WEST GLACIER - When we commemorate Glacier National Park's centennial next month, we won't be celebrating 100 years of peaks and rivers.

Those were, after all, here long before the park was named a park.

This birthday, rather, is a celebration of us and our stories - our tales of this place, collected over 100 summers. The biggest fish caught, the bulliest moose seen, that time the bear chased you into the river and your pack helped float you across.

The best stories have both people and critters as characters, because unlike scenic views, people and critters are unpredictable. Your description of a peak will be much like the next guy's, but your grizzly tale is unique - it's all yours because wildlife encounters are random, erratic, unpredictable moments that say as much about the teller as they do about the tale.

They are the smell of bear, just before you catch a flash of fur rumbling through the brush. Or the glint of sun, pooling in water droplets on a merganser's back. Or maybe just the wonderful way a dipper moves beneath rushing whitewater. Moments of surprise and wonder and, sometimes, adrenaline.

These are the park distilled, the stories told and retold - and sometimes growing, just a bit - as they're passed around the endless campfires.

Some of them are even true.

***

George Ostrom was rolled into his sleeping bag - a bit like a human burrito, he said - with the stars for a roof when "I felt something, and heard something, bumping around."

He was camped with his old friend Loren Kreck, in the high headwaters of Lake Evangeline, and it was bear country, and George has a pretty good imagination.

"But when I opened my eyes," he said, "it wasn't a bear at all. It was this porcupine with her young ones."

And one of the young ones was perched there on Ostrom's hiking partner.

"It was sitting on Kreck's chest, and Kreck was lying on his back, and he's snoring, and his chest is going up and down, and the porcupine's going up and down, and its rear end is awfully close to Kreck's face."

And so Ostrom did what any good friend would do. He got himself a big stick.

"Well, it was dark, and I was kind of jabbing around with the stick, and sure enough I poke Kreck a good one and he wakes up, all mad that I'm going at him with this stick, but then he starts laughing when I show him the porcupines, and he just rolls over and starts snoring again.

"That's the way Kreck was, you know."

***

It's like a riddle. What can drive a big grizzly bear off his lunch?

Jack Potter has spent 40 years working in Glacier National Park, and has had more up-close-and-in-person encounters with its critters than he'd care to remember. But the one that floats to the top isn't scary, or strange or adventurous. It's just intimate, a moment when he was granted a glimpse into the daily workings of Glacier's backcountry.

He was somewhere up above Jackstraw Lake, in the shadow of Eagle Ribs and Red Crow, when he spotted a large, silvertip grizzly lying on top of a six-point bull elk.

The bear, he said, had staked his claim as king of the carcass, and was swatting at ravens, living large on the fat of the land.

But then comes this enormous black grizzer, a giant, ambling along snuffling the huckleberries as he goes. "He comes sauntering down," Potter said, "catches a whiff of that carcass and makes a beeline."

The silvertip doesn't hesitate - he just takes off down the drainage, his place firmly established in this hierarchy.

"It was," Potter said, "just the usual daily drama, but for once I was there to see it unfold."

***

"We were climbing up to that famous Gem Notch, and it was fall, close to Ivan O'Neil's and Elmer Searles' birthdays, and we always have a little cake on the trail," said George Ostrom. "So we're up there, on the trail below the notch, having a party, and naturally we're singing Happy Birthday - ‘happy birthdaaay dear Ivan-and-Elmer...'"

"Well, I don't know if it was the singing that caused it, but a band of about six mountain goats comes charging in among us. They don't attack, they just run right through."

One of the party - a radio man - actually captured on tape the sounds of hooves on rocks as the goats rattled through.

"So, we don't ever, ever sing Happy Birthday anymore, up among the mountain goats," Ostrom said, "because apparently it drives them absolutely crazy."

***

You'd think that, as a fish biologist, Clint Mulfeld's most memorable Glacier Park critter encounter would be with a westslope cutthroat trout, or a stonefly or something.

"Nope," he said. "It was a terrestrial experience."

Mulfeld was trapping native trout in their spawning streams, up a remote drainage he calls "very, very wildlifey, full of wolves and bears. Biologically, it's a hot spot."

He was down in the creek, cleaning the leads to his trout trap, "when something caught my eye up in the willows. It was this mountain lion tail, wagging in the air above the bushes."

Mulfeld leaped out, onto the opposite bank, and started shouting, waving his arms around. "It was by far the biggest tomcat I've ever seen," he said. "It had a head bigger than a basketball."

And it wouldn't leave. "It just paced back and forth, constantly eyeing me. It actually came at me a couple times."

