Reflections on Glacier Park: Grizzly bears, pedagogy, and the “Death March”

Reflections a column by Tony Smith


Inevitably, it was bound to happen. After logging numerous miles with my spouse Peggy, my good friend Roy Richardson, and then alone on Glacier Park’s many trails, occasionally sighting bears on the slopes above the trails to Grinnell Glacier, Granite Park and Sperry Glacier Chalets, Iceberg Lake, Piegan Pass, Siyeh Pass to Sunrift Gorge, and many others without an actual “encounter”, July 28, 2009, was indeed a memorable day, one vividly etched in my memory as my friends and companions Jeff Ferderer ( a former Troy High School teacher), Lowell Jaeger (Montana’s current poet laureate), and I were sharing the same rise on the trail with a grizzly as we were coming down from the Ptarmigan Tunnel, the bear coming up one side, we the other. First seeing the bears “hump” from a distance of some 20 feet (the distance has gotten shorter as the years have gone by), and then the fullness of the male boar, I immediately yelled “whoa, bear!” At the sound of my voice, the bear, by this time some 10-15 feet away, came to a complete stop, but began to sway his head and front shoulders from side to side, which to me was a threatening gesture. Firing off a burst of pepper spray, aimed slightly above the bear’s head, immediately ended the threatening behavior, and gave us time to back down a side trail at the foot of Ptarmigan Lake (I’m never without pepper spray while hiking in the Cabinets or to my favorite huckleberry haunts in the Scotchman’s or the Yaak, but also never do I carry it in a holster. Being left-handed, it is always secured in the left pocket of my hiking pants, and immediately available. Going through thick brush like Alder and near rushing streams, it is always in my left hand. Time is of the essence. This of one of the lessons learned hiking in Glacier Park). At any rate, the bear eventually continued up the trail as we watched, approaching a gentleman who had his lunch open at the head end of the lake (no doubt the bear’s primary goal), following the badly shaken man trying to make his way around the lake toward us. Fortunately, he secured his lunch as we yelled to get his attention, and was eventually able to reach us. All in all, it was an experience I’d never want to repeat, and I’ve not hiked alone in Glacier Park since that incident.

However, that experience, as unnerving as it was, did not deter us from hiking in Glacier, and subsequent experiences hiking with friends over the years, has enhanced the enjoyment of such a magical place. In fact, it was exactly a year to the day, July 28, 2010, that our hiking group consisting of Jim May, Jon England, Craig Rowan, Jeff Gruber, and Jeff Ferderer were climbing Triple Divide Peak in the remote Cut bank Creek part of the Park. Well, they made it to the peak; being a “plodder” and recovering from an Achilles Heel injury requiring surgery, I never quite made it, although Mr. May said the ultimate destination was “right around the corner.” And Ferd, being the loyal comrade he is, stayed with me on that Medicine-Grizzly Lake trail, heavily infested with grizzly bears, thus being deprived the opportunity to climb the peak (Triple Divide Peak is a famous moniker for water that will eventually reach the Atlantic, Pacific, and Artic Oceans).

Most enjoyable has been the pre-hike dinners at either the Two-Medicine lodge, Swiftcurrent Inn, or the Many Glacier Hotel. Arriving at our destination in the early evening hours, we gather to discuss the next day’s hike, current events, coaching (basketball, of course), educational issues, and are treated to the invariably- humorous glib remarks by Mr. May. To be surrounded by some of Montana’s finest educators, ones I can’t “hold a candle to,” has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my own teaching career, and I’ve learned more about teaching over those many hours of dinner and “refreshments” than in any  University Education classes where “Pedagogy” is the catch-word. Pedagogy! Can you say Ped.a.go-gy? By definition, it means “a method or practice of teaching especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept.” In reality, it is a stuffy, boring term thrown around in dreaded Education Departments or at cocktail parties by educational elites and has no relevance or application to the real world of teaching. As my friend and mentor Marv Sather so succinctly articulated, “Effective teaching is the balance of mind and heart and relationships with kids.” Amen!

On the eve of our Triple Divide Peak hike occurred one of our more humorous episodes. Although we had assigned rooms in an East Glacier area lodging (to be unnamed), only Mr. Gruber had the good sense to check in early and secure his room key before our dinner engagement. Arriving back at our lodging some 4 hours after dinner, the owners went missing, so to speak, leaving the rest of us without keys to our rooms. We stood around for some time wondering how the other six of us were going to share Jeff’s, room, until Mr. Gruber intuitively (or due to a heightened sense of “refreshment” awareness), determined that his key just might open the other three rooms, which naturally, it did! Doesn’t that make the reader and adventurer feel secure in motels?

Over the years, our group has completed the most spectacular trails Glacier has to offer, including Grinnell Glacier, Ptarmigan Tunnel, and Iceberg Lake;  from Two Medicine over Dawson and Pitamakan Passes to Cut Back Creek (an 18-mile marathon), and many others. One of the highlights of my entire hiking career was watching the late Jim England complete the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail, gazing in wonderment down on Lake Elizabeth, some 3,000 feet below. The last mile of that hike is not for sissies, but his determination and accomplishment was something to behold! I would not have missed it for the world.

August 10, 2012 “The Death March”

It seems odd that the slowest and most incompetent hiker of the group would suggest such a ludicrous idea, hiking the 20.1-mile distance from Swiftcurrent to the Canadian border along the Belly River, a route up through the Ptarmigan Tunnel, descending 6 miles to Lake Elizabeth on sand-like scree, another 3 miles to Dawn Mist Falls, and on to the Belly River Ranger Station, exactly 6 miles from the border. The few hikers we encountered along the way would inquire about our camping sites, but never did we camp in Glacier Park—all of our hikes were day-hikes. By the time we passed the Belly River Ranger station we were in high-plateau-like grasses and that blocked our view and seemed to be perfect grizzly bear habitat. The rustle of the wind through the Quaking Aspen and sounds of the nearby Belly River seemed to create a fearful effect, but by that time Mr. May, Ferd, and I were so exhausted that with the best humor we could muster, we exclaimed, “just take us now, grizzly bears. It doesn’t matter!” To top it off, the last 2 miles was straight up from the valley floor to the Canadian border. Mr. England and Mr. Rowan were at the border resting comfortably, typically at least an hour ahead of us.

This past summer on the eve of a hike to Grinnell Lake with my sisters, I awoke early (around 5:00 a.m.) and drove the International Highway back up to the Canadian border, mesmerized by the rising sun on the face of Chief Mountain, the most sacred vision quest site of the Piegan-speaking Blackfeet tribes. I gazed with trepidation down at the switch-backs of that trail we traversed some 7 years past, knowing I’d neither go down nor back up that trail again in my lifetime. And we no longer hike as a group. Mother time, injuries and those dang grand children now consume us. However, since the death of our parents, my sisters and I take our annual trek to Glacier. Last year we completed the 7-mile round-trip to Grinnell Lake, and let me tell you, my sisters are no longer “spring chickens,” as they say. We’ve planned a hike to Twin Falls in the Two Medicine area this coming summer, catching The Sinopah, the boat across Two Medicine Lake, one serviced and operated by Libby’s own Ralph Tate many years past.

I must remember to call Mr. Gruber and request his key in case we forget to “check in” to our lodging before dinner at the magnificent Two Medicine Lodge.