I have been irrationally terrified of bears since before I can remember. They stalk me at night, snuggled tight in my sleeping bag… sniffing out the deodorant I wasn’t supposed to use.
So when we went to Glacier National Park this summer, I was mentally preparing to die from bear ingestion. Before we left on our trip from South Carolina, I made sure to google every bear mauling that happened in North America. No joke, I did this. And guess what? There were a lot. I figured if it’s going to happen to me, I want to know I’m in good company and not taken by surprise. I’d rather lay awake at night expecting to be eaten rather than live in ignorant bliss pretending bears don’t like the taste of humans. Is there something wrong with me?
On this particular stint of trip, we had picked up our adventure friends Connor and Kelly at the airport in Bozeman, Montana. The plan was to pick them up in Montana, visit a few places together, and then drop them off in Seattle. Our first stop, understandably, would be Glacier National Park.
Here’s the first thing to know about Glacier: It’s absolutely stunning. Those jagged peaks beckon you from miles away, with grass tinged slopes and white tops. It’s thrilling to be in a place of such wildness. Here’s the second thing to know about Glacier: The beaten path is undoubtedly, beaten. We hustled into Glacier after waking up at the crack of dawn to snag a notoriously competitive camping spot, and as we drove around… and around… and around the Apgar campground we realized that we had made the right decision in coming early. It’s a huge nest of campers and RV’ers, and not quite the wilderness experience we were looking for. But practically every other campsite was full (the park posts pretty heavily on which campgrounds are), and we didn’t want to take the chance of not being able to stay in the park. Alas, we set up camp, went for a short hike nearby, and (I personally) had a fretful night’s sleep occasionally dreaming of a bear gnawing on my toes.
The next morning we had planned to go on an epic adventure to Iceberg Lake. To get there we needed to take Going to the Sun road to get to the Many Glacier entrance on the east side of the park, the opposite side of Glacier from where we were staying in Apgar Campground. And COULD YOU BELIEVE IT! When we pulled up to the Many Glacier entrance, the park ranger cheerfully told us that the Iceberg Lake trail was closed, because a mother bear had taken over the territory and could be quite aggressive with her new cubs in tow.
The bear will be quietly nibbling on my head.
As the bile rose in my throat she instructed us that the 10 mile hike to Grinnell Glacier just down the road was a wonderful alternative, and my adventure mates wholeheartedly agreed before I could come back to my senses and demand we tear out of the park that very instant. So, into the park we went.
About a mile down the road, we see something rustling in the bushes to the right. And sure as rain, it’s a damn bear chewing on berries and looking to cross the road. If my memory serves me correctly, it’s an ENORMOUS black bear with HUGE teeth dripping with saliva and sniffing the air for a sweet little morsel like myself. This actually marks the first moment I’ve ever seen a bear in the wild, and fine… It was kind of cute. It reminded me a little bit of Pooh Bear, but then again I was in a safe steel fortress that is our mini-van, Lucille. We continued the drive down to the trail head once the bear ambled out of sight, and parked the van wherever we could find a spot.
Off we went, to Grinnell Glacier, a shrinking beauty that is having its last days due to global warming. The hike itself is beautiful. A quiet, meandering trail spotted with rays of light that filtered through the huge spruces up above. The air was fresh and clean, as it tends to be in places disturbed little by human technologies and buildings. We came to Swiftcurrent Lake, about 2 miles into the hike, and bantered back and forth about cutting a few miles off of our hike and taking the ferry to the other side of Lake Josephine. At $20 a person for a ride, we readily decided to hoof it. The trail from there follows the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine, undulating gently up and down, with gorgeous views of the crystal blue water below. At points there’s a pretty steep drop from the trail to the lake, and we were wary about going over the side and tumbling into the icy waters. After few more miles into the hike, we saw a small group of hikers ahead who had stopped on the trail and were peering down into the lake.
Oh goody, wonder what it could be? A baby doe? A cute little chipmunk? A sweet raccoon splashing for little fishies? Of course not. It was exactly what I was doing my best to avoid, a humongous bear trolling for human flesh!!!!!!
Well, that’s a half-truth. Splashing around down below was a large (HUGE!) bear, who was eyeing us warily as we watched her. In reality I think she was just taking an afternoon dip in the lake 20 feet below, and seemed to be a little uncomfortable with her entourage. She paddled stealthily in circles, as if simply enjoying the cool waters on a hot summer day. Treading water in the lake, she was huffing breaths much like a dog does when swimming, and my fear of bears quietly dissolved. It was pretty special. I mentally bade the bear goodbye, and assured her I would see her in my dreams that night. Hopefully just love bites, this time.
As for the rest of the hike, I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking. The trail hugs the edge of mountains most of the time, and I’ll be the first to admit that the drops can be dizzying. After our encounter with the bear we joined up with hikers around us to make a larger group and ward off other bears, and met some amazing friends along the way. The beauty of the trail was mind-blowing. I would say it was moderately strenuous for someone in decent shape, as the way to the glacier is up, up, up. Once at Grinnell Glacier we unpacked our snacks and egged our friend Connor on to go for a dip in the bone chilling glacial waters. And yes, those are American flag swimmies. I’ve never seen that hot-natured fella shiver before, and on this steamy summer day his lips turned blue. Happy trails, y’all.
P.S. Again, per usual, these pictures are compliments of my better half: Dorian Warneck. He’s our life documentarian.
P.P.S. A few tips for this hike: HAVE BEAR SPRAY! As you can see in the picture above, I have a can in my hands. I also had a bell on my day back, which earned me the nickname of “dinner bell”. Tried and true bear country hikers probably thought I was silly with my tinkling little bell, but then again I could probably run faster than them.
P.P.P.S. Thank you to Connor, Kelly, and Dorian for forcing me to overcome my fear of bears. They will remember how unenthusiastic I was in bear country. Now that that’s over, our next adventure is in the wilderness of Alaska, am I right?!!?
P.P.P.P.S. Why did I assume the bear was female? Because I like a good lady-boss.