GRIZ­ZLY BUSI­NESS

Tony Per­rot­tet dis­cov­ers there are bears out there as he ven­tures to a his­toric hik­ers’ chalet in Mon­tana’s Glacier Na­tional Park

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.’’

Check­list

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

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