He stirs. It’s time to get going again as the sun is rapidly letting go of it’s bright hold on this part of the earth, Glacier National Park, a majestic bounty of bare, thrusting peaks, scooped out valleys, of which many are decorated with white ribbons of water plunging down their slopes, turquoise lakes, high alpine meadows, and gleaming glaciers, butted up against the top of Montana along the border with Canada. During the day its grandeur is unparalleled, at least in the lower 48. At night it melds into a land of large, looming shadows canopied by a ceiling studded with stars so bright that one can almost reach out and touch them – the air is so clear and clean here. It’s a large land, full of large things both animate and inanimate.
The hiker, who’s been taking a short break, stirs himself up from the sitting position he was in slowly, very slowly. He’s been making his way back to the campsite from Swiftcurrent Pass, a gap through the high country set in a verdant bowl of delicate green meadows carpeted with multitudes of wildflowers. Earlier, while up there sitting on a gray-green boulder eating his lunch and admiring the wondrous view, he was startled by a lumbering giant of a grizzly bear. The great beast was itself startled by the presence of the hiker in its domain. It had been so thoroughly engaged in foraging for rodents, grubs and other sustenance that it failed to notice the scent of the man sitting quietly on the large boulder, munching away whilst enjoying the view back down below - a scent normally guaranteed to keep the bear well away - until the two were within a mere dozen yards. Needless to say, when the two finally become aware of each other’s presence, it is not a quiet meeting.
Going against all the well-studied literature on how to respond when chancing upon a bear (or vice-versa I suppose in this case) the hiker lets out a yelp and immediately lights out back the way he had come as fast as his tired legs can bear him (get it?). Now fortunately for him, the bear is just as startled and does not lock down into pursuit, as might normally be expected. Instead, the beast lets out it’s own yelp, or rather, a raucously loud roar, and hightails it in the opposite direction. I say fortunately because even a cub grizzly can outrun a grown person, and this was no cub. It’s a 1500-pound specimen of ursine brawn, 9 feet from head to tail, sporting a thick coat of tawny fur whose tips glint with a silvery sheen as it lumbers away in the bright sunshine. If it had chosen to do so it could have caught up with the fleeing hiker in mere seconds.
The huffing and grunting sounds of the bear, though going the other way, only spurs the hiker to sprint away faster and this is when the incident occurs. As he is rounding a bend in the trail he catches his foot on a bolder projecting into the path and stumbles off to the side. Hard! The errant course he takes ends with him rolling down the hillside, coming to an abrupt halt about thirty feet down against the trunk of a wind-stripped lumbar pine clinging tenaciously to the side of the mountain, whose gnarled limbs grasp futilely at empty air as it leans out over the valley far below. The tree keeps our hiker from tumbling any further, but it exacts a price for arresting his descent, which is a knee cut open to the bone against the sharp edges of a large rock from which the tree seems to emanate.
Somewhat dazed from his mishap, his confusion is soon replaced by the throbbing pain of his rendered kneecap. Gathering his scattered wits he reaches into his daypack, rummages around a bit, and withdraws an ace bandage, which he then ties around his wound. It’s enough to staunch the flow of blood; the slice in his skin is a clean one and looks worse than it really is. It hurts like the dickens though! Again rummaging around in the pack a bit, he procures a few aspirins and washes them down with some water from his bottle. Amazingly he still has all his equipment and supplies with him. Nothing has been lost or come loose during the unplanned trip from the lunch boulder.
Taking stock of his condition the hiker suddenly remembers what precipitated the journey to this spot and, heart now caught in his throat, he looks quickly back up the hillside to see if the great grizzly was even now about to finish him off. Of course it wasn’t - it was long gone. Realizing that at least in the immediate he wasn’t about to be mauled or devoured, and grasping the tree’s trunk for support, he hoists himself gingerly to his feet and tests the load bearing capacity of his injury. Though it throbs like a sum-bitch he is able to walk around so he gingerly steps his way back up to the trail. Looking carefully in all directions and not catching sight of any marauding animals he gets back onto the trail and starts walking back down the mountain. The going is slow, but the painkillers soon start doing their wonderful deception of “It doesn’t hurt!” and he is able to make a decent progress back the way he had come.
