Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Night of the Grizzlies, 45 Years Later

Michele Koons (top) and Julie Helgeson.

This August 12th and 13th, as planned, I visited both Granite Park Chalet and Trout Lake for the anniversary of the fatalities that occurred that long ago fateful night. While I can't say that there were any stunning revelations as to why I've felt such a strong connection to both victims, visiting the sites has given me a sense of deep peace and personal closure on the matter and, in a strange sense of irony, the evening of August 14th ended with my very first wild bear encounter, capping off what was one of the best hiking/wilderness experiences I've ever had.

Early on August 12th, I set off following the same path that Julie Helgeson and Roy Ducat took on the same day in 1967, along the Highline Trail to Granite Park Chalet. Despite all the hours I've clocked hiking and exploring in Alaska, the Highline, with its sweeping panoramic views, was the best hike I have ever been on and Granite Park Chalet was extraordinary and beautiful. Seated along the alpine country that surrounds the Chalet, with vast mountain vistas rising before me in every direction, I flipped through my paperback copy of Jack Olsen's book and compared some of the black and white photos to the real thing. Obviously the terrain has changed somewhat, but I was able to find some of the locations shown in the book. I did not attempt to locate the old campground where the attack occurred, but instead sat 500 yards above it outside the Chalet taking in the view and the quiet serenity. Before leaving, I stood in the dining room of the Chalet, where Julie ultimately lost her life, easily the most heartbreaking of the two tragedies due to the amount of time that she spent lying alone and wounded in the dark, no doubt wondering if the bear was going to come back for her. As badly as I wanted to stay at the Chalet that night, it is almost always overbooked and getting reservations can be very difficult, so I began making my way down the Loop Trail. I felt a pang of sadness when I caught one final view of the Chalet peeking over the granite hillside and I knew then that I would be back here some day. It's the closest I've found to Heaven on earth.

The journey to Trout Lake on the 13th was not so relaxed. The trail is very narrow, runs through thick, heavy brush in prime grizzly and cougar country, and receives little human traffic. Fortunately there were several visitors that day, perhaps also there for the anniversary, so I decided to cowboy up and make the journey. Despite my initial apprehension about venturing into that area, I found that my fear faded away quickly, replaced by a strange calmness, as I entered the heavily-damaged burn area on the Lake McDonald side of Howe Ridge and a level of heightened awareness came over me that I had never experienced before, despite all the time I've spent in grizzly country. I clapped my hands and called out often as there were many blind corners and thick berry patches along the trail. Occasionally I picked up a large stick and snapped it, sending smaller creatures scattering for cover. The track of a grizzly's hind foot was pressed deep into the mud about halfway up the trail, but the bear that left it was nowhere to be seen. When I reached the Trout Lake side of the ridge, that twinge of nervousness returned. I had moved out of the open burn area which provided no cover from the pounding sun and the blazing 90 degree temperatures and entered a darker, cooler terrain virtually untouched by the fire. If the rest of the park was the bears backyard, this was their living room, though I was more concerned about mountain lions than grizzlies.

After the steep climb over and down Howe Ridge, I arrived at Trout Lake and the famous logjam. Although the campsite has long been closed down and nobody stays the night there anymore, it is very near this area where Michele Koons lost her life, her death more mercifully swift than Julie Helgeson's at Granite Park. I'm only able to guess from that little info where the campsite was but that feels irrelevant compared to just being there. I stand at the shore of the lake, gazing out over the logjam and turquoise waters, Heaven's Peak towering above. The other hikers have disappeared, either back up the ridge or further down the trail to Arrow Lake, and I'm left alone in this peaceful place. This and Granite Park have already become two of my favorite places in Glacier and I think they will remain that way. There are no man-made tributes to Julie and Michele at either of these sites and I don't think there need to be; the stunning beauty of the country and the silence that hangs over it like a blanket is the best memorial anyone could ever have and ensures that their lives will long be remembered. Like Granite Park Chalet, I'm sad to leave Trout Lake but I know I'll return here one day. That night I'm sore and tired from two big trips in as many days, but I feel a sense of peace so deep that it's almost a tangible thing and I can't stop smiling. There is a very strong spirit in those places and it's ready to touch anyone who is receptive to it.

August 14th:

Late in the evening I'm returning home from the Flathead River with a friend and co-worker. Lightning illuminates the western sky in those final minutes before dusk. As we walk off the main road onto the private drive to the employee cabins, we are stopped by the sight of a dark, lumbering shape coming up the drive towards us. We're not terribly concerned; this is the 300 pound black bear that's been foraging in the area for weeks and who has been behaving in a very docile manner during close encounters with people, so we backed away and gave him plenty of room to get out. He crossed the entrance of the drive 50 yards away from us, entered the foliage, and emerged onto the main road, eating berries as he moved in the opposite direction. Just as we started down the gravel path, he ducked back into the foliage and started coming down the slope back to the drive, right toward us. We clapped and announced our presence. He stopped for a moment and then went crashing through the brush. We grabbed our bear spray in case we were being charged. With the increasing darkness, we couldn't see what happened, but the bear seemed to be gone so we continued on to the cabins, bubbling with excitement and chatting up the encounter the whole way. The bear did not, as far as I know, follow us. Kind of ironic in a way, it served as an interesting exclamation point to the previous couple of days.

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