My heart stopped. Just moments before, we had been happily enjoying the down-hill momentum and views into Glacier’s central valley, that was until company round a bend ahead. We froze in our tracks. A giant male grizzly dominated the trail just 20 meters beyond.
Of course, I’m well-aware that Glacier National Park is home to a grizzly bear population – warning signs are everywhere – but I never really expected to get THIS close to one. I had hoped to catch a sight of one form the car window. That would have been nice. Nice and safe. If anything, I had been on higher alert earlier that morning as we set out, completely alone, from the Siyeh Bend trailhead. Crossing through Preston Park meadows still enveloped in mist, I made sure to make our presence known, and scouted the area for any sign of movement. Nothing.
Leaving the timberline far below, we wound up a shingle trail to summit Siyeh Pass. There we found a plump lonely marmot, hair blowing in the breeze, admiring the view. He didn’t seem bothered by us, so we let each other be, taking in the same view of a previously hidden eastern valley with tiny glaciers dotted high above.
From Siyeh pass the views really exploded. No longer sheltered by trees, the trail begins a tight descent, switch-backing 3220 feet alongside the stunning Sexton Glacier. Both Conrad and I became so preoccupied with trying to capture the splendor on our cameras – failing completely – that concerns of bears left our minds.
Our cameras had just returned to bags as the trail began evening out, hugging the edge of Goat Mountain. That’s when the creature appeared, completely startling us. Conrad was in the lead (thank God), as we simultaneously stopped dead in our tracks. He had seen us too. Definitely a grizzly. His dark coat hung over huge hunched shoulders, with the tell-tale long snout that identified his bread. I suddenly felt very vulnerable. We hadn’t seen another human-being all day. And here we were carrying a bag full of trail snacks. What idiots! I bet we smelt good enough to eat too.
My mind rapidly began processing every bit of advice I’d ever consumed about bears. I knew enough not to run. Even though instinct kind of made me want to. Now, what was the difference between dealing with grizzly verses black bears again? The bear was holding our gaze. It felt like a Mexican stand-off. He seemed unsure too. Then, slowly, he resumed his stride, edging even closer. Shit! I’m going to die! I immediately began clapping my hands and shouting loud, incoherent nonsense – anything that sprung to mind that identified us as people. Meanwhile, Conrad frantically released the can of bear pepper spray from its holster, the can we had debated paying $50 for just days before. He pulled the safety tab out ready. I cowed behind him.
I’m so grateful we never had to dispense the noxious mace. For one thing, a strong wind was blowing in our direction so we would have probably blinded ourselves! And for another, by the bear choosing to have a change of heart and divert off of the trail instead of confronting us, he kept himself safe. Not that we could have defeated him, but National Park policy often dictates that ‘troublesome’ bears – those deemed a threat to humans – are killed. So we both happily got to live another day! We watched as he leisurely passed us further down the slope, eventually stopping to inspect some fallen timber, to no doubt on the hunt for food.
I spent the remainder of the descent along the gushing Baring Creeks constantly looking over my shoulder, rattled. I didn’t dare get any food out. But wow! What an encounter. My respect for nature increases every day.
We hiked the Siyeh Pass Trail from Siyeh Bend, ending at Sunset Gorge. The trail is just over 10 miles long and gains 2240 feet. There is a further option to extend the hike up to Piegan Pass and view Piegan glacier, but you will have to back-track from the pass to re-join this circuit.
Photographed in early August 2018.