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Montana: Grizzly Lake

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I have always wondered why sons and daughters must be taught to revere the covenant that exists between god, man and fish. You would think a Fisher of Men, who once fed the multitudes with loaves and fishes would have loaded a love of all things piscatorial onto our emotional hard disc. It’s a mystery why he didn’t–why it is that the love of fishing must be nurtured in the young–why their first hours cannot be squandered on lakes or rivers where the ring of rising fish is a thing of rare beauty. A child’s first trips must be to a fish farm where every cast touches off a feeding frenzy. Or failing that, to a high mountain lake where the trout are long, fat and stupid.

It was early afternoon in late July when Russ Squire invited me along on four day pack trip into Montana’s Taylor Hogart Wilderness. According to Russ, this pristine blue mirror was only four miles and eight hundred vertical feet from the trail head. Even better, gear wouldn’t be a problem.
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“Heck, bring everything you want, we’ve got a string of pack horses.” Russ promised, then added the kicker “And you won’t believe the fishing….huge west slope cut throats.” When Squire starts dropping verbs, you know he’s serious. “Twenty four inches average!,” he promised. “By day two you won’t be able to hold your rod tip up! Bring your boys,” he added.

Listening to Russ’s description of how the lake’s two foot Cutthroat would inhale #8 hair flies, I immediately replied. “Count us in.”

We should have bailed when a pilot friend spotted the grizzlies. Two days before we were scheduled to meet at the trailhead, he told Russ, “There’s a couple’a bears at the lake.”
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During a subsequent phone call I asked, “You think the grizzlies could still be hanging out? “

“Nah, no way,” Russ replied.

On that early August morning Andrew (13), Robert (11) and I loaded the Taurus wagon and struck out across the Arco desert toward Bozeman. The wagon was my wife’s car and as such she wasn’t too happy the last time we brought it back splashed with black mud, scarred by fresh scratches and half a dozen stalks of cheat grass stuck in the radiator. Rusty insisted the low slung Ford would have no trouble handling the gravel road into the trail head.
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“It’s as good as pavement,” he promised. And, for a few miles it was, but we were well past the point of no return when the smooth gravel abruptly disintegrated into a rutted logging road. A mile after that, waist high grass suddenly sprouted between the tire tracks obscuring chunks of shale that could eviscerate the wagon’s oil pan in a single jarring bite. Having the boys walk ahead and heave the biggest boulders off the road made for slow going and it was noon before we pulled to a stop next to two horse trailers.heavy-pack-hike-in

Russ introduced us to Vito Quattraro, Kevin Kelleher and his daughters Brenna 13, Kiley 11 and son Connor 8. Only Robert, Andrew and I would be backpacking and one look at the pack horses (which were already trying to buck off their heavy panniers) made it clear we wouldn’t be lightening our loads. A four mile hike, however, is a piece of cake.

We had gone less than a mile along the trail when Robert advised me that he’d gotten kicked in the ribs while recently horsing around with a friend. The pack’s extra weight was now making it difficult to breathe.

I was transferring his load to mine when the riders passed. Vito took one look at Robert and asked if he’d care to ride.

“Elk season’s coming,’ Vito said as he dismounted, “And I could use the exercise.” I started to say that Robert could hike the three miles, but my youngest son looked so relieved at the offer, so grateful to Vito, that at the risk of ruining his trip, I helped my son into the saddle.
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Two miles later the trail angle steeply upward into a thick forest where the riders left Andrew and I behind. At each rise I expected the lodge pole and douglas fir to fall away to the lake but another mile passed. Andrew then confessed that he had hot spots on his heels. Even worse, we were almost out of water and the giardia filter was on the horses. By the time we reached the wild flower filled meadow where camp was pitched, it was late afternoon, we’d been out of water for hours and despite mole skin, clean socks and tight laces, two huge blisters covered Andrew’s heels.
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It felt like we’d hiked fifteen miles–though it was probably closer to eight and the lake still wasn’t in sight. “It’s on top of that face,” Russ explained, pointing to a faint trail that switched up an exposed cliff. Andrew and I didn’t have the extra thousand vertical feet in us and could only watch as Russ and Vito grabbed their rods and started to climb. We were in the midst of lacing tent pole A through loop C when Robert observed, “Uh, Dad, I think they’re coming back down…….and fast!”

