I began the day pulling on a warm shirt, hiking pants, hiking socks, hiking shoes, and a light rain jacket. Opening the lodge door the brisk, cold, mountain air caressed my exposed face. I was with a coworker who had wanted to go on an adventure with me, seeing as I had begun traveling as often as I could, I was pretty accustomed to the routine and planning that comes with traveling. We hopped in our economy, gray rental car and headed to Glacier’s Gate. Being from the east coast we were there well before the entry gate was manned, we were glad we had bought our park pass upon arrival.
My coworker was hoping to see a lot of wildlife in the park. I had been to Banff and Jasper the previous year and assured her that we would most likely see a lot from our car if it was anything like the Canadian Rockies. Her birthday had just passed the day before and she was disappointed that she had not caught sight of a bear yet. This was her birthday wish. Last year we saw several black bears on the side of the road forging on what the locals called bear berries. I told her that we would see bears like that. I also reminded her that we were able to spot a grizzly just a few yards from the road lying on a railroad track eating an unlucky prey.
We pulled in the park and began looking at all the signs and areas to pull over and hike. I had my trusty National Geographic Guide to the National Parks book and Lonely Planet next to me with all the recommended hikes marked and highlighted waterfalls. As soon as we got inside the park there was a sign to the right, Apikuni Falls and Poia Lake. The reviews sounded worthwhile so we decided to start our day here. A light rain was falling but we were prepared for weather like this. We made sure we had some water in our packs and I packed in two Canon cameras and several lenses to ensure capturing whatever we might see and encounter. Posted at the beginning of the trail was a sign saying that bears are prevalent in the area and to have bear spray ready. Knowing this was the case, we had stopped the previous night at the WalMart and grabbed a can of bear spray. I also had done enough research to know what to do in case we encountered a bear. I knew to stay together and to make noise as well as to try to be on higher ground. My fingers were crossed in hopes of seeing either a moose or a bear from a safe distance. I mean I had a telephoto lens on me, no need to get close and personal.
We began our hike up the trail towards the falls since my coworker really enjoys waterfalls, I had no complaints and a new adventure is an adventure. We made small talk on the way up about the weather and school and whatever else we could think of discussing. We didn’t pass anyone coming down or gain on anyone going up and we felt alone in the tranquil environment with the soft drizzle falling. We soon began to warm up and shed our long sleeve shirts and eventually the rain stopped and I put my jacket in my backpack and my friend tied her around her hips. We continued till we reached the falls which were beautiful. The sky had cleared and it was a great day to take beautiful pictures of the falls as they poured over a wall of brown and red rock. My coworker began climbing up higher to get a better view of the falls while I decided to build an Inuksuk rather than a cairn to show the trail. The rocks I choose were very smooth from years of weathering from the falls. My coworker yelled down for me to photograph her accent to the falls. Then she clambered down and posed with my grand Inuksuk. We were the only ones up there and made the most of it by snapping as many pictures as we could. When we got our fill of poses and waterfall pictures we decided to head down and hike the lake trail.
On our descent we passed a couple heading up asking us if it was worthwhile. We told them it was and we were the only ones up there. We continued down passing a group heading up and they asked if they were almost there. They had bells on their walking sticks and back packs. We told them it wasn’t much farther. We continued down, quieter than before. I was a little in front of my friend as she was loading pictures on her phone or sending them to her family. We were probably about half way down when I smelt something very different. I looked to my left and there about fifteen feet away was the biggest grizzly I had ever seen (I had only ever seen one other before).
I slowly started backing up uphill to my friend and whispered, “slowly back up.” She asked, “why?” I replied with a quivering voice, “a bear”. She then peeked around me and questioned, “what kind?” I whispered, “A grizzly.” She wanted to get a better glimpse and I convinced her that we needed to slowly continue to back up away from it. She finally agreed and slowly edged uphill to where she felt safe. I still wanted to retreat more after researching Grizzlies I knew how fast they could move if startled. Slowly we crouched down to watch the grizzly feeling we were at a safe distance. The coworker took out her camera and tried to capture a few pictures but wasn’t pleased. She whispered to me, “take out your big lens and get a good picture.” I placed my pack down and unzipped the bag and took out my camera with the telephoto lens attached and prepared to take a picture, just as I got it turned on and ready the bear began moving towards us. My coworker took off running, I told her, “don’t run, stop.” I then picked up my backpack to put it on for protection, in case. The bear continued coming toward me as I slowly backed away trying to put the pack on and take out the bear spray I dropped my camera and joined my friend further uphill. All I heard was my labored breathing and I wondering if I needed my inhaler or was this a panic attack? I had never had one but felt that is what I was having. My legs were quivering so badly and there was an uncontrollable amount of heat washing over my body. I took off the bear spray clip and had it ready. I was whispering a prayer asking for safety as I watched the 500 lb creature lumber across the trail. We waited and watched it disappear below us into the lush greenery that was the forest brush.
