  Am I a good judge of character when I don’t have the protective trail community around me like I did on the PCT to keep me safe?  I don’t know.  My judgement feels out of equilibrium.

On the drive home, I start to cry. I miss feeling safe in the woods.  I miss feeling comfortable about my place on the food chain, and not being scared of bears.  I miss my hiking buddies, my friends scattered around the country and I miss everyone I’ve ever loved.  I miss laughing so hard my belly aches.  Because I don’t know anyone yet who I can belly-laugh with here.  Yet.  But maybe it’s getting closer, yesterday hiking with someone I could bushwhack with, that was close.

Patience.  Making friends takes patience.  Getting comfortable hiking in grizzly territory takes patience.  I know I’ll get there before I know it.

More information about these hikes in Glacier National Park, Montana:
Avalanche Lake
Trail of the Cedars


  1. When I first moved to Sitka, I carried a huge can of bear spray with me everywhere. I was so afraid. But after a few months I realized that grizzlies weren't just hiding in the bushes waiting to attack. I started running and hiking solo and felt pretty okay with it. On our kayak trips we saw multiple bears, and they would walk right pass our tent. I got over probably 75% of my fear. You will get there. Of course, being charged didn't help much--although once it happened, I realized I had faced my biggest fear--and lived. As for making friends, I've lived in my town for five years and it is difficult. Especially in a small town. I find it very hard sometimes. How long will you be there? Hope you have time to come down here and backpack. It's only 7 hours away! :)

    1. Thanks, Mary! I know it's going to get easier, especially after I see my first grizzly. Hopefully, it won't take me as long as it did when I moved to Georgia.

      Right now my term is only until mid-August. But I'm trying to extend my stay here. Would love to come down and backpack with you! I'll have more free time later in the summer when the school programs are done.

  2. This post reminds me so much of myself when I worked in Yellowstone one summer and didn't know a single soul when I arrived. I thought all of my coworkers would love hiking as much as I did, but I found out most other college kids were there to simply party and car camp, at best. I can feel the same emotions I felt on my first solo hike while reading this post (lonely and scared). I almost quit my job and returned to the south, convinced I would never meet people with common interests. Thank goodness I didn't, because after about the second week of being in the park, I met a teacher from Colorado who spent his summers working in Yellowstone because he loved to backpack. He was so knowledgeable about the park's trail system that I felt like I had a personal guide every time we went out. We are still friends to this day, nearly 20 years later. It was the best summer of my life and I have a feeling this will turn out to be one of yours as well! :-) Beautiful photos and post, as always--thank you for sharing your stories with such honesty.

  3. I'll hike with you anytime I can!

  4. Your post the other day had me looking for my write-up of my short visit to Glacier with my dad. I then found myself reading a different post of a little excursion I took to another national forest east of Flathead Lake where I spooked myself constantly about bears and all I did was drive up a deserted FS road! I'll see if I can find certainly aren't alone in spooking yourself!

  5. These are pre-Wordpress so my old archives are insane:


    Spooking myself/NWR drive: