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Glacier National Park: Grizzly bears and being growled at, in one of the last wild places

Published
August 26, 2021
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WHITEFISH is one of those places where snow-capped mountains dominate the horizon. It was refreshing to be somewhere free of tall buildings, concrete and noise.

Whitefish is also home base for the Glacier National Park, Flathead National Forest, and Big Mountain. The area boosts a popular ski resort and ski-field. It is also home to bears. Lots of bears.

I found Whitefish very similar to my second hometown of Queenstown in New Zealand. I found a hostel in Whitefish and booked myself into a shared room. That’s where I met a guy called Gabriel, a salsa dancer. When

he found out I was going to Cuba next, he wanted to meet me there. I laughed at his forthcomingness and simply said, “We will see”. I don’t tend to plan too much when I travel — I mean, I just see where my feet will take me.

I told him about Queenstown, and he said he had long wanted to get there at some stage. For work and travel. He had worked as a chef and travelled all around the world.

The hostel I stayed in was great, so much nicer than the Airbnb places I had had to put up with. The hostel’s owners were nice people, a couple of sisters. They said that they had noticed the downturn in the oil industries too.

There were a few other people I met staying in the hostel and around town. Many of them had finished up work in Alaska and had come to Whitefish for work there, or over in the Glacier National Park.

Talking to them made me really want to go to Alaska, no question about it. I have been talked into visiting a place called Juneau. I’ll get there in the near future, I hope.

You can do bear camp expeditions, where they take you out into the wild and you go looking for bears. The other, somewhat safer option is to get a helicopter or plane ride over the area to see them- which I think would be incredible.

I was going to head to Glacier National Park next, only an hour and a half away from Whitefish. I went to the local grocery store and stocked up on food and bought cooking utensils and walking sticks as well. I had to stop eating out because everything was a bit expensive here. So anyway, I decided to buy a whole lot of stuff. I planned to have just one meal a day out and then make my own breakfast and lunch.

I visited the Blackfoot reservation, where I was surprised to find a casino. But I shouldn’t have been, because that is how a lot of reservations make extra income in actual fact. Under the old Indian Treaties, many of the laws that were applied to other Americans didn’t apply on reservations. Somebody figured out that this included laws against casinos as well: at one time banned nearly everywhere in the USA except Nevada. And that’s how the whole reservation-casino thing got started as well.

I was really excited about getting to the Glacier National Park: it was something straight out of National Geographic. Sheer beauty.

I hired a rental car and had to double check my travel insurances. Luckily, I didn’t have to pay extra because I was insured for damaging a car and car accidents, so that was good news.

I find it better to do online searches, but the funny thing about my rental car was that it didn’t have GPS which was crazy. You most definitely need one out here. So, I ended up using different SIMs for GPS. My NZ SIM only got 300 MB and my US one had 2 GB, but I think it had already run out.

I was told to get an annual pass for entering the parks for about $80, which is more than reasonable. Someone else could use it after me, I thought.

From Whitefish, I went to the township of West Glacier inside the park. At this time of year, the bears are getting ready for hibernation and eating a lot, so you have to be very, very careful. You can get bear spray which apparently keeps them away. I didn’t know any of this, but there were a lot of people on the trails that I did, so I felt safe in the belief that the bears would stay away. There were also mountain lions, but I didn’t know a lot about them.

As I would later find out, mountain lions are perhaps even more dangerous than bears overall, because they have the ability to stalk lone hikers in perfect silence, biding their time till the hiker is on a particularly lonesome section of the trail and then pouncing.

A boy I spoke to later told me that he had heard of a mountain biker who was attacked by a mountain lion, and that it was having a real go at him, and he managed to get back on his bike and took off and the mountain lion chased him like a creature out of a nightmare till he came across two women. The women threw rocks at the lion till it left all three of them alone.

You’d relive that in your dreams for a while, I am sure; pedaling till the sheets are all over the place!

