I bought a trinket last week that was emblazoned with the quote: “Some blessings are disguised as bullshit”. The saying is applicable to life in general, but more specifically, it was a perfect synopsis of my recent trip to Glacier National Park.
Planning this trip was a hassle. A reservation system has been put into place for the park to prevent overcrowding, which is both a blessing and a curse. Vehicle and camping reservations open 6 months in advance, and typically sell out within minutes. I didn’t start planning until May, so that should already clue you in to where this is going.
By the time I started looking, vehicle and campground reservations were long gone. There are a couple ways to get over this hurdle, the most attractive of which is to go back-country. Backcountry is the best way to see a national park anyway, since it allows you to get away from the crowds.
The process for attaining a backcountry permit varies greatly from place to place. For a trip in the North Cascades, you simply pick the campsite you want on an app and book it, just like you would for a front-country site. You’re then required to pick up the permit in person and talk to a ranger about bear safety. But at the most popular parks, like Yosemite and Glacier, you are required to submit a detailed plan well in advance, along with a hefty fee. The fee covers the cost of having a ranger personally review your plan description. If he or she doesn’t like what you’ve written, you don’t get in and don’t get a refund.
I spent days researching and comparing Glacier backpack routes before submitting a plan. Three days, two nights, and 22 miles total. Camp locations, check. Bear safety plan, check. Expensive and unnecessary inflatable pillow and lightweight folding chair, check. I crossed my fingers and hit submit.
Five days later, I received a response: “The route you requested was not available, however we’ve issued a permit to a comparable route.”
The “comparable” route was only 1 night and 10 miles. It required a 4WD vehicle to get to the trailhead, which I did not have. This didn’t sound comparable! Even if I could manage to get to the trailhead in my Civic, I now had to worry about where to spend the second night.
As I was stressing about the logistics, something came up with Ethan’s job that required him to work that week. We canceled the reservation and decided it would be better to skip Glacier altogether. It was such a load off my mind, I wasn’t even disappointed.
Fast forward a month. Ethan’s job delayed his start date and he decided that he did, in fact, want to visit Glacier. Please, he asked, could I try and get us a new reservation?
No, I said – do it yourself. He tried and was immediately denied… which meant we were at the mercy of finding a first-come-first-serve campsite. The problem was, in order to even get ourselves to a campground to look for empty sites, we’d first have to get in! We needed a vehicle reservation pass.
Although I’d already splurged on the canceled back-country pass, I shelled out even more money for a lake cruise, since it was our only hope of getting an entry pass into the park.
Other complications arose in the days leading to this trip, which have been detailed in my post “Playing it by Ear.”
At long last, we arrived at the woody brown gates. A sign at the entrance indicated which campgrounds still had first-come-first-serve sites. This was a nice surprise, as I’d expected to be driving around searching for a campsite all afternoon. On the other hand, only one campground still had space: Two Medicine. It was all the way on the other side of the park, outside the gates. Once we exited the gates, we wouldn’t be able to get back in. So it was a gamble: Two Medicine or bust!
The only thing I’d read about Two Medicine was that it was the least-visited portion of the park. I figured that meant it would be better for wildlife viewing, even if perhaps less scenic.
Ethan and I went on the McDonald Lake cruise. While the passengers around us took selfies, a tour guide spoke over a PA system. He told some stories about local grizzly attacks, thoroughly divulging every gory detail. Then he moved on to stories about the construction workers who were maimed or killed while building the famous Going to the Sun Road. One memorable construction method included dangling men off of cliffs with dynamite squeezed into their armpits.
After the cruise, we headed up the infamous road to see it for ourselves. It was our one and only access day, so we stopped at just about every scenic viewpoint. We allowed ourselves to read all the signs and fully savor the majestic mountains before us.
We drove out the east entrance and then looped south to Two Medicine, with no idea what to expect. As we neared the campground, a black bear crossed the road right in front of the car. A good omen.
We rounded another bend and there before us was the most spectacular lake view I’d ever seen. Giant sawtoothed rock formations protruded from the earth on all sides of the lake. Lo and behold, we found not one open campsite but many to pick from! I was stunned that after all the planning mistakes, we’d still somehow ended up somewhere so remarkable.
Unfortunately somewhere along the line we managed to lose an entire grocery bag of food, including our dinner. But with a view like this, I could hardly care what I ate for dinner.
