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    Required Reading | January 16, 2015

    Required Reading: Books That Changed Us

    We tend to think of reading as a cerebral endeavor, but every once in a while, it can spur action. The following books — ranging from... Continue »

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Before They're Gone: A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks


Before They're Gone: A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks Cover




Chapter 6: The Backbone of the World

August 2010

We hear the menacing snarls and let our eyes trace the sound to its

source. Just a few hundred feet below where we stand at 7,050-foot Lincoln

Pass in Montana’s Glacier National Park, two grizzly bear cubs tussle

playfully where this open, rocky mountainside meets a sparse conifer

forest. Vigilantly close by, their mom vacuums her nose over the ground,

searching for tidbits. A plus-size lady, she has a weight lifter’s physique

atop hips and legs that might cause a self-conscious bear to frown at her

reflection in a lake. But she moves like a four-hundred-pound ballet

dancer, hinting at speed and power that we cannot fathom.

Seeing her arouses a feeling so primal that few words even form in

our minds or emerge from our mouths. Our skin prickles, our throats

turn to sandpaper. If we possessed ears that normally drooped down,

at this moment they would stand straight up. If we had the option, we

would dive without further contemplation into a claustrophobic burrow

and cower for a long time.

But we have no burrow. And the bears are just four or five steps off

the trail we have to descend.

As any backpacker or armchair adventurer understands, this represents

the worst possible circumstance. A grizzly bear alone might normally

flee from the sounds and odors of humans, probably before the

people even realized a bear lurked nearby. But other than a polar bear, a griz sow with cubs is arguably the most fearsome, ferocious terrestrial

beast in the Americas. She may perceive any sizable creature in her vicinity

as a threat to her babies. Every two or three years in the western U.S.

or Canada, a sow horribly mauls or kills some hapless person guilty of

no more than stumbling upon the same patch of earth at exactly the

same moment as her cubs. In July 2011, a sow with cubs killed a 57-yearold

man hiking with his wife in Yellowstone.

So we wait, hoping the bears will move on. There is no wind; they

may not smell us. They disappear into the woods, but we periodically

hear their growls, too close to the trail for us to consider venturing down

there. An hour drips by like candle wax.

Three other hikers, two men and a woman, come along, heading

in our direction. After a brief, lively huddle, we agree on a plan: we will

walk in close formation down the trail, making abundant noise. Bears,

according to conventional thinking, will not engage this large a group

of people.

But apparently, these grizzlies did not read the rulebook.

As we buckle on backpacks, the woman says, gravely, “There are the

bears.” When we look downhill, she clarifies, “No, behind you.”

We spin around. The sow, not thirty feet away, saunters noiselessly

across the grassy meadow we’re standing in, her cubs in tow. While we

were strategizing how to outwit them with our superior intellects, they

had pulled off a perfect flanking maneuver. From this close, we see her

shoulder muscles rippling, the fur backlit by sunlight, and razor teeth

designed for tearing through flesh as her mouth gapes open.

Then she sniffs the air and swings her head to stare directly at us.

If there is a national park that seems created to fulfill the grandest

dreams of backpackers, it is Glacier.

Straddling the Continental Divide hard against the Canadian

border, the northernmost U.S. Rockies resemble a collection of

mountain-scale kitchen implements—meat-cleaver wedges of billionyear-

old rock and stone knives lined up in rows that stretch for miles,

everything standing with blades pointed upward. More than a hundred

of them rise above eight thousand feet, the highest exceeding ten

thousand feet.

Streams collect the runoff from fields of melting snow and ice,

pouring down mountainsides, shouting loudest when crashing over innumerable

cascades and waterfalls. Late-afternoon sunlight glints off

pebbly creeks spilling from lakes, the water’s surface sparkling like diamonds

slowly twisting. Geological strata stripe mountainsides in parallel

bands. Wildflowers in a palette of colors dapple vast, treeless tundra


The Blackfoot called these mountains “the backbone of the world.”

The description fits a place where the land vaults up so dramatically

from the very edge of the Plains—and where Triple Divide Peak is one

of only two North American mountains that funnel waters to three

oceans: the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic.

Swiss-born paleontologist Louis Agassiz, hailed as one of the greatest

scientists of his time, comprehended the origins of places like the

future Glacier National Park. In the 1840s, he theorized that an ice age

had once locked up much of the planet. His ideas explained the signs of

glaciers in Europe and North America where they did not exist: ground

scraped down to striated bedrock, and massive “glacial-erratic” boulders

deposited in meadows and forests by some mysterious but powerful

force. Today, a glacier in the north of this park is named for him.

The renowned writer George Bird Grinnell, who began lobbying to

designate the area a national park after visiting in the 1880s, called these

mountains “the Crown of the Continent.” The Great Northern Railway,

hoping to bring in paying tourists, dubbed the area “Little Switzerland.”

