I saw a bear.
I don’t know how exactly — something must have willed it — but it’s done, I saw it. And no, not in one of those places just outside the National Park with the huge yellow sign in the shape of an arrow pointing into a fenced-in and otherwise secretive location, hiding their valuable belongings. The language on the signs outside those places make me wonder if they hadn’t been for strip joints at one time, and someone had just painted over “girls” with “bears” — a cheap alternative to buying new signs. They say something like: “Hot Live NUDE Bears” so I don’t know. Anyway, no: it was not in a sleazy place like that. This was in the wild, on my own (no tourists with nosy cameras), in a place where I least expected it.
I was sailing down the highway, long after I left the park, on my way North towards Canada. I must have been doing 65 mph or more and I made direct eye contact with the bear, 30 feet back into the woods on the left side of the road. I wasn’t even aware that I was looking. And maybe I wasn’t. Maybe it was just meant to be: a higher voice saying Look Josh, bears are fluffy and friendly and scared of you. But at any rate, I looked, locked eyes for a tenth of a second and then slammed on my brakes. I did a quit U-turn, and, with my hazard lights on, backtracked at 10 mph looking for the bear. The first time through I saw nothing. I did another U-Turn and headed back the way I was originally going. Then I saw him again: A mid-sized bear, thick brown fluffy fur, turned and ran back into the woods, too fast and too obscured by bushes for me to get a photo. I’m not sure what kind of bear he was, grizzly or black. I don’t know that much about bears, to be honest. All I know is that they’re vicious bloodthirsty killers, afraid of of nothing, fight to the death, and have a secret plot to have my head on a stick.
There is actually a much better story of a wildlife encounter from today, a much more close and personal encounter that scared the bejeezus out of me. I had pulled off onto one of the many pullouts along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, one that overlooked a brilliant stream, clear and swift and cold. Across the road, I saw a tiny path, not a proper trail, just a narrow path. I wanted a picture of the trees, the way the light filtered through the smoke of the raging forest fires (more about this in a minute). I was only fifteen feet or so into the woods, when a movement only a few feet to my left sent me stumbling backwards, unaware of what had grabbed my attention. When my eyes focused, I saw a deer, a small deer with a large, furry and perfect set of antlers. It was just ten feet from me, three paces away, and it was just staring, not moving, no running. I slipped back towards the road, my heart pounding from the initial shock, still a little worried about being butted with those fine antlers. I wandered around him for several minutes, trying to align a good angle for a picture. My obvious attention on something in the woods brought spectators, who tried for their own pictures out on the road, while I wandered in the woods, still just feet away. The deer went about its business, mostly ignoring us, eating from the trees. I got the pictures I wanted and was leaving when the lady taking pictures from the road said “Did you get a clear shot? You must be really brave. Or stupid.” And then laughed the way people laugh at their own jokes. She was one of those people, one of those who laughs loud and long when they something they consider funny.
So the fires: I noticed the smoke even last night, but didn’t mention it yesterday since I didn’t really know anything about it. I still don’t know much, but I’ve heard little snippets about the forest fires in Montana, the “Very High” fire danger and the Level 1 restrictions for fire control. The smoke was totally absent on the east side of the park, where I woke up this morning and spent only the first 20 minutes of my day. The contrast to the western side was pretty amazing, very stark. Once you crossed the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, the entire sky was smoke filled, the mountains hard to make out, not much of scenery to speak of. It didn’t affect driving conditions — it wasn’t that thick. But it was a minor inconvenience for sightseeing anyway. It eventually cleared up — sometime in the early afternoon.
I made all the requisite stops for scenic views on the Eastern descent, but it wasn’t until Avalanche Creek came along, the area I had wanted to stay at last night, that I made a lengthy stop. I had read that the 2-mile Avalanche hiking trail back to Avalanche Lake was the park’s most beautiful, and so I vowed to take it. It wasn’t an easy hike, almost all uphill in the outbound direction, and two miles is a long way uphill. But indeed it was remarkably beautiful, through a forest of Cedar, a sparkling stream racing over a mile of waterfalls alongside much of the way. The destination of Avalanche Lake did not come as an awesome sight — hard to dramatically outdo the scenery along the two-mile hike — but it was certainly beautiful. I tried to imagine being Lewis and Clark and stumbling upon a clearing like this after walking days through the forest: a huge, still and shallow lake completely surrounded by 1400 foot walls of mountain, several waterfalls cascading the entire drop in only three or four hops.
The hike had my feet sore and me feeling sweaty, hot and thirsty in the hottest part of the day. I was ready to leave the park, ready to head out to do some errands and get towards Canada again, but Lake MacDonald, the park’s largest lake, beckoned me as I drove by, the last sight along the route out of the park. I debated briefly, but soon I found myself having the prettiest and most incredible swim of my life. The water was completely still, a flat topped lake that looked out onto layers of foggy mountains, silhouetted in gradient blues on one side, mountains of brilliant evergreens on the other. It was of a chilly temperature but easy to adjust to — and chilly was not necessarily bad in this case. I had a brief swim and then laid in the hot sun for an hour before taking a second, much longer more involved dip, floating hundreds of feet from the shore and forcing myself under water, to scary depths where the water was much colder, the bottom no where in sight but always clear and bright enough to see the length of my body, a perfectly complementary orange to the water’s blue. Maybe that’s what made it seem so pretty: the perfect complement of our colors — its blue of early morning and my skin, a fire’s orange in the sun.
I came out of the water feeling incredibly refreshed, ready for the rest of my day, which would be pretty lackluster — nice, but not so noteworthy.
I pushed on to the nearest town outside of the park, Columbia Falls (which, despite the name, has no falls), past the town of Hungry Horse (which calls itself “The Friendliest Dam Town in the Whole World”). I found the library and spent an hour updating with the past two days’ material and checking my email. I found a laundromat and did my two loads — all of my clothes — while I got some supper at the Pizza Hut next door. It was a good way to spend the evening, bringing a modicum of urban balance to the desolate, rural existence I’ve been leading for the past week (and likely the next one too).
It was evening by the time I got away from Columbia Falls, not having a specific plan for the rest of my day but to move on towards Canada, but maybe not all the way. I got a little worried, after seeing the bear and thus nixing the area State Parks and private campgrounds, and the lack of rest areas, large hotels and truck stops, about finding a place to stay. Just three miles from the Canadian border, I passed a little house with an RV park sign out front, and pulled in. The office is obviously, no mistake about it, someone’s living room. I knocked on the door, saw a man watching TV on the couch wave me in: “C’mon in now.” I came in and, after fetching his wife, I got a plot out in their side yard to pitch my tent for just nine bucks. I wanted to avoid spending money, but this place is just too cute and comfortable to pass up. It’s certainly a breath of fresh air from all the alternatives that’ve run through my head in the preceding hour.