Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Legend of the Drop Bear

A wise man once told me of the drop bear. A fearsome, yet rarely seen, beast, the drop bear lives among the trees, waiting to strike any prey who dare pass below. When the moment is right, the drop bear, true to its name, strategically drops from the branches onto the unsuspecting passerby. Owing to its unusual largeness, this allows the drop bear to incapacitate and eat its victim. The only known defense to drop bear attacks is to place forks in one’s hair (tines up). 
While Glacier seems to be free of the dreaded drop bear, its grizzly cousins stand ready to “drop in” on park guests almost anywhere, without notice. Over the last two days, they seem to have been circling closer and closer, although I’ve managed to hold them off so far.

I won the first round – prevention. Step one was bear spray. Essentially double-strength pepper spray in a hairspray-sized can, most national parks ban it, but Glacier requires it. Acquisition was an adventure – although it’s legal in both Massachusetts and New Jersey, most stores don’t sell it, and online sellers can only ship it via ground. You also can’t bring it on planes – carryon or checked baggage. Fortunately, every store in Montana seems to have it. So now I do, too. Glacier also suggests making noise while hiking to alert bears of your presence, and notes that singing works well. That obviously wasn’t going to happen, though. They sell “bear bells,” which are really just glorified jingle bells that everyone says don’t work. What I needed was some sort of bell that would make noise with every step I took and whose sound would carry. It was as if I had some sort of fever, and the only prescription, as it were, was a cowbell. So far it’s been very effective, but it’s drawn mixed reviews from other hikers. But I’d like to remain un-mauled for longer than I’d like them to like me, so until a ranger tells me it’s a bad idea, I simply must have more cowbell.

I’ve won the second round so far, too: when not moving, be where the bears won’t be dropping in. For yesterday’s attempt at a sunrise, back at Lake McDonald, that meant putting myself between a lake and a parking lot. So even though the sky never lit up and I only got this one decent exposure, it was a small victory.

Same went for yesterday’s sunset, overlooking the park’s next largest lake. 

I spent most of the rest of yesterday in another place unpopular with wild quadrupeds: a moving car. The main road through Glacier, and one of the park’s main attractions, is Going-to-the-Sun Road. Stretching 50 miles between Lake McDonald in the west and St. Mary Lake in the east, the road climbs to over 6,000 feet at the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. The scenery along the way isn’t bad either.

At the top is a visitor center and several trails, including the famous Highline Trail – arguably the park’s most scenic hike. Unfortunately, the bears dropped in on that one, and our second choice hike to Iceberg Lake, so we decided to hike to Hidden Lake instead. In addition to the bear spray and cowbell, our main defense here was the multitude of AARP members whom I could definitely outrun if necessary. Along this trail, the views also weren’t too shabby.

We even got an action marmot and a derpy mountain goat to join us. 

Today’s bear-avoidance strategy began like yesterday’s: watch the sunrise between a lake and a hotel, this time at Many Glacier. I had a little more success than yesterday, despite sub-freezing temperatures.

From there, the plan was to take a shuttle boat across that water, hike to another shuttle boat, and then climb 1600 feet to the foot of Grinnell Glacier.

Then the bears decided to drop in again. First on a slope high above the boat dock.

Then along the lake shore as we shuttled by. A pair of bears. Fighting bears.

After watching for about 10 minutes, our fellow passengers realized that a pair of hikers was passing just below this exhibition, so they decided to shout a warning to them. The man below suddenly became very interested in the instructions on his can of bear spray.

The hike to Grinnell Glacier was fairly spectacular. Scheduled for 7.8 miles round trip (to the boat), we rose past turquoise lakes, glacially fed waterfalls, and wildflowers that, like the trail, hugged the narrow ledge on the side of a sheer cliff.

At the top, we were rewarded with a bright blue lake studded with icebergs, in the space where most of the glacier once sat.

As we started back down, I noticed the camera was exposing the sky better than it had been doing earlier, as some clouds had rolled in. They kept rolling and began threatening. Then it began drizzling. By the time we were halfway down the trail, it was pouring.

Somehow, in the relative chaos, we missed the turnoff for the boat dock. By the time we realized our mistake, it was faster to hike back to the dock at the hotel where we began. So our 7.2 mile hike became 9.5. Not a problem, since those extra 2 miles were mostly flat. I just didn’t wake up this morning expecting to take my longest hike in 15 years (although I did have the wisdom and foresight to eat as much bacon and sausage as I could find for breakfast). It’s still unclear whether my knees will forgive me tomorrow.

As we turned to leave, our drop bear decided to make one last appearance for the day – his closest approach yet.

Why did the bear cross the road? Just to remind us who’s really in charge here.

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