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Before They're Gone: A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parksby Michael Lanza
Chapter 6: The Backbone of the World
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
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
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.
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