by Kevin McClane
A few weeks ago, on a day like many other days, I decided to use some of my spare time to drive up into the Beartooths. This particular drive lead me past Greenough Lake and up towards the Glacier Lake trailhead. I’ve been out there many times and always see something different. Along the dirt road I noticed what seemed to be a trailhead that I had either never hiked or just plain forgot about, so I pulled over to investigate the area. Something seemed to be calling out, and when I sense these kinds of things I try my best to listen. But this time I didn’t listen well enough.
In my haste to explore, I left my car not thinking about how long I’d be gone or how far I would go. Meandering within just a few yards of the car wouldn’t warrant much gear, but any further than that and I would want more supplies. I figured I’d want to bring my satchel. It carries my drink, granola bars, camera, art history book, and a clipboard complete with paper and pencil. Needless to say, I had many options of what to do out there. I slung my satchel and camera around opposite shoulders, locked my car doors, and set off on a journey that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
After a few yards of walking up the assumed trailhead I came upon the campsite it actually lead to. It was a pleasant secluded where it would be nice to spend a night or two, or even day camp. Swell find, but at that moment it didn’t really seem like what I was there to discover. I proceeded up and to the right, crested a small hill, and found a shallow pond on the other side. The water was fairly clear, and stagnant. Tall reeds surrounded it, reaching up out of the marshy land. Moose country. Maybe that was it. Maybe I was to photograph the mighty moose and tell stories of the experience. That was my youthful optimism at play. I trekked to the other side of the pond, and along the way confirmed my initial thought. There were many piles of moose droppings, new and old. I became more alert and cautious. There are few things more dangerous than a cow moose doing what she deems necessary to protect her young. I also turned my camera on – ready to snap a photograph at a moment’s notice – and continued along.
My feet guided me down game trails, treading until I felt the urge to follow another path, taking me in a single generalized direction. More than one hundred yards east of my car, and close to a mile south, I wandered, all the while keeping in mind the significance of where I was in respect to my car. Other than scat, broken sticks, and a few tracks, there was no sign of any animal larger than a bird. I turned the camera off. Perhaps this wasn’t the day to capture that picture. But I still hadn’t found what I set out to find, admittedly not knowing what it was I was looking for. “It’s around here somewhere…” kept echoing in my mind as I continued on. Then, suddenly I caught a glimpse of a large dark object moving through the trees around 35 yards away.
Moose?! I grabbed for the camera as my eyes adjusted on the mysterious creature. It was a black bear. Not terribly old and not terribly young either – anywhere from 350-400 pounds. I took a hastened photo, realized the bear hadn’t noticed me and took another zoomed-in photo. As I took the second shot the bear turned its broad shoulders and looked directly at me. It stayed calm and I grasped for my bear mace. My hand bumped my hip, where the mace should have been. I had forgotten it in the back seat of the car.
What an idiot.
We couldn’t help but to lock eyes for what seemed like an eternity. Then, two bouncing bundles of bear cub tumbled into view, behind what I knew then to be momma bear. A sudden deep respect and fear enveloped me, as I told myself I could not panic. My heart started to race and adrenaline started to work its way through my body. I had to leave. My first steps were backwards as I clutched the stick I had picked up earlier to assist walking. Sure, the weak old limb would do little in my defense, but it still gave me modest assurance as a weapon.
A few steps back, mom didn’t move. A few more steps, my foot struck a group of dry twigs, snapping several. It not only disturbed the silence, but disturbed mom also. With an oppressive snarl, she lunged down towards me. A vast amount of effort went into not doing something irrational, such as running frantically off into the woods arms in the air or, worse yet, trying to fight her. But what could I do? She was charging me. I couldn’t climb a tree because, for one, I hadn’t the time, and, more importantly, she was a black bear. She can climb trees. I knew though that if I could put enough distance between myself and her cubs, momma would likely leave me alone. Why would she get into an unnecessary quarrel if she no longer felt her young ones were threatened? So I whipped around and headed back in the direction of the road, as un-franticly and as swiftly as I could. My pace quickened as I heard her gaining ground on me, flanking me to the right. The underbrush did little to slow her as she burst through it, her threatening grunts reverberating through my being. It was hard not to look over my shoulder to see if she was indeed as near as she felt, and she was. Visions of my own mauling began to dart through my mind. What an idiot!
I was going to die. In the forest. Alone. After getting torn apart by that sow. I had told no one where I was going or what I was doing. Couldn’t I call someone? Well, it would have to have been after my mauling was over to even have time to make a call. Though there was no service and my phone had no minutes, I still could have called 911. But I would have to be capable of operating the device, and who knows if I’d even have a hand left. There’s too much to lose and there’s too much left undone. I could not die on that day. Not there, not then.
The sight and sound of the perturbed mother subsided, and all I could hear were the resonances of my beating heart and shallow breath. Slowing down I peered back into the trees, trying to spot her again. I knew she was still there, watching, waiting for me to leave. And I did. I worked my way back to the car and drove away contemplating, to my own relief, what had just occurred. I had found what I sought: a photo, a story, and something different.