I Didn’t get Eaten by Bears or Burned Up in a Wildfire

By Em - August 22, 2018

Backpacking Glacier National Park

After coming off the Teton Crest Trail with my friend Andrea, I was ready to do it all over again.  After dropping Andrea off at the airport, I took my time making my way north to Glacier, stopping in Bozeman and ducking into REI in Missoula to replace my lost knife.  And then on to Glacier.  I was immediately taken aback and a bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tourists and was ready to get into the backcountry.

Day 0: Permitting 

The crazy backcountry permit race.

I got to the backcountry permitting office (that is to say, woke from sleeping in my car in the parking lot outside the permitting office) at 3:45 a.m.  I was a bit surprised to see there were already two groups in front to me.  But third isn’t bad at all.

There were three young guys in front of me and then someone (turns out it was two someones) in a red sleeping bag in front of them.  I secretly felt like sleeping in line was cheating, and also cursed myself for not doing the same.  People quickly accumulated behind me and it wasn’t long before I heard a rustling coming from the porch and it is revealed that there are two more groups up there.  Damn.

Most of the camp sites I was hoping for had only one space left, and there were two other permitting offices operating on the same system.  I was beginning to feel a little disheartened.  I made back-up plans and back-up back-up plans.  The girl immediately behind me also happened to be from Boulder and we compared notes and silently shook our heads at the obnoxious boys in front of us spewing nonsense about guns and snapchat.  (Who invited them?!)

At seven, the doors open and the first three groups head inside.  Soon it’s my turn.  I hand over my ideal itinerary and wait with bated breath.  I managed to get the last site at 4 of my choices with only one small alteration.  My first night would be spent at Kintla Lake, rather than Upper Kintla, which would mean a 16 mile day for Day 2, but well worth it.

I slept a few more hours in my car and then headed to the town of Whitefish for some pampering.  Spent the best $15 of my life for a day pass at “the Wave,” a luxurious gym complete with WiFi, smoothie bar, hot tub, sauna, and the nicest locker room I have ever set foot in.  I am surprised they didn’t make me shower before I entered the building.  I stayed a full 4 hours.  Ate a big leafy salad for dinner washed down with a local IPA at “Craggy,” then found a place to sleep in my car, excited to hit the trail in the morning.

Day 1: Apgar Visitor Center to Kinta Trailhead to Kinta Lake 

My first bear.

My adventure started well before the trailhead.  I parked my car at Apgar Visitor Center and headed to the road to hitchhike to Kintla trailhead.

I wildly overestimated how quick and easy this would be.  What I failed to realize earlier was, Glacier National Park is huge.  The drive was over 40 miles, half of which was poorly kept dirt roads.  It took 4 rides and almost 4 hours to get there (about 2 hours roadside and 2 hours in cars).

The first hour was extremely disheartening.  People blew past me.  Eventually, a woman driving a sight-seeing jeep that was momentarily empty recommended that I walk about a quarter mile further to get the traffic from Apgar village.  I thanked her and moved up that way.  Soon I got my first ride from Sarah… who brought me a total of two miles before she realized she had to turn around because she had her husband’s park pass.  She promised to pick me up later if I was still there and take me to Polebridge.

Not five minutes later, I see a white SUV slowing and I get excited, then a bit apprehensive when I realize it’s a park ranger.  I poorly and clumsily try to shift my hitch-hiking thumb into a cheerful thumbs up.  I fear I'm about to get in trouble for hitchhiking.  But instead, Boris offers to take me to North Fork Road.  He calls in to the Ranger Station that he is performing a “courtesy shuttle” which I feel is a lovely way of saying “I just picked up a hitchhiker.”

After being dropped at North Fork Road, it took only 10 minutes to be offered a ride from a mountain man, (there is really no other way to describe him) Jack and his dog Bo.  Bo it seems had gone swimming in mud.  I was taking Bo’s seat, and sat in a nice puddle of it.  Well, I was about to get very dirty on the trail, might as well get dirty now.  Bo frequently tried to reclaim his seat which left me covered in muddy paw prints.  Jack dropped me at Polebridge and I waited again for a ride.  At this point, there were VERY few cars.  I started walking the mile to the entrance to the park when a tiny blonde girl from Atlanta threw open her passenger door.  Aster was visiting her friend who was a park ranger, who was currently at Kintla Lake.  We had to stop at the ranger station to fold her friend’s laundry to bring up to her (I had to earn my ride after all) and Aster and I talked travel and teaching.  She is a kid’s yoga instructor, itching to travel on a budget, so I imparted what wisdom I could about hostels, finding cheap flights, couch-surfing and sleeping in cars.