Climbing a tree obviously wouldn't help, and the only way out was past that cat. And so Mulfeld grabbed an extra fish trap - basically a 4-by-3-foot metal cage - and he climbed in.

"I basically sat there on top of that trap, or inside that trap, for 45 minutes while the lion stalked me, basically sizing me up."

Eventually, the cat wandered off, and Mulfeld's crew wandered in, and they found him there with his cage.

"It was a pretty freaky encounter, I'll tell you that."

***

As longtime owner of the Polebridge Hostel, John Frederick thought he knew a bit about what made for a memorable wildlife encounter. You needed a bear, or a wolf, or some big charismatic megafauna.

But then came the tourist from Israel, hiking along the Numa Ridge Trail above Polebridge back in the early 1980s.

Now Israel, Frederick said, isn't exactly known for its wildlife, and while everyone else was keeping an eye out for mountain lions and bald eagles, the Israeli kept crying out, "Look! Look! A squirrel! A little bird!"

It was fairly amusing, Frederick said, but it also was a reminder of how fortunate he was to live among these peaks, and of how a memorable moment can be found almost anywhere in Glacier, if you just know how to look.

***

For 40 years, no one had seen a black swift on a nest in Montana.

"We'd seen them migrating," said Dan Casey, of the American Bird Conservancy, "but not on the nest."

In fact, he said, there had only ever been two sightings of black swifts on a Montana nest - one in Glacier Park and one in the Mission Mountains.

The birds are unique, Casey said, building their nests in the cold and misty spaces behind waterfalls.

A few years ago, he took to watching Glacier's waterfalls at dawn and dusk, when adult swifts are likely to fly in and out. And bingo, he spotted four on the wing up at Haystack Creek, just off Going-to-the-Sun Road.

A year later, he was traveling that road on his way home from Canada - he'd been giving a talk on black swifts - and said to himself: "Wouldn't it be cool to see one on the nest?"

And so he stopped at Haystack Creek, trained his scope on the falls above and found not just one nest, but three - the first in 40 years.

"It was almost a mythical kind of moment," Casey said. "It's a pretty obscure bird; most people don't even know it exists. But there it was, literally in the nooks and crannies of the park."

***

Bill Schneider spent years working in Glacier, years more hiking there, saw mountain lions and fishers and all sorts of quiet critters most people never even glimpse. He even got treed by a hormonal moose.

But what stands out now, across the gulf of years, is a common pack rat.

He was bunked at the cabin above Logging Lake, dead asleep in the dark of night, when the rat tried to take the watch right off his trail crew partner's wrist.

"It caused quite a little fuss," Schneider recalled, what with all the jumping about and hunting for lights and banging into things in the dark.

"It was the size of a cat," he recalled, "and it went out the way it came in, through a hole in the roof."

***

On a sunny Sunday, photographer Chris Peterson and his autistic son trudged high up a Glacier Park ridge, just because he wondered, "What's on the other side of that?"

He was off trail, shooting pictures of a woodpecker when he heard the howl.

"And then another. And another. And another."

The woodpecker flew, "and the place just opened up with howls and barks and more howls."

It was mid-morning, under a bright sky, "and we had walked right into a pack of wolves. Ten of them."

The chorus of howls, he said, "was nothing like anything you've ever seen or heard before, and certainly nothing you'll ever forget."

Turns out, there wasn't much on the other side of the ridge, and he never even got a good photo of the wolves. But then he turned to his son - the autistic son who has such a hard time communicating - and asked him, "What sound does a wolf make?"

And his son lifted his head and howled. "Wuuuu."

"It's not loud. It's not perfect. But it is definitely wolf."

***

To understand Dave Shea and the mountain lion, you have to first understand that Shea was one of Glacier Park's last old-school patrol rangers - a man competent and comfortable and completely content in the backcountry.

And so when he startled the lion, at the end of a long wilderness day, and the lion crouched just 30 feet away, "I knew he was just curious."

Curiosity, he said, is a "characteristic of all cats." He remembered the playful lion that had tugged and batted at the end of a measuring tape, while he was helping with a bald eagle study.

So Shea lay down on the trail, just to see what the cat would do, "and he did likewise."

They lay there and watched each other until dark, then both got up and went their ways. It was, Shea said, "one of the better looks I've had of a lion."

Such encounters, he said, "should not be fearful events, but should be regarded as rare treats."

***

Longtime ranger Gary Moses knows bears, and it turns out they know him, too.

