The Bear Went Over The Mountain

The bear went over the mountain
The bear went over the mountain
The bear went over the mountain

To see what he could see.

Silly children’s song, right? Well, not so fast. Last weekend my brother and I learned that the song was indeed accurate. Our discovery began on a hot dusty trail leading south from Two Medicine Lake, in Glacier National Park. At first, we were distracted. Mountains loomed tall around us, pinching steep narrow valleys between their rocky flanks. Overhead, sharp sugar-cone spruce trees rent irregular gashes through the strips of sky visible between mountains. Recently freed from snow, plants exploded from the ground in a frenzy of chlorophyll and vibrant blossoms. We walked on in awe.

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Our reverie ended suddenly when a large lump of disturbingly fresh bear scat obstructed our trail. Indeed, the bear had gone over the mountain. Presumably, we were now following the bear. Another mile down the trail, we encountered a junction and a large yellow sign warning of abnormally high bear activity. What a comfort. Resting my hand on the canister of bear spray I carried, I gave Dane a wry smile and walked up the steep, dusty grade.

In the few remaining miles we hiked that day, we encountered a few more piles of bear scat: a constant reminder that bears were nearby. Upon arriving at Cobalt Lake, our first camp on this four day backpack trip, we experienced another surprise. In addition to the glaciers that the park is famous for, a sizable group of snow patches like to spend their summers in Glacier. But unlike the glaciers, these patches are small, and usually hide out of the way in shady nooks and rocky clefts protected from the sun. At Cobalt Lake, however, we encountered a rebellious company of snow patches who’d camped out right on top of the designated backpacker campsites. Consequently, Dane and I spent the better part of the afternoon determinedly scooping away the grainy spring snow, clearing a space to put our tent. Proud of our accomplishment, we pitched our tent and crawled in for some shut eye. That’s when the surly snow patch we’d displaced made its move and took revenge. Sure, there was no snow under our tent, but the ground under us was still frozen. And with only skeletal ultralight air pads between us and the frozen ground, we spent a chilly night turning round and round like the drum on the back of a cement truck, trying to keep any one part of ourselves from touching the cold ground for too long.

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After a night as long and cold as Narnia’s hundred year winter under the White Witch’s reign, we welcomed the morning sun, which soon thawed out our joints enough that we could pack up and travel over Two Medicine Pass. The trail promptly took us up to Glacier’s high country. The pass could be thought of as a large wildflower garden. From afar, the rocky ground appears to be covered in a thin haze. But on closer examination, this haze turns into a proliferation of miniature wildflowers. Because of the high altitude, high winds, and harsh climate, all plant life has been miniaturized. Had it not been for the chilling wind, I would have stayed forever, admiring the tiny flowers.

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But we hiked on, until we were sunburnt and burnt out, just like our destination. Years ago, Isabel Lake was a beautiful shady place. A warm mountain lake, teeming with fish, ringed by crumbly mountain walls and tall evergreens. Now, it is burnt; by forest fire, by sun. Most trees lie on the ground. The remainder send stiff dead branches out like legs of a millipede dropped in a campfire. Shade is a theoretical thing. Dense fireweed and Thimbleberry have sprung up in the absence of forest. During the heat of the day, we were anything but thrilled to be out in the sun. But when evening fell, the basin took on a rugged glow. Best of all, the sunbaked ground beneath our tent stayed warm all night.

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Backpacking alters my sense of the passage of time. Hours are not measured. Life simply goes on. I eat. I hike. I set up and tear down camp. In general, the days seem long and full of pleasant experiences. But every trip has its downsides. On this trip, bugs gave us trouble. We met tiny biting flies, black flies, houseflies, horse flies, deer flies, and a variety of other flying pests. A simple mosquito bite causes me to flare up, and I look as though I’ve stuffed a lump of chewing gum or perhaps a small stack of quarters under my skin. At some point, an anonymous biting thing attacked my hand such that it resembled a boxing glove for the next three days. Overall, though, this was but a minor distraction.

The remainder of the trip took place down in the lowlands, deep in the forest. The trip out might have been uneventful, but a ten minute thunderstorm changed that. Our last night out, we prepared for rain, digging a drainage trench around the tent with the toes of our boots. As expected, rain came, but only enough to moisten the thick underbrush and dampen the ground. I awoke early the next morning, eager to get on the trail. We slammed down breakfast, broke camp in record time, and charged off through the early morning shade. There was no need to leave early. We had but 7 miles to cover. After a few moments on the trail, our folly became evident, but there was no turning back after that. Dense vegetation overhung the trail. Until moments earlier, the vegetation had been wet with the rain from the previous night. Now, all that water was on our pants. For the remaining seven miles, we joked about the noise made by bubbling water in our shoes, how it shot up between our toes. Dane had a hole in his right shoe from which jets of foam would shoot at each step. My relatively new boots held water far more nicely, and I had a regular hot tub complete with jets in my boots. At every new clump of overhanging bushes, cold water would drain down our legs and refill our shoes. But there was nothing to do but laugh and hike faster, reducing the amount of time we’d be on the trail.

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Though the water was uncomfortable, we had other reasons for hiking fast. The bears were at it again – going over those mountains. Every five minutes we encountered yet another fresh pile of scat. At one point, a crashing erupted in the woods nearby. We stopped, unsheathed our canisters of bear spray, talked loudly to one another, and hiked cautiously but quickly on. Though we knew it was important to make plenty of noise, we both wanted desperately to be quiet and listen to the crashing, to see if we could identify the unseen creature, to discern what direction it was traveling. Though we hiked away from the crashing, a sense of alertness stayed with us for half an hour after the last signs of danger were past.

And suddenly, we passed a trail sign. Moments later, I stood on a rocky outcropping overlooking a bridge. Walton ranger station, the end of our trail, was just around the bend. The thought of being out of the wet shoes became almost tangible. Normally the end of a backpack trip is a bittersweet thing, but wet and bedraggled as we were, neither of us minded the trip being over. We collapsed into the all too soft seats of our car and cruised smoothly home.

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