Monday, June 12, 2017

The Grand Gallivant: A Bear and a Sobering Hike

The view of Lake McDonald from Agpar Village

During our time on the west side of Glacier National Park, Zach and I hiked two trails, both of which I highly recommend. The longest hike was Sperry Lake trail, a 8.3-mile line up the mountain to a glacial lake framed by a huge bowl of craggy peaks. Along the way we traveled through fragrant pine forests, over little threads of streams, and through meadows of glacial lily and yellow violets.

The first and shorter hike, however, was definitely more memorable, for good and for bad. 

We decided to begin our time in Glacier with the most popular trail on the west side of the park: Avalanche Lake, a two-mile jaunt that wound up a mountain through dense, spooky forest with a narrow, water-carved rift off to our left that thundered with glacial melt. Even though the trail only gained 500 feet over two miles, we were huffing and puffing (and blaming it on the elevation). 

Still, we reached the lake in good time, glimpsing it through the trees on our left. As we stepped on a boardwalk that led us through the bushes toward the beach, the hikers in front of us cried out in alarm and jumped off to the side. Before we could process what was happening, a black bear lumbered out onto the boardwalk about fifteen feet in front of us, glancing nonchalantly at us before starting to nibble on some plants. With a hand on our bear spray, we backtracked to a safe distance and watched it in awe, warning the other hikers who were headed up the path. The bear was small, no taller than a black lab although stockier, with the cutest round ears. He munched on the plants, absorbed in his salad buffet, for several minutes, then wandered off. 

Taken with a zoom, fyi.

When we were sure he was gone we ventured onto the beach of Avalanche Lake, a clear still body of water, gray in the late afternoon light. A minute later, the bear emerged on the shore about a hundred yards away, and all us tourists, at a safer distance than before, oohed and ahhed over him.

On the way down, we passed a mother hiking up the trail with four little children, with a baby swaddled on her chest. Soon after, we started pacing a woman who was nearing the end of a five-month solo trip around the US, chatting with her about her travels throughout the national parks. 

As we were gabbing, two guys came sprinting up behind us and asked, “Do you have cell signal?” We didn’t, of course, but they told us to call 911 at the soonest possible opportunity. “A baby got hit with bear spray,” they told us, then sprinted on down the trail.

My heart bottomed out when I heard this— that could easily be fatal. I thought of the mom with her little children. I racked my brain for any first aid knowledge of what to do if you inhale aerosol-propelled capsicum powder that’s designed to stop a grizzly bear in its tracks, but came up with nothing. Zach frantically searched for a signal, and tried calling 911 on the chance that another network would pick it up. There was literally nothing we could do to help.

The three of us— Zach and I and the solo traveler— hiked on in somber silence. I prayed and prayed and prayed. The sprinting guys returned up the trail, hiking at a walk this time, having called emergency services. As we left the parking lot, a ranger SUV with sirens screaming passed us. 

My mind could easily imagine the worst, could easily imagine the baby ending up in the next edition of the Death in Glacier books sold at the bookstore, books read with morbid curiosity by people who perhaps don’t think of these deaths as being real people with real families and real impact. But I didn’t know what happened, and I’ll probably never know what happened, so I told myself that maybe it wasn’t that bad, that maybe things would be all right, that maybe emergency services got there in time. 

That night, Zach and I drove back to our campsite and made a fire and laughed and joked and shoved the uncertainty to the back of our minds. All night, whenever I thought about it, I kept soothing myself, maybe it wasn’t too bad, maybe it wasn’t too bad.

When bad things happen, you have to tell yourself a good story about them, or you’ll lose your mind.


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