“Wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders. – E. Abbey
Not so long ago, North America was crawling with predators: lions and tigers, leopards and cheetahs, wolves and bears. Then around 40,000 thousand years ago, two-legged hunters arrived across a dry Bering Straight and began cutting down the competition. Today we’re left with precious few of the surviving Big Four: mountain lions, wolves, black bears and grizzly bears.
Once upon a time, all four of these great predators could be found almost everywhere – imagine a lion on Long Island or a grizzly in Los Angeles – but now most are stashed away in remote pockets of wilderness. One of the smallest of these refuges is the Welcome Creek Wilderness in western Montana. By its lonesome, Welcome Creek is small, but it helps connect a narrow, winding wildlife migration corridor between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. As small as it is, it’s big enough to support at least one grizzly. I know because I met him face to face.
On an overcast Tuesday in June, I took a long lunch break to go for a hike along Welcome Creek, on the far eastern side of the Sapphire Mountains from where I was spending the summer in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. I chose Welcome Creek that day because of a swinging suspension bridge spanning Rock Creek that we’d have to cross to get to the trail. Dio, the feral desert puppy I’d found wandering the wilds of Arizona in January, was, I hoped, finally over his bridge phobia and I wanted to test his trust.
The Big Sky rained off and on most of the drive to the trailhead, but I didn’t mind. After a winter in the desert, rain was still a novelty. The clouds started clearing as I wound my little car down Rock Creek Road, a muddy, rutted route through the narrow, wild river valley. By the time I pulled into the empty parking area the sun was out and shining.
I scribbled a note for my dash: where I was going and when I’d be back and grabbed my daypack, complete with water, food, topo map, headlamp, first aid kit and bear spray. I often hike solo and I don’t mess around. I let the dogs out and headed for the swinging bridge. I waved Bowie, my six year old trusty trail dog ahead and he bounded across, the cables jouncing the boards underfoot. Dio followed close behind Bowie, seemingly unconcerned, a far cry from the half-wild puppy I’d had to coax across any and all expanses of running water a few months ago. The dogs took a dip in the creek, high with snowmelt, a river by any East Coast standards, and then we headed into the woods, into the Wilderness.
The trail ran along Welcome Creek on the west side of the valley, a lovely path, winding through deep woods and meadows shouting with late spring grass and wildflowers. Massive granite scree slopes shedding down from the slowly eroding Sapphire ridgeline
covered the steep valley walls overhead. Along the way we passed a beaver dam, piled high with freshly gnawed sticks and heard, and then saw, a earless-rabbit-like pika, teasing us from among the rocks. I kept my eye on the ridgeline; this would be a good place to catch a glimpse of a mountain lion or a member of the Welcome Creek wolf pack. But nothing.
About three miles in, I stopped and sat for a while on the stoop of long-gone Cinnamon Creek cabin. A hundred years ago men had lived back here, panning for gold. Now all that remains are the stone stoop, some scraps of rusted metal and an old bucket, surrounded by blackened tree stumps. I had read that some purists had protested the making of Welcome Creek a wilderness area because of these old mining cabins. Wilderness, in their minds, should be pure, untouched, untrammeled. Sitting on the stoop, I side against them and conclude the detractors have never been here. Here there was once a cabin, occupied by a handful of people. But those men must have been mostly wild themselves and their cabin has, in short order, been reduced to rust and dust. What is wilderness if not the power of reclamation?
Bowie and I sit for a few minutes, resting, while Dio races about, looking for movement, for game, for trouble. He survived on his own in the desert for some time before I found him and his drive to hunt is strong. I’m good at distracting him in crucial moments though and he’s never caught anything on my watch but a few mice and once, a kangaroo rat. I study the lines on the topo map, find the blue confluence of Cinnamon and Welcome Creeks and mark a dot. In the midst of this Wilderness, I am here. After a few minutes of sitting, thinking, drinking water, I shoulder my pack and head back down the trail for home, Bowie and soon Dio on my heels. I keep the dogs behind me for a while. I am the leader and if I don’t invite them to pass, they stay in line. I want Dio to run his energy out though, so I let him through and he bounds on ahead. Bowie, as usual, prefers to follow at my heels.
We are nearing the swinging bridge, Bowie still behind me, Dio crashing around in the underbrush somewhere off to my right, when I see something big through the trees. At first I don’t know what I am looking at: a strange texture stands out among the trees, colossal and furry and and very bear-shaped. I’ve crossed paths with many black bears on my hikes, but this is no black bear; a tall hump of muscle across his shoulders means this, unmistakably, is Ursus arctos horrbilis. The Grizz and I see each other in the same moment. He’s sitting off to the left of the trail, no more than 30 yards away, digging at a stump. He looks at me and I look at him. I am stunned into stillness and blank on the procedure: don’t make eye contact, back away slowly and leave quietly. The bear spray, within easy reach, is forgotten.
After a moment, the bear does the thinking for me. He grunts a few times, perhaps annoyed I’ve interrupted his meal, then gets to his feet and with no trace of fear, ambles away, away from me, away from the trail, off into his Wilderness.
At my side, Bowie is perfectly still, but wide-eyed. He knows he’s not allowed to harass wildlife, and he has no intentions of messing with this retreating beast. We take our leave in the opposite direction, away from the bear, off the trail and quickly loop around through the woods following the sounds of Rock Creek back to the bridge. Dio is there waiting for us, completely unaware of our brush with the Grizz. I stand at the head of the bridge for a few moments, looking back down the trail, straining to catch another glimpse of the bear, but I know I won’t see him again. My camera weighs heavy around my neck, but I have no pictures. I could have snapped one as he walked away, but he was generously granting me space, and it would have been disrespectful – and foolish – to pester the great animal with the whir and snap of a lens.
As I cross the bridge, giddiness sets in. My first Grizz! For what other reason had I come to Montana?! I grin and laugh and whoop as I leap off the other side of the swinging bridge. To see a wild grizzly on his turf and live to tell about it is a gift. I am alive, elated, enlightened. Wilderness Lives!