Upon nightfall I walked down to the shore and did yoga beneath the stars. Shadows of the mountains hovered over the lake, with a mighty wind gusting through the middle. It was a truly magical moment. I stretched my arms overhead, then folded my chest forward… right into a furry little critter. A mouse had decided to join my starlight yoga session and was sitting on my mat curiously looking at me. This was just the beginning of our animal encounters in Two Medicine.
Early the next morning I crawled out of the tent, bleary-eyed. I registered some movement on my right and turned to look. It was a black bear, walking nonchalantly past our tent and down a hill – about 15 feet from me. I froze in fascination. I know the right reaction is to make noise to alert the bear to your presence, but instead I just watched it walk by. The bear never even looked in my direction.
We chose to hike the trail to Upper Two Medicine Lake: an easy trail that started at the campground and meandered through the woods, passing a waterfall and ending at a second beautiful lake. There were other people on the trail, but not as many as I’d expect to see in busier areas of the park.
At the waterfall I talked to an anxious couple who had just come from the Upper Lake. They’d been watching a moose when a grizzly bear appeared and chased away the moose, then started walking toward them. They’d booked it back down the trail, scared. They warned me that the bear might still be up there, so I shouldn’t proceed unless I was willing and ready to use bear spray. I was stoked. I couldn’t wait to see my first grizzly!
Another 100 feet down the trail, we ran into a family who had also seen the bear. Two teenage boys were babbling excitedly about how cool it was and how many pictures they’d gotten. “It’s really close to here!” they exclaimed.
Sure enough, less than a minute later, we saw the giant brown furball ambling down the trail toward us. Despite its relaxed demeanor, large muscles rippled under the thick fur as it walked. I felt a burst of nervous energy. Ethan had the bear spray at the ready as we both backed up down the trail, trying to keep the bear in sight without allowing it to get too close. The animal proceeded to follow us, completely undaunted by our presence.
Within a couple minutes we’d encountered more people on the trail who joined in our steady retreat, while also attempting to get a fleeting glimpse of the animal. It followed us all the way back to the waterfall, where a group of about 10 people were on a ranger-guided tour. We warned the ranger that a bear was close behind.
He turned to his group and announced, “We have been notified that there are bears in the area. If you prefer to turn back now, feel free. You are in charge of your own safety.” The group of people murmured and pulled out their phones, but no one turned back.
Then the bear rounded the bend.
The tour group gasped, turned around and began to hurry down the trail, tripping over each other in the process.
“Don’t run!” I shouted. “Then it’ll want to chase you!”
I turned back and saw the bear had begun to trot. The tour group was behind me and I was closest to the bear (which really wasn’t that close, but still a bit frightening). A vision flashed through my mind… earlier that month I’d laughed at a bear safety sign. It had said if a bear was getting close to you, to yell “get away, bear.” At the time I’d thought it was hilarious, but now I figured I may as well try it.
“No, Bear.” I said sternly, like I was talking to a dog. “Go away.” Ethan and another man flanked me on either side with bear spray ready.
Amazingly, it slowed back down to a walk. I don’t know if it had anything to do with my scolding it or not. Maybe the poor thing just decided it was tired of humans. Regardless, it finally turned off the trail and walked down a creek.
Everyone on the trail was buzzing with energy and gushing about the experience. It was incredible to witness a wild animal that showed no fear in the face of a whole group of humans. Ethan and I decided to try a different trail which branched off up the mountain, and left the group behind. Due to our grizzly sighting, meanwhile, rangers marked this area closed… but we didn’t get the memo.
We continued to a small alpine lake with nice views, and sat chatting for a while with a solo hiker. Evening was approaching, so we started to head back down the mountain. It seemed as though we’d only gone a few steps before we heard rustling in the bushes, and saw some black fur. Ethan whipped out the bear spray again and we began talking loudly. We passed by the bear without issue.
The same thing happened 5 minutes later, and another 10 min after that. There were bears on every corner of this trail. Now knowing that the rangers had closed off the area, my guess is the lack of humans attracted them all over there. Regardless, there we were – two little humans surrounded by a forest full of bears.
The golden rule of bear safety is to make noise as you hike, so that you don’t inadvertently sneak up and startle them. So I began to sing loudly as we hiked. I was terrified by the numerous bears surrounding us, which was a totally new situation to me. I just hoped that they liked my singing.
Apparently they did, because we made it back to camp without incident. It was a fascinating, scary, memorable hike – and I was glad it was over. I’d had my fill of bears and was ready to get back to civilization.