Monday, August 11, 2008

Wildlife Wimp...Meet the Glacier Grizzlies

One of the best ways to become a conservationist is to see firsthand why forests, oceans, and open spaces are worth preserving. One glance up at the mountains from Yosemite's valley, and you will understand why Ansel Adams devoted his life to photographing and protecting wild places. From atop a vista in Glacier National Park, you will understand why it is so important to protect not only the glaciers that give this breathtaking park in northwestern Montana its name, but also the grizzly bears that roam freely throughout, existing in quiet splendor at the top of this magnificent ecological paradise. I have enjoyed every moment spent in Yosemite, Glacier, and several other National Parks, and I am committed to doing whatever I can to protect and preserve them.

And by the way, I am a total wildlife wimp. While I grew up in rural Vermont surrounded by black bear, moose, skunks, squirrels, and even the occasional coyote, I still get nervous on every camping, hiking, and walking trip that holds even the slightest possibility of an encounter with any kind of mountain lion, bear, or Loch Ness monsters (Yes, I do know that I don't actually need to worry about that last one). However, I live in the Pacific Northwest, and I love to hike, so I find myself on a lot of these "I wish I didn't have such an active imagination, but otherwise this is incredible" excursions. Did I mention Sasquatch?

Glacier National Park was no exception as such an outing. From the moment we entered the park a few weeks ago, we heard stories about a grizzly and cub that were frequenting the Iceberg Lake trail. (Please note, these bears will hereafter be referred to as Momma Bear and Baby Bear because that makes this story seem much less scary).

We were very excited for our few days in Glacier, as neither my husband nor I had ever visited. We splurged on the night of our anniversary and stayed at the storied and highly recommended Many Glacier Lodge. The lodge is situated on the east side of the park, only a few miles north of the Going to the Sun Road, which is the main road that runs through the park. Many Glacier Lodge was built in 1915, and it is situated overlooking one of the many lakes scattered throughout the park.

On our first full day in the park, we took a leisurely hike around several glacial lakes. We were excited the next morning for something a little more rigorous, so we set out on The Iceberg Lake trail. There were signs at the head of the trail with warnings about increased grizzly activity. There are also signs and pamphlets all over the park about what to do to avoid a bad bear encounter - make noise so as not to surprise the bear, stay calm and quiet in case of an encounter so the bear does not perceive you as a threat or prey etc. And it probably goes without saying that these are not the signs you want to see if you are a wildlife wimp. The prevalence of bear mace at the gift shop and on people's belts did not help either.

Taking it all in
Yet the stunning natural beauty of Glacier was enough to make me overcome my fear, and so up the mountain we trudged. It was a perfect July morning, the fog from the night before had all but burned off, and as we wound our way up alpine meadows and past streams, we were treated to view after view of valleys, mountains, and lakes. At the 2.5 mile mark (the hike is about 10 miles round trip), we began to hear stories about Momma and Baby Bear up ahead on the trail. No one seemed particularly concerned, and we were on our way to the well-traveled Iceberg Lake; really, what were the chances of us actually running into the bears!?
Icebergs in July!
We pressed on and after giddily stumbling upon a late season snow field, we reached our destination. After an hour of lunch and amazement at where we were and what we were seeing, we started to head back down the trail. As we got to a bend about a quarter mile down, we heard many voices shouting, "Hey, Bear!" and clapping and whistling. Irritated, I looked at Steve and said, "With those people ahead making all of that noise, we are never going to see the bear." Yes, indeed, that was the wildlife wimp talking. Something about the sheer and surreal beauty of the scene must have been getting to my head.

We joined up with the noisy and slow moving troop and continued our tromp down the trail. We rounded a particularly breathtaking bend and stopped to take in the mountain swooping up to our left and then crossing the trail, where it was transformed into a gently rolling hill, which continued its progression all the way down into the valley. We were snapped out of our reverie by, well, a snap. Bears that size, they move fast, and suddenly we heard branches cracking less than twenty feet to our right.

What we observed*

What it looked like to me

Just like that, there she was, Momma Bear, and there he was, Baby Bear. As for Momma, I swear she was looking right at me. The more experienced hikers (they all had a few decades on Steve and me, and most had encountered a bear before), rapidly and quietly made their way down the trail. I couldn't move; I just stood there, transfixed by this close encounter with a fellow top-of-the-food-chainer. And instead of being terrified, I was completely calm - Momma, she really didn't have any interest in me. She lumbered away down the slope following her baby (he was really more of an adolescent) towards Iceberg Lake. We heard from others further up the trail that the grizzlies had gone to the lake and wrestled, frolicked, played. National Parks are some of the last bastions of safety for this threatened species, and these bears seemed to know it.

By the time we got to the bottom of the trail, it had been closed due to "increased grizzly activity."

We can all take a lesson from this closing - At Glacier, it's as simple as this - the bears are respected here. The ecosystem in the park and beyond depends on the survival of such magnificent creatures, and the park cherishes and protects the grizzly as an integral part of this system.

Sadly, the grizzlies are not the only thing that needs protection in Glacier National Park. If the current rate of warming continues, all of the glaciers in the park will be gone by 2070. For more information on protecting the parks, visit the National Parks Conservation Association, and of course, I also recommend visiting some national parks. I don't guarantee that you will see a grizzly, but I can promise you that you will see something magnificent and worth protecting.

*Grizzly Family photo by DanDee Shots

1 comment:

David said...

Nice story. Sounds like a place I'd love to be. Didn't you take any pictures of the bears?