He makes sure to not set too fast a pace – the path is quite rocky at times - and after a bit actually feels a lot better; better enough that he is able to once again enjoy the scenery all around him. As is often the case, the views he is now seeing were missed on the way up. Not only was he usually facing the opposite direction, but having to hike upwards, sometimes at a steep rate, his focus was more on the task at hand – getting up to the pass – than taking in the abundant natural beauty.
Looking down, he stops for a few moments to admire the sight of the 3 lakes strung out in a line leading towards his destination, visible in the distance about 12 miles away still. The lakes, each lower than the other, are connected by a series of pools, cascades and waterfalls as Swiftcurrent Creek, which issues from the mighty glacier in the cirque across the way, works it’s way down towards its terminus in the valley far below. The sight reminds him of a bracelet, as if the silvery creek, adorned with turquoise charms, was laid out and ready for wear by some giant not yet in sight. His still high vantage point enables a grand view of the surrounding countryside and he drinks it in deeply. The warm sun feels good and eases somewhat the aches and pains within his tumbled body. He unwraps his knee, which is throbbing a bit now that he is no longer preoccupied with hiking down, to inspect his most worrisome injury.
The bandage was rather soaked at this point so he decides to fetch another from his pack (if nothing else he was prepared) and puts on a fresh dressing. He hesitates as he thinks about what to do with the old one. He’s reluctant to throw it away, after all he is a member in good standing of the both the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society, but the thought of stuffing it in his pack brings visions of bloodthirsty grizzlies lined up at the smell of fresh blood for an easy meal. Dismissing the thought as nonsense, a reaction to his earlier scare and overly vivid imagination, he decides to put it in the plastic baggie in which earlier had resided his luncheon sandwich. He had seen no signs of grizzlies or other bears down below while hiking up - in fact, at this time of year they were almost universally up in the high country from which he was now descending – so he figures he’ll do the right thing and leave only footprints in this still pristine wilderness.
He sets out again, now on a series of switchbacks, and works his way down the mountainside. At one point he has to step gingerly across where Swiftcurrent Creek crosses the trail, carefully testing each rock for stability before placing his full weight upon it - he cannot afford another fall – as the sounds of rushing water fill his ears. Safely across he decides to clean off his wound so he unwraps the bandage, rinses it out and gingerly dabs at his scrapes and cuts on and around his knee. The gash on his knee is still oozing so after cleaning things up a bit he rinses the bandage one more time, wrings out the excess water, then ties it around his knee again. The coolness of the cold mountain water feels good and he sets off downhill once again. This side of the mountain is in the shadows and the coolness brings an involuntary shiver – or is it in response to his encounter with the bear earlier? He passes by some stunted, twisted tree trunks that had grown straight out from the side of the mountain before curving vertically up towards the sky. He notices that at the base of each is a collection of cobbles nestled in a cavity there, as if someone, or should I say something, had made a rocky nest for some purpose. It’s an unusual site, the likes of which he has never seen before. The assortment of rocks is a motley collection of various sizes and colors - greens, reds, browns, and grays – reflecting the hues seen in the surrounding countryside. He is especially taken by the pretty shade of greens, shades more often seen in the plant world, like the moss on a log, or the body of a praying mantis.
