I was nearing the top of the valley, by a series of waterfalls, en route to climb a couple of peaks. It was the first day of a six-day trip. Five nights on my own, high in the alpine.
I was just beginning to relish the solitude when suddenly a set of fresh tracks appeared in the mud.
Whoever they belonged to was going my way.
Earlier in the day, I spotted the same tracks I had seen a couple of weeks ago on my scouting mission to the area. The prints were faded but still recognizable—their presence confirmed they weren’t just dancing reminders in my head. Now these fresh tracks were telling me their owner was still in the neighbourhood. Some of them contained a few silver-tipped hairs–as if I needed clues to whom they belonged to.
Damn! You never get away from them. They wander the mountains like they own the place, which of course they do. This was their habitat, this was their terrain, this was grizzly country, the loneliness they roamed through—and I was right in it. I was in a place, the only one left on the continent where we are not top dog, where Homo sapiens bow like the sailor before the waves.
Spirit of the grizzly was in the air, in the meadows, in the woods and valleys, alongside the gravel flats and streams, like static electricity before lightning strikes.
To feel the tug I didn’t have to see the owner of those prints. This wasn’t virtual reality. My chest muscles tightened; I felt the wildness sink right down to my boots. It was frightening yet thrilling. Hot and cold all at the same time.
Suddenly this place felt different than just moments before: the mountains bigger, the valley sides steeper, the forest darker, the creek swifter—and I was afraid.
Laid out in my tent that night, like priestly vestments before Mass, was my ice ax, hiking stick, and a pathetic two-and-half inch pocket knife. In case. Not that they’d do much good if Griz paid me a call. Not much good for defence against the king of the mountains that has been known to keep right on charging with half a head blown off, jugular spouting like a wildcat, heart and lungs peppered with lead, and guts spilling out all over the show. A grizzly can run at 30 mph and for sixty seconds after a killing shot. So even supposing that I had a high-powered rifle and got off a lucky shot I could still get nailed by an eight-hundred pound cannonball. As the hunter knows, Griz is one tough hombre, and he’s shooting at an animal that can shoot back. Yet I felt better with my flimsy arsenal beside me, and the tent walls hiding me.
There was a moon up, the Big Dipper over Titanic Peak—and somewhere out there a silver-tipped grizzly.
I hardly slept. I lay listening to the silence, waiting to catch the soft pad of Moccasin Joe, as the mountain men called grizzlies. I wrestled with the dilemma: was it best to be inside a tent or outside? Inside, you can’t see the bear coming; outside, when you see a bear coming you might wish to be inside the tent. Thoughts and images galloping through my mind, in that hazy, frightening realm that lies between wakefulness and uneasy sleep.
Sure, a craven wretch awake with his dreams, yet I can say with a certain swagger:
“Yeah, I’ve camped in grizzly country. Actually there’s a magic with it, sleeping among the great bear—like we’re brothers.”