You Just Never Know
It’s evening. We’re working on this post together and drinking whiskey. Camping and whiskey… what a wilderness cliche. We’re owning it.
Convinced that we’ve just lived one of the most memorable days of our lives, we’re both in a haze. A few minutes ago – on our way to clean up in a lake – we were surprised by a black bear and her cub. Frolicking in the short grass as the beating sun was just beginning to relent, the two of them nearly made stroke victims out of both of us.
We made a quick change of plans and headed straight for the whiskey. The “camper’s bath” could wait.
But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves here because, surprisingly, the bear encounter is not the big news of the day.
This memorable day – both awe inspiring and disturbing – started much, much earlier. In fact, it was about 5:30 this morning when we were debating what hike to take on. Being our last day in this part of Glacier, we wanted to make a killer choice.
The weather was predicted to be epic. Everything was perfectly still, the sky was 100% blue and the lakes were imitating glass. We decided to do something uncharacteristic – two fairly aggressive hikes in one day. Grinnell Glacier in the morning and Iceberg Lake in the afternoon/evening. It’d be about a 20 mile day.
Slathering on bug repellant and sun block, we charted our course and made sure our backpack would have everything we might need. After all, as we discussed, you never know what might happen out there on a trail. Especially in the midst of a late melt. Ravenous bears and potentially unrelenting conditions at the high altitudes.
We both had a good feeling about the Grinnell hike right away. We immediately knew it was destined to be a top 10 nominee (once we had conquered every hike in the Park!). As we made our way past Swiftcurrent Lake, we talked about how picture perfect everything was.
By the time we caught a first glimpse of the next lake, Josephine, we knew it. If we had any doubt about this park being our favorite place in the world, that doubt was now removed.
Moving up higher and looking down at the water, all thoughts of bears and mountain lions started to drift away. The surroundings were too captivating to be otherwise distracted. Myriad wildflowers and the fresh smell of pine drenched our senses.
Rather than having second thoughts about our 20 mile day, we were adrenalized by how things were unfolding. We were ready to take on anything. Up up up we bolted.
And then we saw it in the distance. Grinnell Glacier with its namesake lake at its feet. Milky green. Incredible.
We continued on. It’s at this point that the story gets a bit blurry. We had made it almost to the point where the trail is marked with a “snow hazard ahead” sign. A park ranger with a disconcerted look was our first clue that something was terribly wrong. We began to prepare ourselves for what we thought would be a bear problem. Little did we know that problem would have to wait until later.
As we made our way closer, we learned that a hiker in front of us had slipped. He tried clinging to the rocky ledge before tumbling 50, maybe 100, yards down slope. We stared at each other in complete shock. A bit later (who knows how long) when we witnessed the first rescue helicopter landing mere feet away from us on a narrow ridge, we both felt sick. The blasting of the helicopter’s blades and the upheaval of the earth around us was nearly too much to take – too intense and jolting for this “perfect” day. It made what was going on abundantly real.
Next, something cool happened. The helicopter zipped away, and the first rescue person quickly steadied himself on the ground. He yelled “I need your help” to the small crowd of us gobsmacked hikers. No one hesitated to lend a hand. Three “regular” guys, helping with his equipment, accepted the rescuer’s request to head into the rescue zone.
The two of us distracted ourselves by distracting the girlfriend of one of the hikers who went ahead to help. The two of them are from Texas. He doesn’t like snow. She wasn’t surprised that he, stopping only to grab water, went ahead to assist anyhow. We snuck quick peeks and watched him slip and slide as he bravely forged on. The three of us talked about great hikes, a good pie shop down the road and the treasure that is Montana. Oh, and we told her to marry that guy.
We waited. The whole scene was so intense that we can’t remember all of the details. We didn’t even get a single name. Not hers and not his (when he successfully returned from assisting).
Well I guess we got one name – but not until after the fact. Nicholas, an outdoors enthusiast from Omaha, died in that fall. As we descended Grinnell, far later than expected, we were numb. We wondered if Nicholas and his buddies were as blown away by the beauty as we were. We wondered if they embarked with the same fervor that ignited us that morning. We’re certain that we were having similar experiences. Almost.
Back at our camp, running into those bears wasn’t quite as terrifying as it may have been yesterday. We’d just had a reminder that you can’t predict how a day might unfold.
Tomorrow, we’re going to head out for a last round of adventure in our final segment of Glacier. We’ll be thinking about Nicholas a lot. We know that what happened to him could have happened to us. In an instant. Even on what started out as the most splendid day imaginable.
You just never know.