His progress while steady is slow - his knee is somewhat limited in its range of motion, precluding him from hiking with his normally long stride. That, coupled with the sensitivity to jarring, makes for a pace about 1/3 his usual. It’s starting to get a bit late in the day and he still has, he estimates, about 9 miles to go before he reaches the safety and comfort of his campsite. It’s already obvious that he’s not going to make it back before nightfall, but fortunately, being the Boy Scout that he is, he has a small flashlight with fresh batteries in his pack. He figures that he should be “home” by nineish, not too late, but still late enough that his companions will be worried. He regrets now that he didn’t bring one of those new walkie-talkies with him that the group brought on the trip. At least he could radio his friends once he got a little closer. That and perhaps the decision to go hiking alone. He remembers all the tales of solitary hikers and ill-prepared groups getting into trouble while out in the wilds, remembers the sometimes fatal consequences of foolish and downright stupid decisions made by these wilderness interlopers, remembers thinking, “How stupid!”. He remembers his earlier conversation with his campmates about his decision to go hiking alone, “Oh don’t worry. What could happen?” Well, no sense in regrets now. Better to just get back to camp as soon as possible and deal with the “I told you so’s” later.
Finally down off the mountain, our hiker pauses for a short rest. His knee is throbbing again so he takes some more pain killers washed down with some of the pure, refreshing water from Swiftcurrent Creek that he had refilled his bottle from earlier. It’s now past sunset, just a bit, and while resting his sore, tired body he is refreshed somewhat by the sight of the alpenglow, a golden yellow light with hints of orange and pink delicately resting on the highest portions of the surrounding peaks, a final goodbye from the westward receding sun. The way should be easier now, mostly flat and a lot less rocky…
Now up again the hiker starts out once more for the campground, still 6 or 7 miles distant. He is bone-tired now and though the way is relatively easy his pace is slow and painful. The painkillers aren’t as effective anymore and his knee pulses with pain with each step. It’s not too bad, bearable, but makes it presence always known as he heads towards “home” and the comfort of his friends, a warm fire, and a hot meal.
Soon the evening twilight turns to an inky darkness as there’s no moon tonight. The towering trees fairly loom up on either side, their branches extending out over the trail, forming a twisted, gnarled canopy across the path being trod by our hiker this evening. The effect makes it seem even darker and though he has a decent flashlight to illuminate his way, the gloom weighs heavily upon his shoulders as he continues on – slowly. It’s been quite a few hours since the incident up at the pass, and the descent down has taken a toll on his body and his mind. The trees in the surrounding forest groan and creak as they sway in the breezes spilling off of the peaks high above, adding to the sense of foreboding he feels growing as the time passes and he has yet to reach the campground. He shines his flashlight down upon his injured knee and sees that it has started bleeding again, the blood having already soaked through the applied bandage. He’s too tired to change it and besides there’s no water here to rinse off or clean up with so he decides to just leave it on as it is. He thinks briefly about the danger of grizzlies being attracted to the scent of blood, but figures he must be fairly close to camp and he knows that the bears are not known to wander down this low from the high country.
He knows that he’s lost quite a
bit of fluid from his wound and he doesn’t want to go into shock so he puts
on an extra shirt he has brought, fetched from his pack, and buttons his
jacket tightly about him to keep nice and warm. Thank God for fleece! He
drinks the rest of his water and resumes his slow pace towards comfort and
safety. On he goes. After a bit he has to pee so he heads for an opening in
the dense thicket to relieve himself. Picking his way in carefully he goes in
about 50 feet so that he is invisible from the trail. Not that it matters,
there’s certainly no one out here this late, but still… While taking care
of business he shines his light around to check out his surroundings – and
freezes when it’s beam is cast upon, “What is that!?”. He fumbles,
almost drops the light, zips himself up, and goes over to check out what he
had just glimpsed.
He stumbles over a root and catches himself as a sharp, searing flash of agony shoots up and down his wounded limb. He let’s out a cry of pain which is quickly lost in the muting air of the heavy woods. Clenching his teeth he waits for the pain and throbbing to subside and then carefully, very carefully, picks his way over. He shines his light at the scene and can’t help but take a sharp breath in at what he sees – the remains of an animal, torn asunder and scattered about the forest floor of twigs, needles and leaves. He shines his light about absorbing the carnage in view before him. He moves closer to examine the scene more closely. “What kind of animal is it?” he wonders. He tries to stoop down but his knee fiercely refuses to cooperate uncomplainingly so he bends deep at the waist to get a closer look. After a few moments he decides the animal must have been a small, probably a juvenile, mountain lion – he can see the blood-stained end of a tawny-colored tail among the remains as well a crushed and chewed upon skull, disfigured yes, but still retaining a cat-like appearance. “What could have done this?” he asks himself. He knows that grizzlies almost never venture down this far and that mountain lions rarely attack one another, at least so ferociously. “What else?” He ponders as he continues to survey the attack scene, noting that there is very little “meat” left on the remains so that it must have been attacked as food – by something very hungry as there doesn’t appear to be much flesh left.
