By: Adam Parkison
What would the backcountry be like without the presence of large, terrifying predators roaming about unrestrained? Would there be the same eerie magic felt, when a twig snaps just on the edge of the campfire light? Or would the whole authenticity of trekking deep in the Montana woods be completely lost without the wolves, bears, and lions that reside there?
These were the questions I asked myself, when I found the massive grizzly track pressed deeply in the mud, on a trail through a dark lodgepole forest. Rain started hitting my arms, and I shivered; partly cause of the cold, but mostly at the thought of encountering the monstrous beast that had made the track. This, I assured myself, was the exact experience I sought when I decided to backpack alone here, in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. I scanned the farthest slopes for a place to sleep, but I just didn’t have a good feeling about anywhere I looked; and coming across the big griz track close to nightfall didn’t help my peace of mind either. I continued walking, my bear spray not-so confidently strapped to the front of my backpack.
The trip was a fulfillment of a childhood dream. I was on a mission to track down, and if fortunate enough, photograph a wild grizzly living outside of a national park. I was delighted to learn the Absaroka range held one of the largest populations south of Canada and Alaska. But just because the bears existed there, didn’t mean they were waiting behind every corner, as some people might have believed. Finding them would prove to be much easier said than done.
I knew that deliberately searching for large, potentially dangerous predators was not advisable without previous experience. I felt confident, however, in such pursuits. I have always been fascinated with remote places, especially places where large predators are found. For the four previous years from 2008 to 2012, I had lived and worked in the wilds of the little known Central African Republic, living side by side with lions, leopards, wild dogs, and the like.
I remember distinctly the first time I came upon a lion on foot and unarmed. I had been walking deep in the bush one morning with one local African, when we bumped into an animal asleep under a tree. The animal took three big bounds before disappearing ahead of us in the long grass. I saw the shaggy mane, and the long, thick tail, but it took me a second to process what I was seeing, and then it hit me with electric force- Lion! Wisely, we immediately returned the way we had come.
A long time had passed since I began working in Africa almost 6 years ago. I left the Dark Continent in the summer of 2012, disillusioned by the senseless violence I witnessed in the war-torn region. After returning to my hometown of Kansas City, I immediately packed my Subaru Outback and headed west. After a long and memorable cross-country road trip, I eventually settled in Bozeman, Montana in the fall. I wanted to find the wilderness experience I left in Africa, and I knew the grizzly mountains of Montana were the perfect place to look. Almost immediately I planned for the summer of 2013 to be filled with many solo backcountry excursions into grizzly country.
On that trip to the Absarokas, the first morning I set off into the mountains, I came upon a high south facing meadow. In a depression in the hillside, among bright alpine lilies, I found a grizzly dig. I pressed my hand in the old site, and pulled out a long grizzled brown hair. Higher up, two young bull elk in velvet bounded up a ridge after inspecting me. Later that evening, I found the large grizzly track. I had seen many black bear tracks throughout my stay in the western United States, but this track was unmistakable. Firstly, its entire mass was much larger than any black bear I had seen. But the real factor that gave it away was the distance the claw marks stretched from the toes. Only a grizzly could have such long claws.
Later that evening, I eventually found a place to camp on top of a large, flat boulder, suspended 15 feet off the ground; the perfect fortress for a lone backpacker. Conveniently, there was a depression on the rock where a blanket of moss and soft pines had formed a bed for me to sleep. There was also plenty of firewood that had collected over the years, and I soon had a small blaze going, just in time to witness the fiery sunset behind the distant peaks.
I camped alone, in high alpine bowls for three more nights, lugging around my heavy camera gear, searching for any more grizzly sign. I saw a fair amount of elk, and lots of alpine mule deer sign. But during those three days, I failed to find a bear. And what more, the furious spring rivers- one of which nearly swept me to my demise while trying to cross with my bulky pack- hindered my advancement into the high country.
I left the Absaroka range with a newfound appreciation for the grizzly bear. I realized just how hard it was to find the animals, even when specifically searching for them. Contrary to popular belief, it seemed the animals avoided us humans more enthusiastically than us humans avoided them. But like a detective, with every new clue- in the way of a dig, a course brown hair, a large track- I found myself drawing closer to finding the elusive animal.
After my Absaroka trek, a friend and I started scheming a trip into the Bob Marshal Wilderness two months later, in August. I knew I could find grizzlies fairly consistently in Yellowstone, and Glacier N.P., but I had made a strict rule for myself that in order to photograph a wild grizzly, I had to do so in a designated wilderness area; the task was more difficult than I had anticipated, but no less void of adventure.
I marked my calendar for August, but in the meantime, I explored the closer Lee-Metcalf Wilderness extensively over the summer weekends, amounting to some thirty-odd days. It was there, I met some old hunters out for a hike one day that told me about their encounters with grizzlies in a particular basin over the years. They told me they were always wary of bears in that area, and had even lost an elk carcass to one stubborn boar. It was in that very basin, I stumbled upon an abandoned bear den during one of my weekend outings. The hole in the ground was bordered by tree roots, flowers, and mushrooms, and resembled a hobbit home. From outside, the den looked small, but after crawling in, I found I could move around in almost every position comfortably. The site must have been used that last winter, as the claw marks on the dirt walls were clearly visible, and the lingering musk of the previous occupant was present. Despite the stories of elk-eating grizzlies in that area, I never did manage to see one.