I also found out, later on, that mountain lions are not closely related to lions. Even though they are called lions, they are really more like a giant version of the domestic cat. Like the domestic cat they are very loose- limbed and agile, and amazingly good at jumping. But loose joints mean that house-cats and mountain lions find running to be very exhausting, like running through sand, even though they can go fast for a short time. This makes house cats and mountain lions ‘lazy’. They would rather hunt by slow stalking and an eventual pounce than by giving serious chase like a true lion, let alone a cheetah, or a wolf. The mountain lion that chased the mountain biker was probably more out of breath than he was by the time the women started throwing rocks at it.

Many pet dogs disappear thanks to mountain lions, which sometimes venture into suburban areas. Mountain lions also used to be killed by farmers in great numbers, because, of course, no farmer’s sheep was safe from their depredations.

People told me that of all the common animals, only domestic cats were too intelligent to be taken by mountain lions. I don’t know that cats are smarter than dogs in general; but they probably are wiser to the mountain lion’s sneaky habits, in this instance, than dogs would be. Perhaps the mountain lion also recognizes a kindred spirit, as well.

I think that’s one thing about living in New Zealand: we are liable a little naïve about the outdoors in other countries. The most dangerous native animal we have is a venomous spider that no one I know has ever seen in the wild! This is the Katipo, a relative of Australia’s Redback. Hardly anyone has ever been bitten by a Katipo and I don’t think anyone has ever actually died from the effects, or at least, been proven to have done so.

So, I set off without too much concern on the Trail of the Sealers and on a nature walk within the West Glacier section, reading all the signs saying ‘Watch out for Bears’, what to do if you encounter one and where to store your food. They had lots of bear-proof containers around the park where you can put your food. But it all seemed manageable to me.

I was told to sing loudly to keep the bears and mountain lions away, so I did, in between laughing at the incongruity of it.

Anyone else sensible enough to be walking in a group would have thought I was crazy. It was a lot of fun. Although, I did make a mental note to buy bear spray the next day, it made me a little nervous after a while, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to camp there overnight or not. I did a few treks or walks that were only 2–3 hours long and I came across a couple who told me they had seen a bear and said it growled at them.

I decided not to camp out at West Glacier and headed to East Glacier next which was a three-hour drive, thinking I’d camp there maybe instead. First though, I drove up the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the most famous scenic road through the national park and often known simply as the Sun Road, which is closed in winter.

I didn’t realise that road was already cut off for parts that I had wanted to see — such as Logan Pass Visitors Centre and Jackson Glacier, which was disappointing.

The US Parks Service Office didn’t know that the roads were closed either. So, my plan was to go and walk the Avalanche Creek Trail to Avalanche Lake which is a four-and-a-half mile or 7.2 km round trip, rated moderate, and accessible from the part of the road that was still open.

Travelling alone brings with it some difficulties, when I came all the way back down to West Glacier, it was fairly icy and looked like it might snow soon, and then it did start snowing. I thought to myself, I’m going to have to sleep in my car on my own, because if I get stuck in snow I have no roadside assistance and no snow chains! I didn’t get stuck though and I drove through the park on US Highway 2 instead to East Glacier Park Village, another township just outside the national park.

East Glacier Park Village, which I will call East Glacier for short, is in the Blackfeet native American Reservation. The Blackfeet, also known as the Blackfoot Confederacy, are a loose union of tribes, most of which came originally from the eastern part of North America around a thousand years ago and belong to a group of native Americans known as Algonquian.

East Glacier Park: Blackfeet Statue and Native American-themed road underpass (in background)

The Eastern Algonquians, who made up the majority of native Americans that the very first European settlers in North America encountered, have contributed many loanwords to English such as the most familiar and perhaps notorious, ‘squaw’ for woman. The Blackfoot equivalent is similar but has no ‘s’. The other major native American group in Montana is the Salish or Flathead people, so called because they used to bind their babies’ heads to produce a sloping forehead. The Salish are from the West Coast of North America and are completely unrelated to Algonquians.

I found a hotel called Dancing Bears Inn and I decided I might just stay there, so I checked in for two nights.

In retrospect, I should have got off the train at East Glacier, because it is a lot closer to the Glacier National Park than Whitefish is.

Whitefish is world famous: a major ski resort town on a par with Queenstown in New Zealand, as I’ve just pointed out. So how was I to know that East Glacier Park, pop. 397, was a better place to base myself in before I got to Montana and acquired some local knowledge?

