‘Hey bear. Heeeyyy bear.’ Forget peace and serenity; hikes in Montana’s Glacier National Park play out to this ever-present refrain – with good reason. Around 650 black bears and 600 grizzlies roam this 1,500-square-mile swathe of the Rocky Mountains. That’s a higher concentration than anywhere in the US outside Alaska.
Given the park’s 740 miles of trails, you might think the chances of bumping into one are slim, yet sightings occur daily in summer. Grizzlies have a lethal reputation, but black bears can be equally deadly if you surprise them. That’s why walkers take the vital precaution of alerting bears to their presence. It’s an odd situation, this bear-anoia. Some visitors come to Glacier in summer precisely for the bear-spotting – but they don’t want to spot one too closely, lest they become dinner. The bears live off berries, bugs and fish, but they will maul (and sometimes eat) a human if their space is invaded.
Only a week before my trip, a hiker was killed by a grizzly in Yellowstone, Montana’s more famous (and crowded) national park. Such attacks are rare, but a chilling reminder that walks in grizzly country come with very real dangers.
Others head here to scamper atop waterfalls, climb lush mountains, canoe on the lakes and see a rare triple continental divide – a slope where water flows away into three oceans. Those who only want to see the park’s eponymous glaciers tend to leave disappointed. Only 25 of the original 100-plus remain, and while you can still see them high on the slopes, their diminutive size kills the wow factor.
A far more impressive sight is the 50-mile Going to the Sun Road, the only paved route through the park. It starts at the west gate, hairpins up 2,000 metres to the peak at Logan Pass, then sweeps down to the east gate, passing lakes, wildflower meadows, rocky escarpments and waterfalls.
I want to do all that, but I’m not going to lie: I’m really here for the bears.
On my first hike, to Running Eagle Falls in the late afternoon, I ask everyone I pass, ‘Have you seen a bear?’
‘No, have you?’
By day three, I’ve had this conversation more times than I can count. On the rare occasion I get a ‘yes’, I head off in hot pursuit in case there’s a straggler hanging about. But there never is. Perhaps my sing-song strains of ‘Hey bear’ are a better deterrent than I’d like.
Luckily, consolation prizes abound: an elk sipping water from a glassy lake; a yellow-bellied marmot waddling into the shrubbery; a golden eagle circling overhead. Adorable, inquisitive little Columbian ground squirrels scamper everywhere. I want to put one in my pocket to bring home, but I fear that would be frowned upon by the park officials, HM customs and my husband.
On a ranger-led hike to Iceberg Lake, someone in our group spies the enormous antlers of a bull moose bobbing in a field of flowers a few metres from our path. We stop and hold our breath. The moose lifts his head, gives us the once-over, decides we’re no threat and continues with his lunch. ‘I would have preferred more distance between us,’ our ranger later confides. ‘Moose actually injure far more people than bears do.’ While few attacks are lethal, he says it’s always best to give them a wide berth.
At the top of the trail, we spread blankets on rocks by a milky-blue lake dotted with icebergs. Over sandwiches, we compare notes. One man saw a grizzly from a distance on the Highline, a popular (and precarious) trail along the Continental Divide. Another photographed a black bear outside Many Glacier Hotel. A family spied a cub frolicking among the wildflowers at Two Dog Flats, a clutch of forest-backed meadows near the eastern gate. Our ranger tells us Hidden Lake has been so inundated with bears, thanks to a bumper crop of berries, that it’s been closed to the public for two days.
As we head back downhill, I’m glued to my binoculars, scanning the mountainsides for grizzlies or blacks. I spot an impressive bighorn sheep resting on a high rock, and a coyote running along a ridge, but no bears.
By my final day at Glacier, I’ve accepted that the only bear I’m destined to see is the ‘Great Bear’ constellation I glimpsed while stargazing. I’m a bit gutted. It’s like going on safari and never seeing a lion; you have a marvellous time, but can’t help feeling disappointed.
With six hours before my flight, I hop on a small boat for a tour of St Mary Lake. After an hour, we turn around and start heading back to the dock when the boat comes to a sudden halt. The captain points and I look. Just a few metres from the bow, a huge black bear is swimming in the midst of this three-mile-wide lake. I can’t quite believe it, and the captain is equally stunned. She says she’s only seen this herself once before.
We sit silently and watch the bear paddle deftly to the opposite shore. When she crawls onto land, she jiggles to shake the water off her glistening fur, then looks back in our direction.
‘Hey bear,’ I say under my breath. ‘Heeeyyy bear.’ She blinks slowly, then turns around and vanishes into the woods.
Originally published in Which? Travel magazine.