Backpacking in Glacier, the rules are a bit different. My buddy Justin and I found this out during a recent, late summer trip into the park’s 1 million acres.
WEST GLACIER, Mont. — When someone tells you they spotted a 750-pound grizzly bear lurking around the same trail you are strolling, the typical response is to turn and head in the opposite direction.
But backpacking in Glacier National Park, the rules are a bit different.
My buddy Justin and I found this out during a recent, late summer trip into the park’s 1 million acres.
Planning for the excursion started in March, when Glacier typically opens the application process for backcountry camping. A confirmation email arrived a month later with our itinerary: five days in the heart of the park, up and over Gunsight Pass, past several postcard alpine lakes and down the gladed and ever-popular Sperry Trail.
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The first night’s camping spot, at Gunsight Lake, required a 6-mile jaunt from Going-to-the-Sun Road, so in order to avoid hiking with our headlamps, Justin and I loaded the car with our packs — stuffed to the brim with clothes, food and bear spray — and left Bozeman at 4 a.m.
We arrived at the park’s backcountry office, where we were shown a video about proper camping etiquette. The video, reminiscent of those strangely dated and dramatically narrated films shown in high-school driver’s ed classes, advised us, among other things, to “bring clothes for all kinds of weather” and “watch out for fast-moving water.” Yeah, yeah, duh, we get it.
After the video, a National Park Service employee noted that there had been a slight change to our itinerary. Apparently a grizzly decided to take up residence near the site on Lake Ellen Wilson, he said, so it would be best if we didn’t encase ourselves in a bear-sized nylon burrito in that particular location.
Loaded with newfound tips and 50-pound packs, we set off down the trail toward Gunsight. The sun was out and spirits were high as we rounded the first bend, using the tried-and-true bear repelling technique, which consisted of clapping our hands and saying “Hey bear,” as if the 1,000-pound carnivore is a casual acquaintance whose attention you’re trying to get at the adjacent supermarket checkout line.
The technique, it turned out, was not effective at long range. A river stretched out through the valley to our left, and across it I spotted a moving brown shape. The bear ambled along the water’s edge, wholly unconcerned with the two sweaty humans holding their breath several hundred yards away, before disappearing into the brush.
Justin turned to me. “It’s not too late to go home,” he said. “I can still see the car.”
After a quick team talk, we decided that, no, the car was too far and we would have to forge on. But as we continued along the trail, our “Hey bears” were noticeably louder.
Around midafternoon we arrived at our campsite at Gunsight Lake, one of more than 700 in the park, and set about bear-proofing our gear. This meant hanging all our food and stoves, as well as any clothes we used to cook in or that might smell of food. Sleeping in food-scented clothes this time of year, we were told, is like advertising yourself as a human Hot Pocket.
The process was surprisingly time-consuming — hang things, put up tent, take things down for cooking, change into uncontaminated clothes, rehang everything — and was made more frustrating by the rain, which, as night fell, began to pour down.
Curled up under the protection of our tent, ready for bed at 7:14 p.m., we reflected on the water dripping down the rain fly. It would let up, we concluded. The forecast for the next few days showed mostly clear skies. It couldn’t last.
But we awoke to the dreaded sound of droplets pitter-pattering off the tent’s exterior. After dressing in increasingly wet clothes, we headed out to hike the pass, which loomed forbiddingly in the clouds.
At around 7,000 feet, Gunsight Pass separates Gunsight Mountain and Mount Jackson and provides a bridge between Gunsight Lake and Lake Ellen Wilson, two of the park’s more photogenic waters.
The climb was abrupt and jarring, full of switchbacks and steep drop-offs, and as soon as we approached the pass, the weather worsened. The wind picked up and threw a mixture of hail and sleet sideways at our numbing limbs and faces. Despite our best protective efforts, which included a combination of Gore-Tex, duct tape and trash bags, we arrived at the pass shelter soaked and frozen.
Out of the deafening maelstrom, we sat in silence, trying to warm ourselves in the cabin’s stone interior.
“Maybe it’s just like this on the pass,” Justin offered, wringing brown water out of his gloves.
“Yeah, probably just a summer storm,” I agreed, trying to regain enough feeling in my fingers to shovel a handful of trail mix.
The weather did break slightly as we descended toward Ellen Wilson, enough to catch glimpses of the towering rock walls surrounding the lake. The mountains, we later learned, formed out of dirt from the bottom of an inland ocean, the Belt Sea, which stretched across the northwestern United States 1.6 billion years ago.
On our way down, we crossed paths with a lone hiker who warned us about a grizzly he had come face to face with on the trail an hour earlier. It was a big one, he said — remarkably calm for a man who had just stared down death — and it didn’t want to move. We nodded like this was the most normal thing in the world, thanked the hiker and headed straight toward where he indicated the bear to be, our nervous clapping echoing along the rock walls.
We hiked the length of the lake, but other than a handful of hubcap-sized piles of scat, saw no sign of the grizzly. The rain, which had so briefly let up, started again and Justin wondered aloud if death by mauling would really be that bad.
By the time we reached the Sperry campsite, our bags were completely drenched. Both the tent and sleeping bags had soaked up the majority, but the water had somehow seeped through the plastic bags containing our sleeping clothes. We made camp in the smallest puddle we could find, hastily hung the food (Can bears smell anything in a flood?) and collapsed into the tent. As we tried to sleep through the thunder of nearby rockslides, we took comfort from the fact that things couldn’t possibly get worse.
The next morning the pitter-pattering on the tent had a different tune, and looking outside it was clear why. An inch of hail and snow covered the ground around the tent, sloughing off the sides of the beleaguered rain fly. We lay in silence, as had become our custom, savoring the dry illusion of the tent. To make matters worse, all our clothes for hiking, contaminated by food smells, were hanging — per Park Service guidelines — from a metal pole 500 yards from the tent.
I suggested to Justin that he tie the remaining summer sausage to the tent and leave me for the animals, but he vetoed the idea as the meat was local and had cost $10.
Instead, we squished into our clothes and boots and headed to the nearby chalet, where we spent the next few hours huddled up beside a wood stove, eliciting furtive glances and concerned murmurs from guests.
We still had two nights of permitted camping, but it had been raining for the better part of three days, and if it didn’t stop, we decided we would tuck tail, hike the final 10 miles to Lake McDonald and drive back to Bozeman. This time when we left the chalet, we said nothing about things getting worse.
Built in 1913, the chalet sits just below Sperry Glacier, one of 25 named glaciers within park boundaries, most of which are shrinking due to climate change. As we descended, we passed the trail leading visitors up to the snowy mass, which in 15 years scientists predict will no longer exist.
The weather was still spotty as we came to our final resting place, Snyder Lakes: a pair of wooded pools that look down over Lake McDonald. Strong wind and lashing rain had brought down a few trees along the trail, and as we strung up the food and got into the tent, we expected to hear the maddening tattoo of rain against fabric. But for the first time since we entered the park, it never came.
The next morning, we emerged from the tent with the timidity of two newborn fawns. While we made breakfast — sure to keep all food stuffs in their designated area — the clouds above us cracked open. A lone beam of sunlight made its way through the trees and we followed it, huddling in the tiny pool of warmth.
Five days, 26 miles, biblical downpours and finally a ray of sunshine. Justin looked over at me, steam rising from his waterlogged pants.