I finally started on the trail at 3:30, grateful for a flat 6.5 miles until camp.  About a mile and a half into my trek I hear a rustling off to my right and I see a baby black bear.  I look around and I don’t see Mama.  I look to my left and there she is with her other baby.  I’m not thrilled at my current positioning and I talk nicely to Mama bear about how pretty her babies are while slowly backing away.  Baby joined mama and they set off on their way.  I calm down a bit and think… I’ve gone a mile and a half of 65 miles and I’ve already seen a bear... three bears… How many more bears are in store?

I began to pass carcasses, bones, and large piles of fur.  I did not pass any humans.  This was disconcerting.  But I also didn't see any human skulls.  This was comforting.

The remains of an deer that was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Also, the same place I was standing.

I make my way to Kintla Lake Campsite just as a light rain starts.

Kintla Lake

I pull out my tent and quickly begin setting it up.  But… oh no.  I’m missing a pole.  Turns out a small tent pole was left behind on mine and Andrea’s last night in the Tetons at Holly Lake.  Trying to beat the storm, I quickly hunted around the campsite for a stick to use in its place.  I found one in just a minute, and my tent was fully set up as the light rain came to a stop.

My Makeshift Tent-pole

I made dinner and sat by the lake with the other backcountry campers.  Steve and Julie, a middle-aged couple, sipped wine from plastic wine glasses poured from a bag of wine trekked over 30 miles.  Life goals.  Steve and Julie had the car keys of two rental cars left at Kintla trailhead by a group of hikers they met on the trail.  Steve and Julie had told the hikers they would drive the cars to Apgar for the hikers to retrieve later in the week, and joked about where they were going to drive to add 1,000 miles to the odometer.

Steve was about to give up his fishing attempts.  He had been at it with no success for two and half hours.  No sooner had he stepped out of the water when an Osprey dives down in full view, emerging with a fish, taunting Steve.  The timing was perfect, and we were all in stitches.  Somehow the conversation shifted to asking the veterinarian backpacker, Jake, about various animal’s mating endeavors.  (I’ll allow you to look up on your own, the mating of eagles, dogs and cats, and pigs).  We all shared some great laughs before retreating to our tents.

Sunset over Kintla Lake

Day 2: Kinta Lake to Hole In the Wall

Bears, Berries and Beauty.

I packed up pretty early, knowing I had 16 miles to trek before camp.  I contemplating bringing my tent-pole stick, but decided I would be able to find a suitable replacement easily enough that evening.  I ate breakfast quickly by the water, overlooking the beautiful Kintla Lake where an otter swam close to shore.

I set off and was making pretty good time… until I noticed all the huckleberries.  All the delicious, perfectly ripe, bountiful huckleberries.  Every 20 yards or so I’d find myself ravenously indulging.  It struck me that if there were so many berries, there was bound to be…

Bear.  About an hour into my trek and berry foraging, a black bear runs directly in front of me on the path.  We both startle each other (I think he was more afraid of me than I was of him) and I continue walking, vowing to make more noise than I had been making.  

Then, not 10 feet later, I stop dead in my tracks.  A grizzly, walking along the trail, fortunately away from me rather than towards me.  Jeezus, is there some kind of bear club that was conspiring to gang up on me?  I continue making noise to make him aware of my existence.  He glances back at me but doesn’t seem remotely threatened.  I can’t fully decide if this is a good thing.  Two bears, two different kinds of bears, in the course of two minutes.  I feel a bit trapped.  I realize I’m about 10 miles into my 65-mile journey and I’ve now seen 5 bears.  I do the math and don’t feel prepared to see an additional 27 bears if this rate continues.

