When the video is finished, we don’t say a word. We just sign a legal document that absolves Glacier National Park from all liability if we are slain on the trail. When the paperwork is done, and we have tagged our backpacks with identification numbers, we are ready to hit the trail.
“Great. Now that that’s over… shall we?” Ben says with a wry smile. He is the only one who has hiked in Glacier National Park before, and he must have seen the video before. Not that he warned us about it.
“Let’s go,” I hear myself saying, even though a knot is forming in my throat. “It’s now or never.”
We load our backpacks into the courtesy shuttle that will deliver us to the trailhead, and as the shuttle winds its way up The Going to the Sun Road, on switchbacks that sit like shelves on the stone face of the Rockies, we take in the spectacle. Mount Reynolds rises from a deep river valley in the distance, a glacier weighing heavy on her shoulder. Off in the distance, a waterfall plummets a hundred meters or more down a sheer rock wall. The scenery is nothing short of spectacular, and I have soon forgotten about the bear safety video as I rummage through my backpack, making sure that all my camera batteries are charged. This is why I travel, I remind myself, to feel these endorphins pumping through my veins. It’s like a drug, and I relax into the euphoria, noticing all the little details that I plan to take with me when I leave America. The smell of pine. The gentle updraft of warm wind rising from the valley below. The cloudless, blue sky. Neon blue. The kind of blue that connects memories across the ages. Forever blue. This is paradise.
The trail is narrow and rocky, and leads us across streams and wide-open fields full of purple bloom. Every now and then we stop to marvel, but Ben has the stamina of a mountain goat, and pushes on as soon as we have the breath to speak. It is hard work, and we sweat in silence to the sound of squeaking boot leather. One mile. Then two. Then four point three. Before we know it, we have crested a small rise, and a small lake comes into view. Nestled into a valley between Fusillade Mountain to the North and Gunsight Mountain to the West, Gunsight Lake sits at 5,351 feet and has the cobalt blue sheen of glacier water. I fumble for my camera and take a shaky photo before we kneel, exhausted on the bank of the lake and numb our faces with the water.
After setting camp and dining on two minute noodles, we follow the instructions in the video; we throw a small length of rope over a low-hanging branch so we can hoist all our aromatic food twenty feet up. Out of the reach of bears.
I drift in and out of sleep that first night, waking with a start each time I can hear the sound of something tramping in the brush outside. It could be any number of animals we saw on our trek up: elk, moose, or rock marmots. But no matter how big the sound, I imagine a dark silhouette with muscled haunches, circling our tents, raising a wet nose to the breeze as he forages for human flesh.
In the morning, the air is a good twenty degrees colder, and the sun sits on the top of the eastern ridge like a dab of butter, melting into the valley in golden streams. We light a fire and thaw our hands with large cups of steaming coffee, breathing it all in. This is day two of our trek, and we pull out a topographical map of the area and a compass, tracing our way up the trail to Gunsight pass, where we plan to cross the Rockies that evening. It is only a mile and a half to the pass, but with an elevation gain of over two thousand feet, it will be rough going with sore muscles from the day before.
The trail away from the lake is a narrow cut of brown dirt among a field of yellow wildflowers, and at first, it feels like a walk in the park. But soon the ground turns to granite, and Ben is out in front, searching for stone waymarkers that will lead us to the next patch of trail.
Little clumps of huckleberry cling to the rock face, and I stop to pick a few bright red berries, savoring the tart flavor. It’s the kind of sour that makes your face pucker involuntarily, and I wince through it, happy for a distraction from the arduous switchbacks that seem to go on forever. A slow burn sets into my upper legs, and I begin to find a rhythm for my breathing to distract myself from the pain. Two steps in… Two steps out… Two steps in… Two steps out…
“Whoa there!” I hear Ben yell out, but it takes a few seconds for me to see what he’s talking about, “Whoa!” Ben has his hands up and he looks over his shoulder, his face white. He points to the path ahead and I can see her standing there, staring us down, brown hair bristling on her haunches as she sizes us up. This is a grizzly bear. A big one. And she rears up on her hind legs and lets out a sort of… hiss. That’s the only way to describe it. It sounds more like a sound you would expect a wildcat to make, but here it is coming from a bear that stands six or seven feet tall in front of us.
It takes every ounce of my resolve not to turn tail and run. Instead, I raise my camera and pull the grizzly bear into focus. I watch her shake her head at us, and it feels like I’m watching a documentary on National Geographic or the Discovery Channel. There is a grizzly bear filling the frame. Click, I take a photo. Click. I take another.
In the corner of the frame, I can see Ben waving his arms and yelling out, “Whoa bear! Whoa!” and I can see the bear take another step towards us. I can feel my limbs go numb. The air whistles around me. Everything slows down, and I can feel my pupils dilate to a pinprick. Every sense is heightened now, and I’m trying to remember what I’m supposed to do from the bloody video, and then all of a sudden I can hear Josh find his composure behind me, and begin to sing at a volume that only the truly tone deaf have the confidence to bellow, “We built this city… We built this city on ROCK AND ROLL!”
All of a sudden, the bear shudders, and moves a few steps back.
Ben continues to yell, I continue to take photos, and Josh continues to sing off key… and slowly, miraculously, the bear turns and shuffles off down the trail, leaving us in a vacuum of silent awe at what we have just encountered.
As the reality of the moment settles in, Ben and I look at Josh with question marks for eyebrows. “Really?” we laugh out loud, “We Built This City?” This is a song by Starship that, according to a Rolling Stone Magazine poll in 2011, won in a landslide victory as the worst song of the 1980s. In 2004, Blender also named this song the Most Awesomely Bad Song of All Time, and it seems that humans are not the only species that feel this way.
In our own independent poll of the great outdoors, Ben, Josh and I discovered that “We Built This City” is also a detestable song to wildlife, though, for what it’s worth, I have a newfound appreciation for Starship. After all, they saved my life.
Jim Lounsbury lives in Sydney, Australia and makes films to support a travel habit. He writes for ytraveler.com and you can find him on twitter as @poetreefalling … And if you’re wondering where those photographs of the bear are, he lost them three weeks later on a trip to Mexico, when he got his Grandmother’s Cadillac stolen, but that’s another story.