A Day in Grizzly Country

My best adventure stories usually start with bad decisions. As lightning strikes  around us I can’t help but think that we should have stayed home. The forecast called for severe thunderstorms but that didn’t deter our ambitions. We’re headed into Grizzly Wide Pass in the heart of the wild and globally significant Flathead Valley. The tiny guides trail through an old growth Spruce Forest has become a stream as hail pelts our Gore-Tex. Further up, the trail becomes less wet and animal prints become visible in the mud. A perfect grizzly print lies beside a wolf imprint.

I’m in the lead. Davey, my brother, is following close behind – Wyatt, my cousin, rounds out the group. Earlier in the day, while the sky was still blue, we ran into a grizzly and two small cubs. The sow’s dark brown eyes glimmered in the morning light as she examined our presence. We went our separate ways and the less intelligent creature (us) walked directly into the gloomy clouds.

As the storm subsides we stop for a lunch of Cliff bars, huckleberries, and thimbleberries. Thirty minutes later we’re halfway up the meadow. Avalanche paths, ripe berries, and an extremely diverse blooming plant community make this prime grizzly bear habitat. The Flathead Valley has one of the densest populations of Grizzlies in continental North America.

I can sense the nervousness coming from Wyatt as he leads the way into the Subalpine. He’s not accustomed to being in grizzly country. But for whatever reason, he’s quickly separating himself from the group as we climb elevation. We pass a creek. Wyatt is 40 feet ahead of me. Davey’s low pitched but excited voice interrupts the silence, “Wyatt, there’s a grizzly right there.”

Wyatt instinctively sprints back down down the trail without even looking upslope. His facial expression is one of sheer terror.

The Grizzly is 90 meters above us. Her golden brown fur illuminates the Sub-Alpine. As she digs up a glacier lily we notice her two large golden brown cubs are ahead of her further along the slope. The cubs are probably 2 to 3 years old. The sow looks angry. As the big sow stares downslope in our direction I fumbled to grab my camera in my backpack. I also find my bear spray – I grab it.

Suddenly she’s charging downslope towards us. With every stride she makes in our direction, my body tenses up. My wet and sweaty finger nervously twitches on the bear spray safety.

After 20 or 30 meters she stops. It’s only been a few seconds but the increased intensity of the situation makes it feel a lot longer.

She looks around then charges uphill. For the next 30 seconds she charges in all directions. She’s graceful, ferocious, and agitated.

After a few minutes they begin traversing across the ridge. The two cubs leading the way and the mother protectively follows behind.

We wait and scan the ridge. Five minutes later the cubs and the sow become distant spots in the SubAlpine as they travel North along a treed ridge.

I look to see if I got any decent photos of the bears – they’re all terrible. My camera lens was soaked… As I’m cursing my disappointing photography a black coloured grizzly appears in the same spot where the sow and cubs were minutes ago. His snout is raised as he sniffs out the path the three bears took. He moves with a purpose, his hump is distinctive, his dark brown and black fur is soaking wet from the storm. The big boar grizzly is most likely looking to initiate mating with the sow. If he catches the cubs they will be killed.

The cubs are large and quick enough that they will likely be able to outrun the boar. Another likely scenario is that the Sow will communicate to the cubs that they have to go. The mother will essentially release the two cubs due to the impending threat.

The big boar soon becomes a distant spot in the Subalpine. He’s following the exact path that the sow and two cubs took.

We hike further up the trail and pass fresh bear sign and glowing Alpine Larches. Grizzly Wide Pass is waiting. Long Knife Peak towers in front of us. Its glacier rapidly disappearing. Further along the trail we look on in awe as the Montana’s Livingstone Range unfolds in front of us. A storm is brewing and we don’t stay too long.

As we descend down from Grizzly Wide Pass into Grizzly Gulch, lightning once again steals the mid afternoon sky. Hail pounds our Gore-Tex and wind chills our bones. The storm clears. Rain lightly serenades the ground. The cumulonimbus cloud appears in the distance, two rainbows dance in the foreground amid lush glacier carved slopes and a sharp rock face. It was the perfect end to a perfect day in the “grizzly country” of the globally significant Flathead Valley.