But in one important aspect, it differed from the Swiss Alps as much

as Central Park from the Serengeti: unlike the settled Alpine valleys and

mountainside meadows, the Northern Rockies were an intact, pristine

wilderness. Today, some 90 percent of the park’s million acres remain

inaccessible except to those willing to explore on foot.

Glacier is among just a few U.S. wild lands outside of Alaska that

host a nearly complete array of the continent’s native megafauna. Only

two are missing: the bison and woodland caribou. Sixty-two mammal

species live here, and 260 kinds of birds are seen. Glacier and neighboring

Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada have been designated

an international peace park, an international biosphere reserve, and a

World Heritage Site.

A backpacker on any of the park’s more than seven hundred miles

of trails may lose count of how many times she sees cliff-scaling, bearded

mountain goats. Many backpackers go home with breathless tales of

walking past that most regal of creatures, the bighorn sheep. Some—like

my friend Geoff Sears when we took a trip here together—tell of leaving

a sweaty T-shirt hanging outside to dry overnight, only to discover it

even more soaked in the morning because deer have gummed it for the

salt from perspiration. Hikers in early fall might hear bull elk bugle or

see two bull moose clashing massive antlers.

Encounters with black or grizzly bears—both number in the hundreds

here—occur rarely, for one simple reason: a bear will usually detect

the humans first and avoid them. This dynamic undoubtedly serves

the interests of both parties. A bear attacking people ultimately loses, as

park officials will destroy it. And no one with a healthy attitude toward

life wants to cross paths with a grizzly.

When Lewis and Clark explored the American West, the grizzly

numbered an estimated 50,000 and ranged over two-thirds of the contiguous

United States, from the Canadian border to Mexico to Ohio.

While more numerous in Canada and Alaska, about 1,400 remain in

the Lower 48, and they live only where humans tolerate them. More

than seven hundred bears dwell in Glacier and the surrounding national

forests, and another six hundred in Greater Yellowstone. Small, at-risk

populations hang on in remote mountains in Washington, northern

Idaho, and northwestern Montana.

No other species in North America shapes our perception of wilderness

as definitively as the grizzly. There are wild lands with grizzlies, and

there are those without, and they are as far apart in our minds as terror

is from thrill.

Where they live, we enter the woods with a heightened alertness.

Every dense copse of spruce trees or tall bushes potentially harbors a

menace. Come upon a steaming pile of scat the size of a soccer ball, and

you will wonder which direction the bear went and which you should

go. We are not so far evolved from our hunter-gatherer ancestors to have

lost our innate aversion to being eaten.

Encounter a great bear close up and, regardless of how you had planned to react, you may find yourself overwhelmed by one instinctive

thought: flee. You backpedal, maybe stumble. You might reach for the

pepper spray on your belt or forget it’s there. You know in your bones

that you possess little control over what happens next.

Terror hits hard right in the gut and takes the wind out of you. I

know, because I’ve felt it.

When that sow grizzly and her cubs crept up so stealthily behind

my friend Jerry Hapgood and me at Lincoln Pass on that late-summer

morning, she not only Tasered us with one of the biggest, voice-seizing

frights of our lives; she also clarified an unsettling truth: when you walk

through country inhabited by grizzly bears, you see and hear them

everywhere—except the ones that are actually right on top of you. To

our good fortune and vast relief, that sow and her cubs merely continued

on their way, giving us no more than a glance.

Now, eleven months later, I’m backpacking that same trail in Glacier

with my wife and children, on another perfect summer day in

mountains carved from glaciers but designed in dreams.

And I am thinking about bears.

Product Details

Lanza, Michael
Beacon Press (MA)
Self-Help : General
Travel Writing-General
Publication Date:
8.8 x 5.8 x 0.82 in 0.92 lb

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Sports and Outdoors » Outdoors » Backpacking
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Before They're Gone: A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks Used Hardcover
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Product details 224 pages Beacon Press - English 9780807001196 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Worried that climate change might soon destroy many of America's most beautiful places, Lanza, the northwest editor for Backpacker magazine, embarks with his wife and two kids, nine-year-old Nate and seven-year-old Alex, to visit 'as many climate-threatened U.S. national parks as could cram into a year.' Their journeys take them from Alaska's Glacier Bay to Florida's Everglades, and to many breathtaking locales in between. Blending anecdotes and ecology lessons, Lanza sheds light on his family's charming dynamic (from his daughter's sensible suggestion that they depart from bear territory to his son's preference to attack the brutes), the wonder of the natural world, and the ethical responsibility we all have to mitigate the forces that are changing our planet 'faster even than scientists or computer models have anticipated.' This is a terrific blend of adventure ('Seeing a bison gallop thirty miles an hour — as they can — is like seeing a grand piano suddenly sprout horns and charge you with the speed of a horse.') and ecological forecasting (and forewarning) that aptly conveys the passion of a devoted outdoorsman, and serves as a wake-up call to the state of our planet. Photos. (Apr.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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