A few years ago, he was working repeatedly with the same bear, over and over, trying to drive it off its favorite grassy patch near a popular road. He'd hit it with all the painful "aversive conditioning" tools, teaching it to avoid human spaces.

But before long, when Moses would turn out to break up a "bear jam" - a traffic snarl created by the big bruin and a pack of camera-toting tourists - the bear would magically vanish.

Seems the bear had learned not to avoid people in general, but only the particularly distinctive ranger's car with its Park Service logo. So Moses turned to an unmarked sedan, and that worked for a while, at least until the bear came to know his khaki green uniform and flat-brimmed hat.

So now Moses goes into deep undercover on his bear operations, in plainclothes and an unmarked vehicle, because he is, he thinks, "smarter than most of the bears."

***

Pat Hagan breaks Glacier Park's wildlife into two camps - charismatic megafauna, and other. And no one's looking for the other.

"But one of my more memorable experiences with wildlife," he wrote in an essay for the book "A View Inside" - "seemed to totally lack that ‘charismatic' label. It didn't have any element of danger, which makes the retelling of the whole episode rather dull in comparison with grizzly stories.

"Fur? Nope. Feathers? Na-uh. Blood and guts? Heavy sigh and a shake of the head. It was one those experiences that Glacier offers all the time, on one level or another. An opportunity to get down on your belly and observe the tiny foundations of life."

It was, he said, a tranquil day for once on Dawson Pass, without the persistent wind that howls there.

He was digging into a bag of salted peanuts when they came, "like little angels answering a summons. Tens upon thousands, they came like fragile whispers of a promise; like a soft thought of God. A heavenly multitude - of orange butterflies."

They filled the sky, heading into what would normally be the prevailing wind, using the day's lull to swarm over the mountain pass - "a beautiful migration of autumn maple leaves."

Hagan remembers "slowly turning 360 degrees, again and again, so slowly. Blue sky with orange motes."

He stopped thinking - "I was just being; the butterflies made it easy."

"Sometimes, just noticing the little things, the little critters, can fill you with wonder and make you feel huge and insignificant at the same time."

***

How to get a porcupine out of an outhouse, by Larry Williams.

First, call on a young ranger with experience cleaning campground toilets. (That, unfortunately, would be Williams.)

Next, give him some tips.

"How does one rescue a porcupine from a pit toilet?" Williams asked.

"I don't have the faintest idea," his boss replied. "That's why we chose you."

Then, gather a broom, a rope and a bucket and spend the day fishing dark depths for prickly rodentia.

Later, when that's "ended in despair for me and the porcupine," fetch a long branch from the forest and jam it down the hole, with the other end poking up out of the john.

Be sure to hang an "out-of-order" sign before leaving for the night.

And by morning, the problem is gone, evidenced by the porcupine tracks leading up the branch and off into the woods.

"The pit toilet required a good cleaning," Williams wrote in the book "A View Inside," "but order was restored; park visitors, the porcupine and I went on with our lives."

***

Tourists say the darndest things.

The ranger, according to park spokeswoman Amy Vanderbilt, was prepping for his evening campfire talk, and peopled were slowing filling in the seats.

"Anyone see any wildlife today?" he asked.

An older couple raised their hands, said they'd seen a moose up in the swampy marshes off Going-to-the-Sun Road.

"Was it a bull, or a cow?" the ranger asked.

"We couldn't tell," the wife said, a bit embarrassed. "It was standing in pretty deep water."

***

This from Sherry Devlin, naturalist, hiker, Glacier Park traveler, Missoulian editor and, perhaps, not altogether trustworthy storyteller.

"In the year 1908, Charlie Russell - famed cowboy artist of the West - built a summer cabin at the foot of Lake MacDonald in Glacier National Park. Russell soon held court at the nightly campfires, telling tales of man and beast, including:

"Two guides ventured out one morning to saddle their day's mounts. In the woods, they met a belligerent moose that made it necessary for them to seek cover without delay. One guide slid into a convenient hole. The other climbed a tree. The moose waited.

"After a time, the man in the hole stuck out his head and asked, 'Has he gone yet?' The man in the tree said no. And they began waiting again. And the moose, ever-more angry, waited. Then the man in the hole inquired again, 'Hasn't he gone yet?' And the man in the tree said no.

"After a few minutes, the man in the hole raised up again and asked, 'Hasn't he gone yet?' And the man in the tree replied, in less-than-refined language, 'No and he never will if you keep popping out of that hole. Get back in there and keep out of sight.'

"'Well,' said the other fellow, 'there's a grizzly bear in this hole.'"

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at mjamison@missoulian.com.

 

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