Sep 8, 2010

The Bear Drive

After our working weekend it was time to get out and back into the Park again. So yesterday, Tuesday, the plan was to take US-2 east from Columbia Falls, down around the southern end of the Park to East Glacier, up MT-49 and US-89 to St. Mary, followed by a full-length transit of Going to the Sun Road back to West Glacier and our starting point -- total distance of about 200 miles.

We had already traversed US-2 westbound when we arrived in the area last week. But taking the same route by car allowed us to stop at more points of interest, stop more often for photos, and be more spontaneous in our explorations. The real objective of the day was to explore the east side of the park which we’ve really neglected the past few days.

DSCN0640 One necessary stop was Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier. Built by the Great Northern Railway in 1913, it was the first destination hotel completed and the gateway to the rest of the Park. The East Glacier Amtrak station is immediately adjacent to the Lodge. We visited here 30 years ago and, once again, had to reconcile our memories with reality. The lobby is magnificent… three stories high, the timber roof supported by 500 year old Douglas Fir logs still clinging to their original rough bark. A huge fireplace complete with roaring fire added physical warmth to the warm woodsy lodge atmosphere. In a growing tradition when visiting National Park Lodges, we had lunch in the lounge – needed nourishment before heading into less refined parts of the Park later in the day.

IMG_3585 The next stop was Two Medicine. This part of the Park was once, before the completion of Going to the Sun Road, the focal point of activity at Glacier. Today, its a secluded and peaceful spot with a small campground and some of the best hiking trails in the park. Amazing vistas, waterfalls, a sparkling lake, and an abundance of wildlife reward those that stop here. We spent a good deal of time watching a black bear feasting on berries just on the other side of a creek. The attached photo is blown up and fuzzy, but it’s the best one we took. What fun!

MT-49 is the shortcut for those traveling between East Glacier and St. Mary. It’s paved… most of it anyway… but a road that needs to be worked with and paid attention to. There are many places where the roadway is sinking, “breaking”, away from the hillside that supports it. DSCN0655

But if you take a little time to enjoy the scenery and pull off once in a while to experience things with all your senses, what you find may surprise you. We stopped at an overlook and took a few photos. Just a little way further up the road, off on the low-side of the road, in vegetation too dense to really see much, we could hear a bellow or cry of a large animal. It sounded like a cow but we didn’t think cows or cattle are common in this area. We drove a little further… to the next pull-off, shut off the car and listened. There it was again… just down the hill from our location. Vegetation was thick and a good view wasn’t obvious from the car. I got out, walked over the the edge, pulled the brush aside, and looked down the hill… right at a black bear having lunch just a few feet away. (What’s the old adage… “first you say it, then you do it!”?) Yikes.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Dar had also gotten out of the car and was starting toward me when she saw my reaction – which apparently was startled and quick. There was no question in her mind that I was beating a hasty retreat back to safety. By the time I made it back to the car, just 4 or 5 steps away, she was already back inside and trying to lock the doors… with me still outside! I’ve heard wise old men say that you’ll find out what’s really in a woman’s heart during times of stress and panic. I think I learned something new that day. The bear, I assume, took off in the opposite direction, probably as scared of me as I was of it.

DSCN0705 With bear encounter number two behind us, we continued along MT-49 to another pull-off. There, a couple hunters in a pickup truck were scanning the many square miles of mostly open country far below. I struck up a conversation and they said they were watching a grizzly bear sow and her two cubs. With binoculars we could clearly see them… mom busily eating and putting on fat for the winter… the two cubs playing and chasing each other more than eating. Identifying a grizzly is relatively easy. Besides that distinctive hump on their back, right between the shoulders, many of them have silver-ish, white-ish ends on their fur.   This, our first sighting of a grizzly in the wild, is one of those memories we’ll carry with us forever.

Later in the afternoon, at a wide pull off on our way back to West Glacier on Going to the Sun Road, Dar spotted another bear high on a grass and rock filled slope above us. With binoculars we quickly identified it as another grizzly… this one solo and closer than the last sighting. For a few minutes, until it walked into a hollow behind some trees, we watched and helped a few others spot it. What a day.

DSCN0785 During the course of the day we spotted other wildlife too. Three more bighorn rams (one of which was only 10 feet away on the side of the road), a couple young osprey, and various other small animals and birds. And of course, just being in this unbelievable setting with these dramatic mountain vistas is almost more than can be absorbed.

DSCN0702 Are you sure this isn’t a dream?


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