“I have good news and bad news,” Travis said to me, leaning into the tent where I was grouchily pulling on my socks. It was just past dawn at the Kintla Lake Campground near the trailhead where we were to embark, later that morning, on a three-day hike. I was cranky because I’m always a little on edge the morning we hit the trail, and because I hadn’t had much coffee yet. I wanted the good news first. Too bad.
“The bad news is, a hiker saw five bears on our trail yesterday, and one of them charged him,” Travis said quickly. “But the good news is that I just met the oldest park ranger in Glacier National Park over there! He’s 86 years old.”
“NO WAY,” I said with excitement. He had just said the only thing that could draw my attention from the words “five,” “bears,” “hikers,” and “charged.”
“He’s over there,” Travis pointed across the campground to a slender figure in a ranger’s uniform, chatting with a couple of campers.
This was the guy I wanted to talk to if there were five bears loitering on the trail. Anyone younger would give you the standard line, which I already knew: carry bear spray and make noise. But a guy who’d been working this place for a long time would give you stories, and he would give you nuance, and detail. In my world, I’d rather meet an 86-year old Glacier National Park ranger than most rock stars.
Travis went over to ask him to talk to us about the bear situation, and I saw him nod agreeably and follow Travis back to our site. He introduced himself as Lyle. “I hear you folks are concerned about the bears,” he said. “Strange situation,” he mused. “Can’t seem to get a straight answer from the folks who saw them, and ordinarily a sow would push her cubs up a tree first, but she didn’t do that.” He stroked his chin with a finely wrinkled finger. “And they stopped to take photos of the cubs. Most important thing to do if you see a bear is to observe it carefully. What is it doing? Does it have cubs? Where are they? If you can, back off slowly. The bear they saw charged them, but it was a false charge, you see – most of them are.” He paused for a moment, as if remembering something. “I once herded a bear and her cubs out of this very campground, over there,” he said, pointing to a spot about twenty yards away from our tent.
“Wait, you herded bears? How did you do that?” Fred asked in astonishment.
Lyle shrugged. “Banged pots and pans together behind them till they moved off into the forest,” he replied briskly. “Now, you can’t do that out there on the trail. Because it’s their territory, and there’s not anywhere for them to go if you do that. So you back off slow out there; let them have the space. And most important, you make a lot of noise in the first place, because they will run off if they know you’re coming, and you won’t have to encounter them at all. And don’t you worry,” he said directly to me, “there’s no reason to think bears prefer ladies to gentlemen.” His eyes twinkled. I smiled, now feeling much less grouchy.
“Always watch for overturned logs and big rocks that have been disturbed. That’s a sign they’re in the area, looking for something to eat. But mostly, have a good time and don’t worry. I’ve worked Kintla Lake since 1991, and bears are everywhere here. They’re a fact of life, and if you’re smart about it and don’t lose your head, you’ll be fine. The trail you’ll be on is a wonderful hike, and the campsites are right on the water. Let’s talk about the miles. You’ll want to get started by noon.” He paused again. “You’re going six miles in today, six tomorrow, then all twelve back on the last day? Well, that’s a stiff hike for that third day, I’ll tell you that. But a few years ago I hit a bunch of the lakes in the North Fork all in one day, and I made it.”
I mentally calculated the space between most of the lakes in the North Fork region of the park. “In one day?” I asked, shocked. “How long was that hike, sir?”
Lyle looked sheepish. “Oh, about 29 miles. Can’t do that anymore, of course. That was sixteen years ago,” he said, as if he’d been just a young pup a decade and a half ago, and not 70 years old. We went briefly but respectfully silent. Our itinerary suddenly seemed unimpressive.
“What about other wildlife?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s there. Mountains lions though, they mostly keep to between Bowman and Quartz Lakes. And wolves, you never know where they are.”
“Have you ever seen one?” I asked, riveted.
“Oh, of course. One day I ran right into one, and we stared at each other for a little bit. Then he picks up one paw and holds it up for a second, and he starts to back up, real slow. He didn’t turn his back on me till he was ready. When he finally did, he trotted a few steps, then turned back to look at me one more time. Bluest eyes I ever saw.”***
We sat there listening in rapt silence, eyes wide.
“Well,” he said, gesturing to our gear strewn about all around us, “I said you needed to get started, but here I am talking and keeping you here. Have I answered your questions?”
We assured him that we had, and he shook our hands and told us to have a good time. I wished I could’ve talked to him for hours, and heard story after story of his quarter century in the park. I did the math in my head, and realized he was 61 when he began working at Glacier.
When you are in one place, doing something that’s not precisely what you want to be doing, making compromises for children or relationships or whatever, life can sometimes seem very short. You can become afraid that your best years are being used up; it’s easy to forget that the outer edges of life can be deeply vibrant. Lyle seemed to embody the idea of going “flat out to the finish”, as my father would say, and ceding nothing of life until nature demands you hand it over. It’s a lesson I’m being taught over and over again this year, in different ways.
There’s no guarantee of anything, of course – which is why I was sleeping on the shores of Kintla Lake in the first place. But meeting Lyle made life seem a bit longer, a bit more hopeful, and much more exciting.
(***An interesting point, which didn’t occur to me until later so I couldn’t ask him, is this: Adult wolves don’t have blue eyes. So one of three things happened. He could have seen a wolf-hybrid, which wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility since there are a few homes here and there on the other side of the Flathead River and the edge of Glacier. Or it could have been a pup. Or the wolf’s eyes could have been a variation of green, and it just appeared blue. If I ever see him again, I’ll ask him. Just some random wolf geekery from a detail-picky blogger.)