Al Campbell, Field Editor

June 3rd, 2002

The Great Bear Lake Adventure
By Al Campbell

About 23 years ago, my good friend Tom Cuddy and I decided to backpack to Bear Lake in the Bob Marshal Wilderness of Montana. Rumor had it four pound cutthroat trout cruised around the lake just looking for a fly to bite. Being fly fishermen, we decided it was time to teach those fish a lesson in humility.

We worked the night before we took off, but being young (in our late twenties); we felt we were in shape for the nineteen-mile hike. A quick breakfast and a couple cups of coffee as we drove west, and we were at the trailhead. Piece of cake, we'd be fishing the lake before dark. At least that was the plan.

By noon I had cramps in my legs. Young or not, hiking without proper rest was telling on me. Tom's legs started to cramp less than an hour later. It slowed us down, but we'd make it. After all, it was a nice day and cool for early August. Why make camp before we reached our destination? We'd just take our time getting there.

It was after midnight when we reached the lake. It had been raining for two hours, we were soaked, and it was getting colder than usual for a mid summer night. Rather than risk a fall climbing a tree in the dark to hang the backpacks, (this is grizzly country), we shoved them under the rain fly, hoped the bears were dining elsewhere, and slid into our sleeping bags for some much needed rest.

When I opened my eyes and zipped open the tent door in the morning, there was six inches of snow on the ground and on top of our tent. To make matters worse, it was still snowing. Maybe I could use a few more minutes of sleep.

The snow quit falling before nine. Time for some fishing and a little fresh air. If we were lucky, we might be able to land a hefty trout or two by noon. The fog was lifting too. What a beautiful lake, nestled in the rocks just below the top of a mountain, it looked like a sapphire set in the gold chain of he mountains. And, there were thousands of chunky cutthroat trout cruising the shoreline looking for an easy lunch. We were ready to have some fun and do a little exploring.

An elk leg sticking out of a small pile of rocks caught my attention. So did the grizzly bear tracks. There were lots of tracks in the fresh snow. We weren't alone, and we were sure we didn't like the neighbors. To add to our concern, the grizzly's lunchroom was only a couple hundred yards from where we had pitched the tent. It wasn't a comforting feeling.

Older or wiser people would have packed their gear and left the lake right then, but not us. We reasoned that the bear had finished his lunch and would probably leave us alone as long as we stayed clear of his dining area. He was probably sleeping it off somewhere. The tracks went over the top of the mountain, so he would probably be gone for at least a day. Anyway, that's what we thought.

Catching big cutthroat trout eased our fears for a little while. OK, it helped entertain us while we looked over our shoulders for Mr. Griz. We decided not to keep any fish thinking that the smell of freshly cooked fish might be misinterpreted by a furry visitor as an invitation to dinner. That was probably the only bright thing we did that day.

We didn't see the bear that day; he never returned. Rather than try to pitch the tent in the snow someplace else, we left it where it was. After all, he had his lunch buried somewhere else, why should he bother us? We'd just keep our handguns handy in case the bear had a change of plans.

Ping, something bumped the rain fly cord. It was out there moving around, maybe sizing us up for its next meal. Ping, it bumped the cord on the other side of the tent, the side where the backpacks were stored. Maybe it would grab the backpacks and leave us alone, but it didn't. It just kept moving slowly around the tent, like it was trying to figure out which one of us to eat first.

It finally stopped moving and started crunching something near the tent door. Tom and I were sure it was finishing lunch while it decided which one of us would be the midnight snack. Maybe it was a bad idea to stay on this side of the lake. Maybe it was a bad idea to stay anywhere near the lake, or even the mountain. If we survived the night, (that didn't seem likely at the moment), we'd have a lot more respect for big bears in the future. We were gaining wisdom by the minute.

I had a plan. We had flashlights and capable handguns; so why were we trembling? We'd quietly zip open the door of the tent, turn on our flashlights and aim our guns at the bear. If it ran away, great; if not, we'd defend ourselves and worry about the consequences later. What else could we do? I wasn't going to sit there quietly and become a snack to a bear with a big appetite!

I'm not sure why the bear didn't hear us whispering. It should have been able to hear our hearts beating like hummingbird wings; but it just stayed by the tent door eating whatever it was having for lunch. We zipped open the tent door, and on the count of three, turned on our flashlights and aimed our handguns.

We didn't get the reaction we expected. In fact, nothing was as we expected. There in the light of our flashlights was a mule deer doe munching on bear grass, a crunchy grass that exists in the mountains of Montana. The deer wasn't at all concerned about our lights. It didn't have any idea how close to death it had come. It just kept eating the bear grass, wiggling its ears, and looking at us as if to say "What's the matter with you guys?" When it was done eating, it curled up with the backpacks under the rain fly on the only dry ground around.

We didn't sleep well that night. In the morning we left the mountain, glad to be alive. Our biggest adventure had been played out in our imaginations, but that is far better than the alternatives. We had safely learned a few lessons without paying the high price often demanded for such an education. Now we have something to laugh about; something that will live with us for a lifetime. We had survived the "Great Bear Lake Adventure." ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

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