Friday, November 5, 2010

Hiking in Glacier National Park

    A few days ago I was cooking dinner in Two Medicine Campground in Glacier National Park.  I was the only person there, in the heart of grizzly country and it was a bit scary.  It would be my third night in a row sleeping in a tent in grizzly country.  The first involved hearing a coyote howl in a field right next to me and the second involved being the only person in the campground.  I had also gone on a four or so mile, very cautious hike alone.  When you put all these experiences together along with the knowledge I gained from a ranger during a twenty minute question drilling session, I guess you could say I was only 95% of the way to being piss my pants scared as I spread the wonderful aroma of grilled cheese and vegetable soup throughout the giant forested mountains around the campground.
    I had driven to the other side of the campground from where my tent was set up to cook (yes, it was downwind), but I was still pretty concerned.  Right as I was about done eating (this wasn’t a sit down and have a nice picnic dinner, but more of a spin around in circles constantly looking in all directions panicky dinner) a car pulled up near a lakeside parking lot.  A guy got out, tried to open the ‘closed for the season’ bathroom door, and then got back in his car and drove off.  I thought he had left the campground for good, but turns out he had just gone to set up his tent.  Hurray! Company!
    Normally in these circumstances I would just leave him be as most people come to the woods to get away, but seeing that I was in grizzly country, I just had to talk to another person to feel that unwarranted, illogical sensation of security that comes with knowing another human being is nearby.  I talked with him for a bit and we figured out that we were both planning on going day hiking alone tomorrow and eventually we decided we would hike together.
    The next morning we set out on a trail to Upper Medicine Lake (about 4.6 miles one way).  He got me to lead at first because he thought I’d be faster (maybe in certain situations, but I take my time in grizzly territory).  After about twenty seconds of hiking, this giant set of antlers rises up from the grass about forty yards in front of us.  “Whoa.”  I stopped and lifted my hand.  We watched the moose for a couple minutes then decided to detour over a small hill along the mountain we were hiking next too.  After a few minutes of bushwhacking, we got back on the trail and not two minutes later we came to three moosettes thirty yards from the trail.  Crazy.  All of them lazily watched us and then kept on munching.
    The trail was mostly flat which gave us plenty of time to look at the 9000+ft peaks around us.  It was around freezing early that morning, but we didn’t even need jackets in the late morning sun.  We came upon a good sized herd (at least 15) of elk walking in the same direction we were about fifty yards from the trail.  In an avalanche path (where you don’t want to be at certain times of the year many more reasons than a bunch of snow heading for you) we saw a large bird in the distance which he said was probably an immature bald eagle.  I guess he must have been some kind of bird expert to be able to tell both the species and personality type from such a distance!
    The highlight of the hike was when we got to a small pond before the lake.  There was a male moose drinking at it.  It was of the skiddish variety because when we were within fifty yards it galloped away.  Every once in a while, it would stop, snort and then gallop fifteen or so more yards.  About fifteen minutes later we were both eating PB&J’s on a log along the lake and we heard a clatter of brush and some birds fussing.  We both figured it was the moose, but we didn’t have a lot of visibility in that direction so I hopped over the log, pulled out my pepper spray and unlatched the safety.  This was the first time I’d ever done it in the wild thinking I may need to use it (I had half suspected the moose might have ran because of something besides us before).  When the guy I was hiking with saw how ready I was he was very surprised and said, “Man, you were a gun slinger in a previous life.”  Very likely.
    We hiked back using another path, didn’t see much wildlife (and not complaining either since we had seen so much and if we really asked for more we might see the type we really didn’t want to) and eventually got to a suspension bridge that was disassembled (only the foot and hand cables remained).  We thought about what to do for a while and he climbed on a cable, but had trouble balancing and then had trouble hanging on, so he decided to go downstream and cross at a narrow gap.  I thought about it some and then decided I would cross using the cables.  The river was about twenty-five yards wide at that point and the cable hung around fifteen to twenty feet over the water at its highest point.  At first, I put one foot on each of the main bridge cables and held onto the two support cables above them with my hands.  I was able to slide one foot at a time, but wasn’t moving very quickly.  When I was just about to be above the water, I decided to change tactics and only use the left side cables.  I put both feet on the bottom cable and held on to the top cable and found that balancing was going to be very tricky.  I made another split second change (all of this is happening at about six feet above the ground) and decided to hang on from underneath the bottom cable only by hooking my crossed ankles on one side and then pulling myself forward with my hands on the other.  After a couple foot-slips where I barely managed to hang on with one foot, I made good progress, going about one foot per pull, but having almost all my weight plus the weight of my pack supported by only one arm was starting to wear on me.  About halfway through I tilted my head back and saw the upside down shore.  I slowed down my pace which helped my arms but the fatigue of it all was starting to wear on my fingers.  The guy I was hiking with still wasn’t on the other shore yet which I don’t know if I’m grateful or not for.  I kept looking back, wanting to make sure I was fully across before I let go with my feet.  Finally, I dropped to the ground when I was about four feet above ground.  I then walked over to a stump, tossed my pack aside, and chilled out for a minute or two, wondering if I would do that again if I’d known it’d be that hard.
    The rest of the hike went really well.  You get to know someone pretty well when hiking in bear country because it’s important to keep the conversation going.  He was a very interesting guy and we talked about a lot of cool things.  Maybe I’ll write more about it later.
    At the end of the hike, he drove into town to get some coffee and I sat on a bench along the campground lake and reflected on the hike.  As we were walking into camp I had jokingly said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we hiked this whole ten mile loop without seeing a bear and then ran into one at the campground.”  We had a good laugh about it then.  But while I was sitting on this bench I heard a very distinct growl and leapt up and made a few quick steps toward my car.  I walked around a little bit, but didn’t see anything.  I think next time I’ll be a little more careful with my post-hike jokes.

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