He finally decides it must have been a coyote or perhaps a group of coyotes, which have been know to attack larger animals cooperatively though their predilections are to roam and hunt solitarily, and this didn’t appear to be a very big mountain lion – certainly a hungry enough coyote could have surprised and overpowered the larger and more agile cat. Perhaps it had been injured or, as it did look to be a juvenile, it just didn’t have the smarts needed to survive such an assault – survival of the fittest! The thought that this could have been done by a wolf or pack of wolves – the lupines indeed are pack animals by nature – flashes into his head but he quickly dismisses that possibility. Yes there are wolves in the Glacier, but the nearest known pack is 50 miles to the east, in the most remote reaches of the majestic park. This at least according the rangers at the local station. “Could they have wandered this far without detection?” No, he’s sure of that. It must have been coyotes.
As if to validate his decision the yelping howl of a coyote erupts in the distance. Though he’s heard the night song of the coyote many times before, standing here in front of the bloody remains, the hairs on the back of his neck are raised in a deeply primitive response and an uncontrollable, involuntary shivers runs down his spine as the chillingly plaintive cry of the animal fades into the cool stillness of the night air. He glances about with frightened, wide-open eyes then catches himself. “Hold on. That was really far away and no coyote’s going to mess with a grown man.”, he thinks to himself. He takes a deep breath and slowly calms himself down though he can feel the adrenaline pumping throughout his body, his heart pounding mightily within his chest. After a few minutes his breathing is almost back to normal and he decides that he’d better get back onto the trail. He’s wasted enough time here and his knee is starting to throb with a dull pain again.
So, once more picking his way carefully, he heads back to the trail and continues on towards the campground. “What an adventure!”, he thinks to himself. “I’ll laugh about this whole thing someday. Especially about how scared I was when that stupid coyote howled.” Now though he just wants to get back. He was sure his friends were worried. He hoped they hadn’t gotten so worried that they called out the search parties. “How embarrassing that would be.” No, better that he pick up his pace a bit, though his whole leg now, not just his knee, rebelled at that notion, so that he could get back as soon as possible. Onward he trudges.
The ground starts to rise in front of him slightly and he greets this with great relief. He’s almost there now as this should be the last little hill before the campground itself should finally come into view – no more than 2 miles or so now! He’s feeling a little better actually. The brisk night air and the nearing prospect of relief from the days tribulation actually invigorates him and he steps up the pace a notch. The trail has now veered over towards the side of the valley so that to his left is a hillside, studded with outcroppings of the multi-hued metamorphic rocks which comprise the area. Beautiful to behold in the day, but now nothing more than dark shadows receding up the hill. He had thought earlier in the day that if for some reason he couldn’t make it all the way back to camp then he would at least try for this far so that he could hole up in a nice protected area for the remainder of the night – it gets fairly cold here by dawn and he wouldn’t have wanted to spend the night in an exposed area. But that’s a mute point. He’s almost there! He can feel his knee oozing again, but he’s so close now… He can almost smell the dinner he’s sure his friends have waiting for him.
The still faint, yet enticing scent of dinner wafts delicately up the nostrils, triggering a wave of hunger pangs. It’s been a while since a full meal has been eaten and the nearing possibility of being able to do so brings a smile to the his lips.
That is, it would if a wolf could smile. The scent of nearby prey wafts stronger, the sweet smell of blood tingles the nose, and the wolf’s empty stomach begins to churn in response.