Braving the Bears in Montana

7 07 2014

“Your free Companion Fare is about to expire,” the automated email warned me.

“What? I didn’t realize that we had a free flight still waiting for us.”

campground vista 3We had just cached in some frequent flyer miles to book a trip to Utah for this fall, so planning another trip was not quite on my radar. I logged on and confirmed, and, sure enough, we had earned a free flight, but the catch was that it had to be redeemed by July 31st, and it was already the end of May.


Initially, I wrote it off as a loss. I told my wife about the unfortunate timing, as we started planning our camping trip to southern Indiana for the week of July fourth, which I had requested off from work. It was only May, but it was already muggy and in the 80s-90s most days. I was starting to wonder what I had done by moving from Michigan to Indiana, as I wiped sweat from my face while planting seeds.


“Honey,” Bethany said slowly, in that tone that says, “Um, DUH!?!”

“What if we used that free flight to go someplace cooler for our fourth of July trip? You know it’s not going to be very much fun tent camping if it’s this hot, right?”


GENIUS! I knew I married her for a reason. We talked about a few options. We could go visit our friend Misa in Marquette, MI. We could explore Vermont. We could try Canada (nope, not valid for international travel). “Hey, I know, let’s go see Glacier National Park!” we finally realized together.glacier np


Immediately we dove into our research. Bears? Check. Camping? Hmmm, I’m not sure. AirBnB? There were some in Whitefish, about an hour drive away from the west side of the park, but they were almost as expensive as the hotels near the park. Our friends emailed us lengthy messages about the hikes they recommended, and gave us contact info for at least 2 different parents who live in Montana. When it came right down to it, we booked a pretty short trip- Sunday-Thursday- and decided to risk camping in bear country so we wouldn’t waste time driving in and out of the 1.2million acre park.


Bear-SignWe arrived on Sunday after driving up from Missoula, about 2 hours south. The skies were growing dark as we entered the national park, but the sun was still shining in the foreground. The infamous Going-To-The-Sun-Road was closed about 18 miles from the west entry, but we knew we wanted to explore this side first, in order to rent bear spray. You see, bear spray is highly recommended in the park. It is basically pepper spray on steroids, and costs $50 per bottle. You cannot fly with it, and so if you buy it, you then wear it on your hip holster for a week, hopefully never use it, then throw it away before you get on your plane. Thankfully, a lovely young couple recognized the insanity of this waste, and they started renting the spray for $5 per day.


We found the bear spray rental kiosk easily and rented our bear spray, just one for themcdonald lake two of us, since we knew we would be inseparable. Then we walked a few  hundred feet to overlook the south side of Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park. It was gorgeous; the water was a deep blue-green, growing darker in the distance before butting up against the snow capped mountains and the dark, stormy sky in the distance. We drove as far as we could up Going-To-The-Sun-Road, but the charcoal clouds had begun to weep down on us, so we did not get out to hike. We scoped out possible trailheads, then drove 1-½ hours down around the south end of the park to get to the east side, where our campsite was


By the time we got to St. Mary’s campground, it was sunny and dry. We set up our tent, prepared for the next day, and set out to explore our home for the week. We quickly saw a red 1971 VW bus, and immediately made some friends. They were on a family adventure, reuniting from Washington, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. They arrived just a day before we did, and we asked about their hikes earlier that day. “Well, we didn’t go too far, but in the first mile we saw two grizzly bears.”

“What?!?” I asked incredulously. Yeah, they saw a bear. Not just a bear. A GRIZZLY, and then another one, mere miles from our tent.


20009_YBtfg_St_Mary_Campground_mdWhen we checked in with our local park ranger, they informed us that there had also been multiple brown bear sightings IN our campground. We were camping in loop B, and loop A was closed due to recent flooding. Loop C is the one where most of the RV campers were, and that is where the bear sightings have been spotted. Bethany and I had spent weeks researching how to hike in the woods to avoid bear encounters. We were reassured that it wasn’t really going to be an issue near our tent, as long as we put away our food, and they even provided bear boxes in the campground to make it easier. Knowing that there had been bear sightings brought all of those initial fears boiling to the surface.


“So, when we go to sleep,” I asked our new friends, “if we have to get up in the middle of the night to go pee, what do we do to keep the bears away?” Do we clap our hands and make noise, and wake up all the neighboring campers? Do we shine bright lights? Will the bear think he’s about to be abducted by aliens, or think the food train is coming? Nobody knew the right answer.

This was our worst nightmare!

This was our worst nightmare!


That first night we slept a little uneasy. There was only a thin layer of fabric between us and the bears. What if they smelled the bug spray on our tent and thought it was a flower? What if I got up in the middle of the night, unzipped my side of the tent, and found myself face-to-face with a bear? Bethany and I made a pact to wake each other up and go to the bathrooms as a pair. Better safe than sorry.


The stars were amazing. The sky was dark with a new moon, and the regular set of city stars were set against a backdrop of thousands of dimly lit backup singers.I barely paused to stare at them, cold from the 45 degree chill, and mostly too afraid of bears to linger. By the morning, I regretted not staring up at the sky a little longer. The sun rose before 6am. We pulled out our jetboil, made some hot tea, grabbed a few bars, and were on our way by 7:30am.


wildflowers on trailOur first day of hiking was intended as an acclimation hike. We planned for a waterfall loop, pretty easy terrain with rich rewards. We first hiked down 0.3 miles from the road to Baring Falls, then headed out along a path that rims St. Mary’s Lake. The path was quiet, but densely packed with wildflowers in every color. They were in full bloom, and I stopped frequently to take macro photos of each unique blossom. The mountains in the background kept changing as we hiked, and our vista of the lake below was lovely. We practiced our rhythmic shouting of, “Hey Bear!” as we were told.falls victoria2


bear printLess than an hour out, Bethany stopped dead in her tracks. “Kelly, I think this is a bear print,” she said in a calm but scared voice. I looked down, and, sure enough, she was right. A brown bear, I think. We paused for a moment and debated what we should do. Do we turn back? Continue? How fresh was it’s muddy path?


We resolved to continue on, but to ensure that there were no unexpected bear surprises, I began to sing. I sang every song that I could think of. It’s surprising, at that altitude, how difficult a time your brain has remembering those thousands of songs that you used to know word for word. I struggled to simply remember the choruses of golden oldies. We quickly settled in on a fun pattern of parodies. I took the song, “Hey Jude” by the Beatles, and we changed the lyrics to reflect our current situation. Through the entire 7 hours of hiking we did that day, the lyrics continued to evolve.


Hey, Bear,k river falls

Go over there.

Take a sad walk, and get on going.

Remember, we’re only here for the view,

We don’t want to see you,

Hey, Bear,

Hey Bear.

It must have worked. Either the bears heard us coming, or they were so offended by our singing that they ran the other direction and warned the others. Either way, we slept a whole lot better that night, realizing how close we had come, and that we succeeded in warding off the bears.wildflowers river below yellow flower cluster white flower cone closed-because-the-bear-ate-the-sign-perhaps IMG_3806




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