August rolled around quickly, and I found myself once again in the mountains to continue my mission of photographing a grizzly bear. This time, I had Shay and his Australian shepherd, Bandit as company. The first day we set off on a random little trail in the morning that led from low elevation ponderosa forests, to high elevation meadows, and gorged on ripe raspberries along the way. We had used the Middle-Fork of the Flathead River as a point of geographical reference. Shay was a trout bum, and had come for the sole purpose of fishing. We had barely made it to the river, when Shay threw down his pack, pulled out his rod and started slapping the water in a suitable spot, immediately abandoning any previous plans for finding camp. The trout fever was contagious, and I found myself eagerly pulling out westslope cutties from a nice pool. So good was the fishing, that neither of us moved very far the next couple of days.
One morning, I set off up the river alone to do a little exploring. I walked upstream, awkwardly wading barefoot in the fast current, trying hard not to lose my balance. At a point the river became quite swift and deep, and I decided it wise to continue on the bank. I was looking down at bear tracks in the wet sand, and remarking to myself at how fresh they looked, when shaking in the bushes next to me grabbed my full attention. I looked on in horror as the thick brush in front of me swayed violently as some beast rose from his bed, disturbed by my presence. In one motion, the brush opened up like some horrid Pandora’s box, and a large black bear boar stood up on his hind legs to examine me. We both stared at each other breathless, for a split second- no more than 8 paces apart- before his inquisitive dark eyes turned to panic and he turned and bounded away. With shaky limbs, I turned back to camp, stubbing my toes in the stony river with every step.
Shay was perfectly content keeping our base camp along the Flathead River, and continuing fishing the next couple of days before we had to return to our obligations back in civilization. But I didn’t like the idea of staying put, and I had come to the Bob for other purposes. I decided to branch off on my own to explore more suitable grizzly habitat. I left Shay and Bandit one morning, and headed up stream where a number of trail junctions led to the high country.
My two night solo-outing ended up being far lonelier than I had anticipated. I covered a lot of ground fast, and seeing so much new country impressed on me the immensity of the region. I flanked the Flathead River the first morning, and forded many smaller feeder streams- crystal clear, with shiny smooth stones- until I finally struggled across the swift main fork, and began the ascent toward the high country where I expected to find bears. All along the path, I found fresh black bear tracks, but no grizzly. By the second day, I had made it to a lake nestled between three peaks. The mountain slopes were full of bright flowers and a few scattered trees; the area looked like perfect bear habitat. After continuously glassing the farthest slopes with my binoculars the next couple of days, I managed to pick out a few alpine mule deer, but no bruin.
My last night alone, I had strategically planned my campsite in a timbered hillside, far from any game trails or sources of water. I wanted to make sure I was far from the path of a roaming bear. But during the night, I had the scare of my life when I was awoken by some unseen animal that came crashing down a slope above, bee-lining straight toward me. What I had been firmly convinced was a bear coming to eat me, turned out to be just a large, velvet horned mule deer. He must have smelled me but was confused about my location, and in his escape, accidentally blundered into me.
With the excitement of finding suitable bear habitat, I was soon met with disappointment, for I could not stay here long. Planning a trip in correlation with my fishing partner and his limited time off from work, meant I had to leave the next day. And with rain clouds gathering that last afternoon, I decided it was best I set off as soon as possible not to be caught in a storm.
I left the lake, spooking a whitetail doe feeding in a creek bed shortly after. Despite my reluctance to leave, the air still held promise; something in the wind full of expectation. I did not see another human being on my return, nor any sign of one. Nearing the end of my journey that would probably be my last for the year, came the inevitable feeling of denial and panic. I did not want the adventure to be over. I breathed in the fresh air and held it in long, hoping the thin oxygen would spread through my veins and linger their a bit longer; keeping it as a small souvenir to return to in the days to come. My eyes feasted on every leaf and rock and pine needle on the path, creating a virtual slideshow I could escape to during the cold, long winter; when my soul and mind hibernate.
Returning the way I had come up the high country, I retraced my course along the Flathead. Walking along its thick bank, through larch trees and bleached boulders, I happened to glance down at precisely the right moment, from the precise position possible, to spot a brown bear 80 yards away downhill. He was close to the bank of a feeder stream, gorging on berries. All around us was fairly open. I dropped to the ground, my heart racing. I saw the grizzled brown hair ruffling in the breeze, but I didn’t have time to identify the large hump, or the dish face; typical characteristics of a grizzly bear. Was the bear in front of me a grizzly, or another brown black bear? I would soon find out. There was nowhere for the bear to go: Anywhere he would move, I was in a position to easily spot him. I grabbed my camera, laid down my pack, and crept forward nervously. The anticipation swelled and crashed in my chest. Just 10 feet to go, and the identity of the bear would be revealed to me.
At that moment of truth when all my efforts the last few months might finally pay off… I peered over the bushes, and there, where the bear stood mere seconds before- was empty space! I looked left and right and forward, but could no longer find the bear. Frantically, I stood up, walked to where the bear had been, and scanned the opposite bank. Nothing. The bear had mysteriously vanished.
There was nothing left for me to do but continue on. I rejoined Shay that afternoon, and heard about his encounters with a sow and cub black bear earlier that morning. The next day, we packed up and left hastily. Before exiting the mountains, we washed ourselves in a creek, cleansing the wildness from our hair and body, before assimilating back into the land of man. I never did find closure for the mystery bear encounter along the river. I did, however, come close to the object of my desire since childhood: first, with finding the grizzly sign in the rugged Absaroka range, then discovering the bear den in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, and finally, the mysterious brown bear sighting in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
I guess it’s fitting that way, leaving the wilderness with a glimpse of what may, or may not have been, the object of my imagination since childhood. It was an excuse to return to the woods the next year to resume the search. For now, it was enough just to know that the great bears existed there, and the assurance that those things that do go bump in the night, might actually be real, live monsters, looming in the darkness; and there is magic in that kind of wild.
(Well, yes, I did manage to finally photograph a grizzly ^ the very next year, in Alaska… read about it here.)