Mr. Griz starts back along down the path after eating some berries.  I begin verbally profusely apologizing for eating so many of his berries.  I promise him that if he decides not to eat me, I won’t eat any more huckleberries until I’m out of woods, HIS woods.  I realize I’m going to have to follow him down the trail (at a VERY safe distance).  I had gone less than 5 miles of the 16 I needed for the day, and had not yet begun the 3,500 foot ascent.

So I followed Mr. Griz for two long miles, constantly making noise so as to never startle him.  Before you ask, no, I do not have a photo.  I was too busy trying not to shit my pants.  I would like to thank Shakespeare, Broadway and the decade of the nineties for providing me with verses and songs to fill the awkward silence between me and Mr. Griz.  Around Upper Kintla Lake Campground, I rounded a corner and no longer had eyes on my new friend.  This was both what I wanted (him to leave the path so I could continue) and also terrifying (where was he now!?).

I came across a sketchy “one hiker at a time” bridge followed by a steep incline.  I have never been so happy to reach a steep incline, knowing that the higher the elevation, the less likely to find more bear friends.

"One Hiker at a Time"

I found some sunglasses along the trail, hung them on my bag, grateful for signs of civilization, and kept trekking.  After a few more miles, HUMANS.  I saw a bright red shirt at the top of a hill and practically ran to it.  I was so grateful to be able to eat my snack (I was too afraid to pull it out on the trail), and I sat down right in the middle of them and held them all up while I ate.  Turns out the sunglasses belonged to one of the humans.  Their names: Brian, Greg, Chris, Melissa and Renee.  We’d be camping in the same place the next two nights.  They also happened to be the owners of the rental cars Steve and Julie were driving back to the Visitor's Center.

I happily tagged along with them for the rest of the day, getting a bit ahead, either solo or with quicker-paced Brian from time to time (He admitted to be using me for my bear spray protection, his deterrent from getting too far ahead of his group on his own).  The 16 mile day held a snowy crossing, several grandiose views and waterfalls, and a lot of uphill travel.

The sign for the campground was a bit discouraging: a steep descent just to re-ascend in the morning.

But it meant it was time for some well-earned rest.  I seriously struggled to find a stick for my tent pole and I cursed my past self for being so cocky as to leave my old stick behind.  Brian helped me find something suitable, happy to have a justification for bringing his 4-pound Leatherman tool for the saw-blade component.
I passed out before dark.

Day 3: Hole in the Wall to Waterton to Goat Haunt

Thimble Berries and Thunderbird Pond.

I packed up and this time decided to bring my tent-pole stick, no matter how ridiculous it looked.  (Was asked if I caught any fish when not asked, "so what's with the stick?")

I spent most of the day hiking solo.  I thought a lot about my life, what I’m grateful for, what I still need to find.  Above everything, I affirmed my appreciation for being in nature and what that does for me.  This conflicted with my desire to spend more time with my family because the 5 months of sun-less Boston winter just doesn’t fit in nicely with being outside in nature surrounded by sunshine and wildlife.  That constant lonely feeling I struggle with felt comforted and embraced by the natural beauty surrounding me.

And then I broke my promise to Mr. Griz.  I’m sorry, but I’m not sorry.  There were berries everywhere.  My fingers were stained pink and purple from huckleberries, serviceberries and thimbleberries.  I was in berry heaven.



I turned a corner and suddenly, Thunderbird Pond.  I hadn’t been able to see this beautiful body of water during my descent from Brown Pass.  Perhaps because I was distracted by berries, but I believe it was never in view.  And then, there it was, shimmering a deep turquoise. 

Thunderbird Pond with Thunderbird Falls in the background

I don’t have the words to describe being alone at a pristine glacial pond with only the sounds of waterfalls, birds and the rustling of trees in the winds for company.  Pure bliss.  I took off my pack and shoes, sat on a rock at the edge of the water just as the sun made its first appearance of the day, and breathed. This was the highlight of my trip.


After indulging in bliss, I reluctantly set off for Lake Francis, which was majestically beautiful (though I preferred my small Thunderbird Pond).  Took another long break, this time putting my feet in the water.

Lake Francis

I hiked with Brian for the rest of the afternoon, saying a short hello to Lake Janet and crossing another one hiker bridge before heading off towards Waterton Campground. 

A few tenths of a mile before we entered the campground, we experienced the most aggressively terrible mosquito encounter of my life.  It was like a plague.  We practically ran to the campsite, threw off our packs and doused ourselves in DEET.  I am probably getting cancer now.  But I avoided West Nile and Lyme Disease.

