Tony Perrottet discovers there are bears out there as he ventures to a historic hikers’ chalet in Montana’s Glacier National Park
BEAR attack stories are told so often in Montana that they take on a fairytale quality. That is, until you hoist a pack on your shoulders, step into the back country of Glacier National Park and walk straight into an official warning sign that shouts (in capital letters): Entering grizzly country.
There’s something about the illustration of a cranky-looking bear at a lonely mountain trail head, combined with the reiteration of the park’s No 1 rule (don’t hike alone) that gets under your skin, especially if you are alone, as I am, in the vicinity of the most notorious bear attack in US history.
My right hand creeps involuntarily down to the bear repellent hanging on my hip like a six-shooter. It’s a canister of mace-like pepper gas. Experienced hikers are divided as to its effectiveness: although it sprays a blinding cascade for 7m, it works only if you hit the bear right in the eyes and the wind doesn’t blow the gas back into your face.
I try not to think about the dreaded night of the grizzlies, back in 1967.
Up until then, there had never been a bear fatality in the park — founded in 1910 — despite the growing number of hikers encroaching on grizzly habitats. But just after midnight on August 13, 1967, two bears attacked without warning at campsites only 15km apart.
One broke into the tent at Trout Lodge and disembowelled a sleeping camper; an hour later, a different grizzly went wild at the so-called granite camp ground, killing one woman and mauling a young man. During the next 20 years, another 10 people died at Glacier in grizzly attacks.
‘‘ Don’t worry,’’ adds the park ranger who has recounted this cheery tale. ‘‘ We only get an average of two bear maulings in Glacier a year now. Rarely fatal.’’
This is great news, given the huge number of visitors who come to the park; great for all but two people, I suppose. The second attack in 1967 took place just below the mountain refuge I am hiking towards, the historic Granite Chalet, a 1914 edifice, truly antique for the American west.
It was built by the Great Northern Railway as one of 18 back-country chalets in the park, used by wealthy eastern Americans and English on horseback tours of the Rocky Mountains. Just two of the structures survive and they can be reached only on foot.
I elect to stay in the most perfectly situated, which lies at the end of a rugged 11km trail on the knife-edge of the continental divide.
The accommodation is rustic chic dorm style and, yes, it’s BYO food (at least blankets are provided).
As I tread cautiously around the edges of sheer precipices, the spectacular alpine scenery of the Highline Trail makes me forget all about grizzlies . . . well, almost. About 30 minutes later I hear a rustle in the bushes beside the trail, whip out my bear spray and face . . . a very large, brown squirrel. Am I hyperventilating or is it just the crystal mountain air? THE solitude is hard to imagine as I drive into Glacier National Park on the Going-tothe-Sun Road. This precarious route, barely wide enough for two-lane traffic, was tortuously carved through the park during the Depression. It quickly became famous as one of the world’s most scenic roads, offering a sense of drama that outstrips almost anything in the US Rockies.
Today, Going-to-the-Sun is still a highway to the American Shangri-La, with stunning vistas at every turn. The catch is that, in summer, they often have to be appreciated in bumper-to-bumper traffic. But in true American style, fewer than 2 per cent of visitors to Glacier leave the roadside.
No sooner have I set off to hike the Highline Trail than my only company is a trio of staring mountain goats.
Summer arrives late in Glacier and I find myself crossing ravines of snow as well as fields of lush yellow glacier lilies. Every twist of the trail reveals another raw spire of granite, confirming why this is considered by aficionados to be the premier park in the US Rockies. Although I still grasp my bear spray for dear life, and sing every song I can think of to warn lurking grizzlies of my approach, I know I’m not in too much danger. The real risk with bears is if you accidentally surprise them, and I am above the alpine tree line so they can see me coming from a distance. It’s in the pine forests of the park that most attacks tend to occur.
Still, after three hours of solid hiking, I feel a definite sense of relief when I spot Granite Chalet on a distant ridge. It is framed superbly by a ring of jagged, snow-covered mountain peaks, with a trail of smoke rising from its chimney, looking like a haunted cottage from the Brothers Grimm.
When I stagger on to the front porch, a
couple of hikers are nursing coffee cups and enjoying 270-degree vistas, almost absurdly picturesque views of Heavens Peak. From here you can watch rain systems drift back and forth across the valley far below, shooting bolts of lightning into a bed of green.
