Monday, June 8, 2015

First solo overnight in Montana

My first solo backpacking trip in Montana.  I’m standing at the top of the pass about to drop down to the lake to camp.  Last chance to turn around.  Last cell service.   I think I'm ready for this, but then the flood of emotions washes over me.  My resolve waivers.
View from Crater Notch.
I get out my phone and dial.  My voice is shaky, “What am I doing out here?  Are grizzly bears going to eat me?” 

“No, you’ll just get mauled.”

I find this immensely reassuring.  Still Waters always knows the right thing to say.

I find it tough being scared of bears.  I’ve encountered plenty of black bears, have hundreds (thousands?) of solo miles under my belt.  I thought I got past this long ago.  But things were different in Yosemite, in the Smokies.  This is Montana.  These are grizzly bears, a whole different beast.   Signs and guidebooks say “never hike alone in grizzly country” and all the hikers I see carry bear spray.
Twisted beargrass.
The biggest thing for me are the mental aspects.  I have doubts about whether I can trust what my instincts and gut reactions will be when I do see a grizzly for the first time.  But then I remember how I reacted when I saw my first mountain lion, my first problem bear in Denali--I know I handled those well.  I mentally practice what I will do when I see a bear here.  

I choose this trip deliberately since a friend says this is a safer place to go solo, I scouted it last week and saw no signs of bears, bear spray is on my hipbelt, I make a ton of noise, I stay aware, and plan not to travel at dusk or dawn.

I’ve mitigated all the risks except the one--I am solo.
It's just me out here.
Is that a good choice?  I’ve been weighing this the entire two months I’ve been in Montana, and this is the first solo backpacking trip I’ve taken even though I’ve been itching to get out since day one.  What tipped me over the edge was that I finally had to weight the costs of NOT backpacking solo.  Staying home due to fear.  The guidebooks don’t mention that part.  They don’t give advice to those of us who who crave the feeling of being out here alone.
Sunset over In-Thlam-Keh Lake in the Jewel Basin.
I cross over the pass, glassade down the steep snow slope.  It’s a whole different world on this side of the mountain, thick snow, a few deer tracks, bird song, but it is otherwise quiet.  Instead of fear, I feel a heightened awareness that I get when I'm solo.  Senses sharpen.  I explore, I watch, I soak it all in.  I am at peace.
I hang my food up higher than I imagine I could ever throw the bear rope.
I find a spot that feels safe, and tuck my hammock into the trees.  I am surprised that I sleep so soundly.

Yes, this is worth it.
More info on the Jewel Basin of Northwestern Montana:
Jewel Basin Hiking Area
Jewel Basin map


  1. Good for you for getting out there!

    1. Thanks, Mary! It was such a relief to be out there on my own!