A few campers asked if we were headed south, and told us there was a wildfire that had spread and that there was a ranger there earlier looking for anyone headed south.  When the rest of Brian’s crew showed up, we decided to hike the mile over to Goat Haunt Ranger Station to find out more information (and hopefully camp there away from the mosquitos).

Kelsey, the Ranger, was extremely helpful.  She updated us about the fire and explained the Loop Trail was closed, so we needed to exit Highline Trail.  None of my campsites were altered, but Going to the Sun Road was closed from Apgar to Logan Pass, so I was left with the quandary of how to retrieve my car.  There were shelters for camping, and I went to set up my tent.  I broke my stick while in the process.  After carrying it in my pack all day.  Damn.  Fortunately I had a much easier time finding a suitable replacement this time.  I watched an owl stalking prey from a tree branch while I ate dinner.

There was a ferry, and Canadians offloaded, instructed not to go beyond the ranger station unless they had cleared customs.  It seemed I was camping in a weird neutral zone between the US and Canada.  I realized this was the strangest border crossing I’d ever encountered.  On the Canadian side, roads and civilization, and on the American side, trails and wilderness.  Such a strange backcountry/frontcountry experience.

Canada?  Or USA?

After dark, we all laid outside in hopes of catching some of the meteor shower which was peaking that night. I saw several meteors, including one absolutely breathtaking bright streak across the full sky.  I fell asleep happy.

Sunset over Upper Waterton Lake

Day 4: Goat Haunt to Fifty Mountain

The slow, hot, uphill.

I packed up a bit late and said goodbye to Brian and crew.  I set off on a steady pace, through the woods along a narrow overgrown trail.  A hiker I passed told me to take a side trip to Kootenai Lake to see the moose there.  I did so with no regrets, adding less than a mile to my 11-mile day. 

Narrow overgrown trail
A few miles later I took a break at a stream for lunch. 

Beautiful red rocks glistening in the stream.

While I ate by the stream, two extremely weary-looking hikers approached, Jeff and Chad, and asked if I had a map of the campsites.  I leant them mine, and soon they divulged that they were trying to make it all the way out Loop Trail today.  So, they had more than 17 miles to still go.  And they hadn’t heard that Loop Trail was closed. 

I explained to them about the fire, the trail closures, and that they would need to hike 25 miles out Highline Trail if they wanted to get out of the backcountry today.  They were less than thrilled by this news.  Their itinerary went from over-ambitious to nearly impossible.  I offered for them to share my campsite at Fifty Mountain and hike the 20 miles out of the backcountry tomorrow.  They both needed a hug and a bath.  But instead, they got my company.

Though not the most mileage, nor the most elevation gain, this turned out to be my most difficult day.  The sun was hot, shade was scarce, climb was steady, and my new-found companions were… slow.  The trail went through areas that had burned in wildfires the past few years.  So parts of the trail quickly went from this:

To this:

We trudged along with frequent breaks until I decided to push ahead.  I decided not to stop until I reached the top of the climb.  When I did, it was spectacular.  360 views of towering rock walls.  A large, vast span of green meadow.  I put down my pack and played with the echo for a bit.  Stretched, frolicked, and ultimately settled down on a rock for a good 45 minutes of reading until my companions made their way up the hill with stupefied giddy looks of “we made it and it’s pretty” on their faces.

Open clearing outside Fifty Mountain Campground

One flat mile later we made it to Fifty Mountain Campsite, made dinner, shared Snickers and set up camp.  I found the handwritten trail closure signs to be endearing.

Flathead Trail Closure

Jeff and I made tea, and I took a mental snap-shot of the image before us that I knew my camera couldn’t capture.  In the foreground, dead trees and an outhouse.  Behind the trees, a smokey blur of mountains and red-purple sky.  With the haze, it was hard to tell what was mountains and what was clouds.  High above, a sliver of moon.  It always amazes me how much beauty can be found in ugliness.  The ugly smoke of a raging fire can result in an ethereal scene of mystic mountains and skyline.  I went to sleep with this image etched into my eyelids.

Day 5: Fifty Mountain to Granite Park

Smoke and Snow.

