TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of TheBigOutside.com and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

Jagged Peaks, Mountain Lakes, and Wild Goats

We’re just seconds beyond the sign at the start of the Gunsight Pass Trail that reads “Entering Grizzly Country” when Nate, who’s a month shy of his tenth birthday, begins aggressively making the case for why he should be armed.

“Why can’t I carry a pepper spray?” he asks me—again and again.

Penny Beach on the Gunsight Pass Trail

It’s an idyllic, late-summer afternoon in the Northern Rockies—the sun shining warmly, a gently cooling breeze rippling the air, not a white speck of moisture in the sky. We are heading out on a three-day family backpacking trip to Gunsight Pass in Montana’s Glacier National Park. One of the logistically easiest and shortest multi-day hikes in the park, the 20-mile traverse from Gunsight Pass Trailhead to Lake McDonald Lodge—both of which are on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and served by the park’s free shuttle bus—takes in some of Glacier’s most spectacular scenery, including views of one of its largest rivers of ice (all of which are steadily shrinking), scores of waterfalls, and a backcountry campsite at Lake Ellen Wilson that is one of the prettiest in the park.

Unfortunately, I was not able to get a permit for the full traverse; it’s popular and backpacker numbers are restricted to avoid overuse and preserve a sense of solitude. So instead, we’ll spend two nights at Gunsight Lake, dayhike to Gunsight Pass, and then backtrack to the Gunsight Pass Trailhead on our last day.

Having hiked the traverse before, I knew Nate and our seven-year-old daughter, Alex, easily have the stamina for the three six-mile days we’ll do. The much bigger concern for my wife, Penny, and me was the preoccupying idea of backpacking in grizzly-bear country with our young kids. In fact, a year ago, I had a close encounter with a sow griz and her two cubs on the Gunsight Pass Trail. Although we know that such encounters are rare, we’ll have to be diligent about making sure the kids don’t inadvertently bring a pocketful of Jolly Ranchers into the tent for the night.

Thinking along similar lines, my hyper-focused son is consumed by the conviction that he should be armed with one of the pepper-spray canisters holstered to the hipbelts of Penny’s and my backpacks. When not distracted by throwing sticks into the raging creek at Deadwood Falls, or watching for moose in the boggy, partly forested flats of the St. Mary River, he persistently returns to his argument that he is just as capable as his mother or me of calmly deploying pepper spray at a charging grizzly. I try, in vain, to convince him that an adult is better able to react to that inconceivably frightful circumstance—although I’m not really sure I believe that.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from that trip at thebigoutside.com/Glacier_s_Gunsight_Pass_4VU.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

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