As soon as Russ and Vito reached camp, they described how they’d just started to rig their rods when two grizzlies came charging down the shore. “It happened so quickly,” Vito remembered, we had just enough time to drop our gear and run.”
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The kids looked at each other. “Grizzlies?” Andrew repeated.

In an attempt to prevent a nocturnal visit, we built our kitchen far from the tents, staked the horses to thick fir trees and when we were finished with dinner, cleaned the area like a surgical operatory. That night around the fire, we avoided any mention of maulings.

The stars formed a searing white sash above the basin’s high walls when we crawled into our sleeping bags. Andrew and I lay on the outside while Robert held the pepper spray between us. Pepper Spray is a witch’s brew of ground cayenne and propellants guaranteed to make ursus horriblus wish he’d never laid eyes on homo sapien. “Use in short, timed bursts,” the instructions read. The sheet then added. “Effective range is ten to fifteen feet. Don’t shoot into the wind,” Ten feet seemed critically close– certainly close enough to see the bear’s dark, primordial eye, the bright glint of its canine teeth, the terrible curve of claw and the heavy hump of its shoulder. I wondered if I could hold fire until the bear was on me? Or would I panic and empty the contents into the wind, effectively seasoning myself for Mr. Horriblus’s first, bone breaking bite?
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There was also the issue of a loaded magnum pistol. Vito had one, a heavy chunk of death dealing steel that might only blow big holes in the tents, or make Mr. Horriblus madder than ever.
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It was two a.m. in the darkest heart of night when a large branch broke. Robert whispered, “Dad, did you hear that?”

“Yes, we heard it!” Andrew replied for both of us. At that instant the horses started to whinny, a deep chested alarm that woke the camp. Kevin and Vito’s flashlights lit up the tent a moment before two broke loose. The nervous geldings kept us up most of the night and we were all grateful when the stars faded. Coffee and blue berry pancakes help banish the night terrors and the sun was just touching the canyon wall when we started toward the lake.
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In all honesty I did not expect to see grizzlies that morning. I figured they’d probably run like hell after the encounter with Russ and Vito. I was wrong. The lake clung like a flat blue mirror in a vast, above tree line cirque. What was left of Vito and Russ’s gear was scattered down the shore. The bears had eaten the fly float, leader sink and sunscreen. What they hadn’t chewed they’d trashed, leaving the wind to scatter five hundred dollars worth of flies across the smooth black slate. Studying the mess, I wondered now many dozen brightly colored Wulffs, Cahills and bent legged grasshoppers now adorned the bears mouth nose and ears.
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I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. The grizzlies were less than a half mile away, feeding slowly across an open green meadow. I see now we should have grabbed what was left of Russ’s gear and headed back down the cliff.
Grizzlies have mediocre vision but a remarkable sense of smell. Because we were downwind, the grizzlies were unaware of us and we decided if we kept a close eye on their movement, we might be able to land a few fish and slip away.

While I watched the grizzlies through binoculars Andrew and Robert cast to the rising cuts. Russ was fighting a large fish when the wind suddenly shifted, casting our scent across the lake. The effect was electric. The bears rose to their hind legs, tested the air and slowly began to move toward us. A grizzly is capable of thirty miles an hour, which, in terms of speed, puts it between a white tail deer and African warthog. Their walk instantly turned to a trot which quickly accelerated to a lope.

The grizzlies were coming fast when Vito fired his pistol in the air. The bears slowed, but did not stop and we yelled for the kids to grab their gear and run. In seconds they looked like a flock of mountain goats, bounding down the cliff face.
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I suspect the only reason the grizzlies didn’t follow was because the fishing was every bit as good as Russ had promised. The bears, however, didn’t leave us much choice. We couldn’t risk another night in the meadow and I taped up Andrew’s feet, took some weight from Robert’s pack and led the way back down toward the trail head. Three days later the bears chased a lone fisherman out of the lake and the Montana Fish and Game closed the entire eight mile drainage to human travel.
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In hindsight, how would I rate the trip? As a fortuitous education. None of us were mauled, the bears weren’t shot and I still own a fresh canister of pepper spray. We had hiked fourteen miles and three thousand vertical feet for six casts. But when I think about Andrew and Robert’s disappointment, I know that time would have only reduced the numbers and size of the fish. In their minds, however, the bears will grow larger and more aggressive and that image alone was well worth the hardship. I also wonder how I’ll react when Russ next calls to spin wondrous tales about wilderness lakes filled with record trout.

I suspect with a bit of caution…..and a great deal of excitement.

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