I woke up with a thin layer of ash covering my tent.  Chad and Jeff had cleared out early for their 20-mile day.  I had slept in.  Everyone else was already on their way.  I enjoyed the peace.

I didn’t see a soul for nine miles until passing a couple that I camped with the night before.  They commented on my quick pace.  With no berries (much to my dismay), limited views and only 1,800 feet of elevation gain, I was on a mission to get to camp and relax. 

There was a slippery snowy crossing that was exceptionally lovely, despite the smokey haze.  It was very cool to see the rushing water beneath the packed snow.

Streams under snow
If you look closely, you can see my tent-pole stick protruding from my pack.

I made excellent time.  I hiked 12 miles in not much more than 4 hours.  Arrived at Granite Park Campsite to another handwritten trail closure sign.

I made camp and found a place to hang my hammock for a solid 4 hours of reading, writing and napping in the sunshine before eating my last dinner in the woods and retreating to my tent.

Day 6: Granite Park to Logan Pass to Apgar Visitor Center

Crowded trail to empty road.

I had a fitful night’s sleep filled with fits of coughing.  Ash covered my tent.  Ash got into my oatmeal when cooking breakfast.  Ash got into my lungs when I breathed.  I've experienced my share of poor air quality in Colorado during wildfire season, but this was something else.  I was ready to get out of the smoke.  

I was not ready to encounter an endless stream of day-hikers and their lines of questioning about “if I stayed at the Chalet” and “is it less smokey up ahead.”  My demeanor shifted from chipper to irritated fairly quickly as I moved to the side a countless number of times for hikers who clearly had no idea what common courtesy on a trail looks like.

I filled in the smokey views with my imagination and made great time along Highline Trail out Logan Pass.  I thought about how future generations may be experiencing this natural beauty instead through Virtual Reality headsets, and pushed aside my fears about the future of our natural world.

And then I exited the trail, along the continental Divide, out Logan Pass.  I had finished my journey, and didn't see 32 bears as I had feared.  I was weary, but still needed to find a way back to my car.  I spoke to a nice Shuttle Driver who radio-ed to Apgar and told him they would send someone for me.

A woman in pink stepped off a tour bus and walked over to me, asking about my backpack and my journey.  I struggled to be polite and she asked “are you so tired you don’t want to talk right now?  I’m sorry, I’m just so curious.”  I felt a little guilty, gave her about 1 minute of explanation of my trip and explained, yes, I was really too tired to talk.  Really, I just wasn’t ready to be out of the woods yet.  I wasn't ready for crowds and questions, and already missed my solitude.  I found a better place to wait for my ride, and after about 45 minutes, there it was.

They drove me down the closed portion of the Going to the Sun Road from Logan Pass to Apgar Visitor Center.  It was amazing being the only vehicle on a typically highly-trafficked tourist road.  The Howe Ridge Fire was still at 0% containment, and they feared it would continue spreading. They told me they’d be shutting down all the shuttles indefinitely starting tomorrow.

We drove along the closed road, through thick smoke on the east of Lake McDonald.  Before reaching the lake, I saw firefighters along the stream that fed into Lake McDonald pumping water for their efforts.  We passed empty campgrounds, empty look-out spots, and a parking lot filled with firefighting vehicles, a home-base of sorts that made me think of a war camp.  I chatted with the driver and he told me about past fires in the park.  I made the realization that my own state of Colorado likely had fires currently burning that I was unaware of.  We talked about wildfires and the tricky balance between letting them burn and putting them out. 

The driver asked me about all the wildlife I had seen: black bears and a grizzly bear, moose, deer, otter, marmots (they're funny colored up that far north!), a bald eagle, osprey, loon, ptarmigan, owl, hummingbirds, a snake (I was extremely not thrilled when it wasn't just a squiggly stick) and many overly friendly chipmunks.

And then we were back at the Visitor Center.  I spoke to the shuttle services about my concerns for Brian’s crew coming out the next day and they got contact information from me.  (They ended up actually doing a 20-mile day to come out the same day as me and get out of the smoke.)

I immediately started driving towards Boulder.  It would be another day and half, three red bulls, and two tanks of gas before I showered and slept in a real bed.  And started dreaming about my next adventure... Europe...

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