I really didn’t want to see a bear. "Then why," you ask, "did you go hiking in Glacier National Park, where grizzly bears have killed 10 people?" Good point, but my cousins planned the trip, and . . . "But you could’ve gone to Glacier and not hiked. Nearly half of the people who visit the park never stray more than a few steps from the car." Okay. So maybe I wanted to see a bear a little. Bears, elk, wolves—they once ranged all over the western United States. My grandmother, now passed, said she saw bears at Green Lake when she was young.
Then humanity’s thirst for scenic places to Rollerblade forced large mammals to retreat, squeezing them away from the flatlands and up toward the rough, frozen, undesirable terrain of the Rockies. Glacier National Park is the only intact ecosystem in the Lower 48. And there lies the allure of the relatively tiny sliver of northwestern Montana—the chance to see what nature’s party looked like before people crashed it.
Provided that you leave early, and interpret the speed limit loosely, you can drive from Seattle to Glacier in a day. Establish a base camp for your sightseeing near the park’s west entrance—options range from a few dozen square feet to call your own at the KOA to a room at the Lake McDonald Lodge, a National Historic Landmark built in 1913. But first stop for any visitor should be a ranger station. Montana’s notoriously unpredictable weather ("If you don’t like it, just wait 15 minutes," the saying goes) washes away trails, uproots trees, and demolishes tidy itineraries planned from paperback books. Our ranger, a woman in her 50s with the energy of an 18-year-old Chili’s server on a her fourth macchiato told us that in two days we’d probably be able to squeeze in one good hike. But first, the state of Montana’s biggest traffic jam beckoned.
Going-to-the-Sun Road, the ranger insisted, is Glacier National Park’s one must-see attraction. Mother Nature tries to censor this experience; every winter she sends "the Big Drift," which submerges the road beneath 80 feet of snow. Every spring, road crews use GPS to find it, and 20 different excavation vehicles clear the winter accumulation. It’s worth the effort. The bizarre topography along the road, created by the glaciers that give the park its name, looks like it was dreamed up for a movie. Slate black peaks stab the sky. Water springs from vertical rock, splashing cars hundreds of feet below. When you get your pictures back you’ll think the background is CGI.
Columnist Dave Barry once proposed that the speed limit should vary based on the natural beauty of the place through which you’re traveling. On I-5 between Portland and Chehalis, for example, the speed limit would be somewhere around 120. On Going-to-the-Sun Road, drivers hew to Barry’s concept, trundling along at a 15 mph pace. To chase the feeling that we were sitting in Friday afternoon traffic on 520, we stopped at turnouts that offer edifying geological information, breathtaking backdrops for photos, or short hikes to streams or lookouts. But animals steer clear of Going-to-the-Sun Road’s stream of cars and video-camera-wielding tourists. Wildlife awaited us the next day in the park’s northwest corner, known as the North Fork.
We were eager to enter the time warp that is Glacier’s pristine backcountry, but first we stopped in the town of Polebridge, population 90, a time warp in its own right. Looking for the experience of traveling via stagecoach? The residents of Polebridge oblige, having fought to keep roads leading to their town unpaved. Polebridge’s commercial center is two buildings: the Polebridge Mercantile, a false-front shingle structure that looks straight off the set of Deadwood, and the Northern Lights Saloon, a five-table restaurant fronted by a rickety porch. Between these two structures is the jewel of the Polebridge Parks and Recreation Department, a beach volleyball court that doubles as a big sandy bed for the municipality’s canine population. There’s usually a ball lying around, and no one minds if you start up a game, as long as you don’t step on one of their dogs.
Thirty miles farther, now nearly to Canada, we set out along the shore of Kintla Lake. The sun was out, and a cool breeze blew off of the lake’s turquoise water. That water—once you’ve seen a pure glacial lake, no other agglomeration of liquid looks the same. The 10,000-foot Kintla Peak, the park’s second largest, rises dramatically on the other side of the lake, a natural version of the skyscrapers that shadow New York’s Central Park. It was a peaceful day in this unspoiled wilderness. But for safety’s sake, we spoiled it.
We were in the habitat of the grizzly bear, a potentially deadly animal that can weigh as much as 800 pounds. Bears aren’t dangerous unless you surprise them, so the key to escaping bear country without claw marks is to make a tremendous clatter as you go. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, in the view of bear experts, would be your ideal companion during a backcountry hike in Glacier National Park. My cousins and I were doing our best impression, and I’m still sure MoTab’s never done a version of "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt" better than ours.
We’d been gently ascending for about three hours, and the sound of rushing water told me we were near a stream. Maybe the stream drowned out our singing, because, about 15 feet ahead I saw my cousin Eliza stop, put her hands up, and back away slowly. Bear! My heart started pounding, and my stomach snuck around it to leap into my throat. I craned my head to see what we were up against, just in time to see the furry hindquarters of a small black bear, no bigger than a German shepherd, retreating up the hill. We scared the bear. On our return trip, no bystander could’ve contested our claim, however unlikely, that "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt" was our name too. We fairly shouted it as we crossed that stream. One baby bear was bear enough for us.
Back in Polebridge, we celebrated our survival at the Northern Lights with elk burgers and pint after pint of Blackfoot River Brewing Company’s Organic Pale Ale—sold only in Montana and practically worth the trip itself. Someday, I vaguely recall slurring to a cousin, when they’ve paved the road to Polebridge, and Kintla Lake is ringed by a Rollerblade path, I’ll tell my grandkids: "Once, I saw a bear here."