We waited till we heard some voices coming up toward us. I yelled out to warn them of the grizzly we just encountered. They said they didn’t see it. I yelled back, “did you see a camera and if so will you pick it up?” They replied, “yes.” We went down and told them about our bear encounter and I asked about the camera. They said it was back on the trail a few feet along with a lens cover as well. UGH, thanks. I went and retrieved it and the lens cover. We told them that we had stopped conversing on the way down because we were passing so many people that we had a false sense of safety.
We finally returned to our trusty little rental where I popped some headache medicine for my ever throbbing head. I then checked out my camera and realized my lens no longer worked. I tried it on my other camera as well and to no avail, but we were both safe. My coworker was filled with excitement and wonder, she had gotten her birthday wish to see a bear! It was a day we would both remember for the rest of our lives.
If you are considering a trip to Glacier National Park or to the Canadian Rockies here are some bear safety tips to help you be prepared:
- Make sure you are constantly making some noise as to not sneak up and startle a bear. Some people wear bells while others stay in a group of four or more people so that there is constant talk and there is also safety in numbers. Other hikers have been seen playing their tunes with them while hiking, although I don’t advise this because it can cause other people to not be able to enjoy the outdoors.
- Always be prepared with a can of bear spray. In Glacier National Park the bear spray was for sale at all outdoor supply stores, WalMart, and the Park Stores as well.
- Hike in numbers, bears are less likely to attack with many other people around.
- If you do encounter a bear, slowly back away, do not run. I imagine this common rule is similar to dogs chasing things that run from them, so calmly back away.
- Hopefully the bear will move along and you will not have to use the bear spray, but if the bear seems aggressive have your can readily available and remove the safety and aim it at the bear’s eyes. The spray is supposed to reach 30 feet. (Try not to spray yourself, trust me, the feeling is not pleasant and takes hours for the burning to go away, but that’s another story.) Do not spray your clothes. Bear spray is not a repellant for clothing and might attract bears.
- If the bear still comes towards you and it is a black bear, fight back. If it is a grizzly, lie on your stomach covering your head and neck and play dead. If the grizzly tries to roll you over, roll over all the way so to turn back on your stomach. Hopefully you have a backpack on to protect your back from an attack. Again, black bear -fight back, grizzly -play dead.
(This information was gained mostly from https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/bears.htm as well as the bear can spray directions).
Information about Glacier National Park:
A seven day park pass is $30.00 or $20.00 in the winter (November 1st-April 30th). An annual pass is $50.00 starting in January (https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/fees.htm).
The best times to visit according to Lonely Planet, is May through September. May to June the thaws begin. I went in the middle of June and some of the higher altitude trails were still closed. We were able to do the majority of the trails, but be prepared with hiking sticks; they would’ve come in handy. July to August is peak tourist time, and why I avoided those months. September is supposed to be less crowded and the wildlife and leaf color are supposed to be excellent. If I had had September available I would have chosen to go then.
We stayed in Whitefish part of the time because there are several lodges to stay at along with some well-known hotels. I wasn’t looking for a five star hotel seeing as we’d be out hiking and exploring for most of our day. We usually left the hotel at 6:00 am and returned after 9:00pm. In Whitefish there were quite a few fast food restaurants, nothing to write home about, but I didn’t come for the food. We stayed at Big Mountain Lodge in Whitefish as well as inside the park at St Mary’s Lodge. St. Mary’s Lodge had its own restaurant and the wait staff was very cordial and prices were reasonable. For other park accommodations check out: https://www.usparklodging.com/glacier If staying at a hotel or lodge isn’t for you and you are more adventurous check out the Glacier campgrounds at: https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/camping.htm
Here is a map of the entire Glacier Park via http://brownleach15.wikis.birmingham.k12.mi.us/Glacier+National+Park+-+Brown.