Meeting A Large Animal On a Trail Quickly Puts The World In Perspective
Hiking, backpacking and rustic camping in the national forests in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan had prepared me somewhat for hiking in Montana’s Glacier National Park. I thought I was ready to encounter any sort of wild animal in the park. Throw them at me, we had our bear spray! Knowing about the large animals in the park, I was not prepared for how exposed you can feel while hiking. Going-to-the-Sun Road, which takes visitors from one part of the park to another in a heady, twisting drive through the mountains, had opened the day before. We were one of the first park visitors of the season to cross the park on this scenic road. Because another road had been closed temporarily, where we ended up choosing as our first solo hike was desolate and quiet, but very beautiful.
As we started on this first hike, we saw for the first time the sign “You Are Now Entering Grizzly Country.” Seeing this sign and the warnings attached to it was very humbling to us. As we started walking and observing nature, we noticed all the signs of bear activity that were listed. Mushroom clumps overturned, fresh claw marks in tree trunks and huge piles of bear scat, not something you easily miss, or mistake for something else. We started getting uneasy feelings about a mile into the hike, so we turned around and left that area, somewhat reluctantly, but we knew that no one was around, and that the animals probably also knew this. We were not ready to meet a grizzly face to face.
After driving back into the park, we came across a six mile hike up to a lake that sounded promising. It was mid-afternoon, but we figured we could complete it by the time it started getting dark. We proceeded to hike up, and up, and up. To get to the lake, we had to climb this small mountain! The elevation was getting to us a little bit, with breathing definitely getting harder as time went on. That was my first experience with being physically affected, though I had been in higher elevations before, with no issue. We must have seemed like out-of-shape athletes to the extended family who marched by us en route with big smiles on all their faces and hiking sticks in hand. Even the grandfather was cheerfully singing as he gallivanted past us, oblivious to our sweat and concentration on each step.
When the trail opened up to the lake, our two hour vertical climb was well worth it. The exertion now over, we marveled at the breathtaking beauty of the mountains in front of us and the lake below us. We got to the lakeshore, and became temporarily enamored with a friendly little chipmunk who knew he had us at the first peanut. We stayed for a bit there, but reluctantly knew we had to start back in order to get back before it got dark. Even though this was a well-marked popular trail, because the park had essentially just begun its summer season, there were not many people on the trail.
We started our downward journey, not realizing that it may be just as treacherous going down as it was going up. I think we stopped a lot to take pictures, as the lighting was becoming quite perfect. I indulged myself by taking a lot of macro shots of plants, flowers and mushrooms.
Upon hearing horses calling to each other, we knew we were getting close to the end, because there was a horse barn located by the beginning of the trail. I think I remember seeing the barn in the next few minutes, but it all blends together. Darren was in front of me, and the following events happened simultaneously. We were stopped in our tracks because after looking down at the ground, he started commenting on the giant cat print he was seeing in the dirt, we looked up and we could see a giant cat about 30 yards in front of us, walking stealthily away from us. We stood frozen in the spot.
Never have I been more scared, yet so in awe of this fabulous mountain lion before us! It was like being at a zoo, but there was no barrier between us and it. We tried to remember everything we were supposed to do. He grabbed the spray and started yelling. I grabbed two large rocks and we stood there watching it saunter off to the left, where we were supposed to be heading. After about five minutes, we knew we had to leave, so we started walking quickly while singing and shouting. As the trail opened up onto the main road, there were hotel guests milling about, and people driving and walking by as if there was not an attack threat within a very short distance! It was a surreal moment as we blinked and tried to acclimate ourselves to the world again. Needless to say, this was our story we took home with us and we can’t wait to go back.