It is obvious why the chalet has been named a national historic landmark: in this isolation, it feels as ancient and stately as a Scottish castle. Generations of American hikers have also made it as comfortable and well-worn as a favourite set of boots. The communal kitchen has been efficiently organised to combat the chalet’s twin threats, fire and mice, and is a hive of activity with the dozen or so guests. I have a corner room upstairs, with a choice of four bunks, each with a better view than the last.
I have signed up to stay for three nights, so soon work out the chalet schedule. By day, everyone heads out hiking into the wilds, reaching remote wonders such as Grinnell Glacier, a river of blue ice that forces its way through the continental divide. After dark, everyone unwinds by the log fire, recounting their adventures and, more important, trading bear tales.
‘‘ Oh yeah, the night of the grizzlies,’’ recalls one sun-bronzed Montanan woman on my first night; she speaks with deep authority because she lives in Whitefish, a stone’s throw from the park. ‘‘ On that particular evening, guests staying here were woken by screaming in the campsite down below us. The chalet was turned into a makeshift hospital.’’
I haven’t brought a torch for my trip to the outhouse but it isn’t necessary: a full moon lights up the entire valley. Still, there is a spring in my step as I hurry past armies of imaginary predators. WHEN the locals are not talking about being torn apart by wild animals, they are talking about fires; specifically the 2003 conflagration that ravaged the park and almost consumed the chalet.
In the 1950s, fire lookouts were set up throughout the west and certain Americans with hermit-like tendencies signed up to reside in them all summer. (Perhaps the most famous fire-watcher was Jack Kerouac, who spent a season at the job in 1956 and turned out Desolation Angels .)
On my second morning at Glacier, I decide to hike to Swiftcurrent Lookout, where a ‘‘ lady schoolteacher’’ has apparently stayed every summer for 10 years. It seems an utterly remote refuge, looming high on Heaven’s Peak, and even though wild weather has set in, I set off through gale-force winds.
‘‘ If you’re not back in eight hours,’’ the Montanan woman says cheerily as I step out the door, ‘‘ we’ll eat your food.’’
Along the way, the wind buffets me left and right; first rain hits, then freezing sleet. I begin to feel like Frodo trudging up Mt Mordor. When I finally reach the peak, the teacher is nowhere to be seen and her glass-walled lookout, designed like a crystal lunar module, is locked up. Perhaps the storm has convinced her she should take a well-earned break. All I can do is sign the waterproof guestbook, read the thermometer — 0C, a fine summer temperature for this altitude — and drink in another stunning view.
While rejoicing in all this primeval emptiness, it’s tempting to assume it has been a wilderness since time immemorial. But, like all western national parks, Glacier hasn’t always been uninhabited. Until the park was declared in 1910, it was the exclusive preserve of the Blackfeet.
Before I set off to Glacier, a Native American elder named Curley Bear Wagner at the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, Montana, filled me in on the park’s true history. In 1805, the Blackfeet guided the first white explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, across this part of the west.
‘‘ Our first sally in the tourist industry,’’ Wagner says, laughing wryly.
By treaty, the northern half of what is now Montana was marked off as their reservation. But in the 1880s, eastern outdoor lovers discovered the natural beauty of these far northern mountains, while a series of harsh winters led to the starvation of 600 Native Americans. The US government made the Blackfeet an offer they couldn’t refuse and bought the land that became Glacier National Park for $US1.5 million. The Blackfeet’s hunting and fishing rights were quickly curtailed as environmentally damaging. Today they live in the hot, sparse plains to the east of the park boundary.
‘‘ We were upset about selling the mountains,’’ Wagner says. ‘‘ We were always told that they were sacred. We go up to fast and pray and gather roots. Four young people are fasting up there right now. We don’t hike, though,’’ he adds. ‘‘ No fooling around.’’
Sacred land? I venture. Not wanting to offend the spirits of the region?
‘‘ Hell, no. We’re afraid of the grizzly.’’
The best jumping-off point for a park visit is the picturesque town of Whitefish, near Glacier Park international airport. The Grouse Mountain Lodge is a sprawling but comfortable place to stay. More: www.grmtlodge.com. There are several hotels within Glacier National Park, including the well-located Resort at Glacier in St Mary. More: www.glcpark.com. Glacier’s other historic hikers’ hostel is Sperry Chalet. More: www.sperrychalet.com. www.nps.gov/glac www.graniteparkchalet.com
Bear essentials: They may look cute when young but grizzlies are best avoided in the wild