With the “hiking with bears hesitation” we suffered from in Yellowstone suddenly gone we set off, it seems with half the other visitors to the park, on a walk to Avalanche Lake.
Over lunch we watched a fly fisherman at the mouth of a stream catching fish almost as soon as his line hit the water, but none big enough to keep, and checked out the waterfalls high in the peaks with Brad's binoculars (the Christmas present is getting a workout Kaye). We also received a little reminder of Melbourne's last summer and after spending the first half of the hike wondering why we were so clammy, said “hello humidity” for the first time since being in the US. Reading the weather forecast the following day we found out that record high temperatures had been expected, yet snow was forecast for several days time.
Bad decision of the day: walking down Going-to-the-sun Road
Good decision of the day: taking our rain coats
In the morning we caught a shuttle bus up Going-to-the-sun Road with the intention of walking back down along the Highline trail and through to Granite Park Chalet, this part of the park's highlight walk.
On the way up, we saw a surprising amount of snow, and learned from our driver that the road had only just been fully cleared of snow and opened to traffic the prior week despite being the the middle of July! When we got to the top we further learned the trail we had intended to take was closed as large sections were still under snow. Not wanting to miss out on the promised spectacular views, we decided walking down the road itself was a good idea, as it followed the roughly the same route as the trail anyway. The first kilometre or two were fine, the next six or so less so as we trekked through road work (think combination of dust and mud and the smell of tar) and the last two or three bad as we walked along the non-existent edge of a road barely wide enough for two cars to pass. When the ranger we checked with at the top said we'd probably need to do a spot of “wall hopping” we thought he was being funny. And here we were wondering why we were the only ones walking. Arriving at our destination we took another shuttle (free shuttle buses are a great feature of many of the national parks here and especially good when you're driving around in your house) into Agpar Village, where Brad arranged to receive our mail while I chatted to some strangers and got mauled by mosquitoes (again!). While we were waiting for a shuttle back to Gil, it started to rain and shortly after getting on our bus, it turned into one of the heaviest storms we've encountered, complete with hail which had us entertaining thoughts of smashed Gil vent covers as well as a puddle where we'd left the bedroom vent open. Our driver and his radio then informed us our camp ground was now on flash flood watch. Brilliant! We were happy to see that Gil had not washed away (this should not have been surprising) and no vents were smashed. I felt a little high maintenance and sorry for campers in tents as I dried our doona with the hair dryer.
Reading and napping and waiting to see if the rain would pass. And for the record Gil has ZERO leaks currently.
We decided to do our first real “bear country” along the Granite Park Chalet section of the trail which was open. Apparently the worst kind of bear is a surprise bear, in other words encountering a bear when neither your nor it are expecting each other. To avoid this, noisy hiking is recommended, some parts of noisy hiking I'm good at, others not so much. For some reason we were unable to come up with any songs we knew the words too, apart from children's songs (thanks to our niece, Matilda, miss you little lady), and, Felicity and Kaye you'll find this entertaining, the Geelong theme song. Brad could not however, remember one word of the theme song for his aledged club, Melbourne, I've never heard it played. “The bears Bears on Susanna go scratch, scratch, scratch”, “the bears go marching two by two hurrah” and the Indiana Jones theme song sung only using the word bear, were popular choices. We later realised the word 'bear' should not be over used, as if one of us had spotted a bear, the other probably would not react appropriately.
Between the altered words and mindless drivel conversation when we could think of something mindless to drivel about, anyone walking in ear shot probably got a laugh (or their ears bled). For the record, we saw Grizzly Bear #2 (Overall Bear #4) while having lunch at the chalet, fortunately he was several peaks away.
Father of the Day award goes to the guy hiking with his two sons who we estimated to be about six. The boys were decked out in proper hiking boots, with a pair of bear bells (think giant cat collar bells, which apparently don't really work) on top of each hiking pole. Dad had a knife that would impress Mick Dundee and a GIANT can of bear spray attached to his belt. Don't get me wrong, we thought he was doing the right thing, you want to cover all bases and not take any chances when taking bear bait for a hike. Hiking poles when they aren't needed, along with an SLR camera you don't know how to use and a superfluous tripod seem to be the must have walking accessories to look “pro” here. We've lost count of the number of times we've seen a flash going off for a scenery shot in bright daylight whilst using a Nikon or Canon DSLR.
Day Several later (after relocating to the Northern Section of the park):
Of course, the highlight hike of this part of the park was also still closed due to snow, however this resulted in us discovering the beautiful Iceberg Lake which is surrounded by mountain peaks on three sides, and filled with miniature icebergs, from the snow coming off the peaks. We got to a junction several hundred meters into the walk are were greeted by a “CAUTION: Active bear in area” sign providing information on what to do in the event of a bear encounter. These signs are not new to us, but for some reason we hesitated, perhaps because it seemed that every other person we had seen had a trusty can of bear spray at their hip. Up until this point, bear spray had seemed to be a capitalisation on fear, and was generally only carried by people who looked likely to break a hip and Father of the Day, but today, even the spritely young chaps had it too. We then back tracked to a conveniently located convenience score, and acquired Brad's newest hiking accessory: a small red cannister with glow in the dark top. On the return hike from Iceberg Lake we had come through a dense patch of shrubbery when another hiker asked if the bears were on the trail when we came through. Erm, no, but I had heard a small growl and not thought much of it. Standing on tippy toes on rocks we spotted a mummy grizzly with two bubbies about 20 metres off the trail we'd just come along. Shortly after a park ranger came along and temporarily closed the trail. I guess the bear spray was a good comfort after all.
That evening we were enjoying an after dinner game of cards in Gil, when we heard someone shout “Bear!” We ran outside with cameras in hand in time to see another mother bear this time with three cubs in tow, wander through our camp ground. I then acquired 35 (I know this because I counted them whilst moisturising with cortisone cream) new mosquito bites whilst chatting to an environmental compliance guy from Connecticut at the next camp site. Whilst discussing our jobs, I learnt from past experience and avoided an awkward silence by not mentioning the name of the company I worked for in home. Apparently saying you worked for GS in this country can be a bit of a conversation killer.