There is a guy in East Glacier Park, Ed De Rosa, who does some tours. There is a lot happening here and I wanted to go to the local historical museum, which I planned for the next day.

I went and had a cup of coffee in Dancing Bears Inn and spoke to a local Native American woman, and she said the Blackfeet people had only recently got some of their land back. She said it was only within the last five years that mapmakers had removed some names from the maps considered to be derogatory or patronising in some way, like Squaw Peak.

To make matters worse — as I’ve mentioned — the distantly related Blackfoot word for woman has no ‘s’ sound, while the Salish or Flathead equivalent is completely different. So, calling a mountain Squaw Peak in Montana is doubly dim-witted and obtuse.

Squaw Peak, Montana, duly acquired a new name from the Salish language, Ch-paa-qn Peak, meaning Shining Peak. The name change is well-intentioned but by the same token written texts in Salish provide little guidance for native English-speakers as to how the words are meant to be pronounced. I suspect that many of the region’s non-Salish inhabitants might take to calling the mountain Shining Peak in English, unless they are helped with Salish pronunciation.

I thought that such issues were really interesting, and that it was nice to be able to stay within a Native American reservation and talk to the people who lived there just in the course of normal travels. Again, that’s something people would miss out on in touristy Whitefish.

The next day I did the museum, and then went to Medicine Lake on the recommendation of the woman from Dancing Bears, and it truly was beautiful: I loved it. I also went out for a few walks in the area at Tomb Mountain. I ran into a group of four people who were trekking and saw a grizzly bear while I was with them, but it backed off because there were five of us.

After that I didn’t do any more hiking alone!

The woman from the Dancing Bears Inn had told me that the bears were quite hungry this year because the number of huckleberries this year was low. Already this year they had had three or four bear attacks and there was no shortage of signs up in bold, threatening writing with messages like “Don’t trek by yourself” or words to that effect. I did follow that advice in the end, after the grizzly encounter.

Driving back, I was told by a road worker that there was a mother grizzly bear and two cubs which I might see from the road, but to stay in the car and don’t get out. Even a fairly naive Kiwi like me knew not to get between mama bear and her cubs, so I did stay in the car.

Apparently, there are a lot of problems with the bears getting into rubbish tins and even getting run over, so you aren’t supposed to feed them. I don’t know who would be game or stupid enough to feed the bears deliberately. Maybe the park staff meant feeding the bears by leaving stuff lying around in the open or even in easily opened containers.

Bears seem to be about as smart as a two-year-old, and have a similar talent for getting into things they shouldn’t. So, hikers in this neck of the woods are supposed to put all their food in the lockable ‘bear canisters’ I mentioned before, both back-pack portable and fixed; and likewise, with rubbish too.

I would have liked to have done more hiking but after hearing that the bears were hungry, and that there are 700 of them in the park, I eventually lost my nerve completely. I did see a golden eagle in the park, though, which was cool.

I also got put off driving at night because the deer come onto the roads quite early and they can cause serious damage to your car or to you if you hit one. The local mini-store is only open from May to October, so it was on the verge of closing up, just like the Sun Road. I thought they were putting boards in the window because of burglars, but they told me the winds are so high and fast that it breaks the windows, so they board up everything. (That’s something they do in Greenland as well: I talk about that in A Maverick Inuit Way and the Vikings.)

At the other extreme, the summers are hot and prone to wildfires. One lot of fires was captured in remarkable NASA imagery taken in the September after I was there. The photo shows continental-scale smoke plumes with the heat signatures of the actual fires superimposed in what is, in the colour version of the images, bright red.

For the next stage of my trip, I decided to head to Yellowstone National Park, a five-hour drive. I went from Browning to Shelby on US Highway 2, then I took US Highway 15 to Great Falls, a section that really reminded me of parts of New Zealand. And then on to Helena, and from Helena via the 287 to Three Forks.

I rolled into Yellowstone at about 6 p.m. and what an entry it was, driving past the pine-tree-rimmed Earthquake Lake (or Quake Lake) and Hebgen Lake just after, which greeted me into the park. It was a fantastic drive, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I had to pull over and admire the scenery, which absolutely amazed me with how beautiful it was.

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