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Ice Hiking in British Columbia 12 - The Bear

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The Most Amazing Moment

(Carrying on the story of a journey into the wilderness of British Columbia many years ago.)

The most amazing moment of the trip occurred here. I'm going to need some space to tell it... hope you'll bear with me …

This was the view from our basecamp at Icefall Point. It was a comfortable heather-covered bench with a game trail running through it, reminding us that all creatures, not just humans, had to get off the glacier and cross this rocky point to avoid the icefall.

But first, see the low dark rubbly ridge just above the ice on the far side of the glacier? (I’ve marked it with a note.) That’s a section of lateral moraine, a high ridge of random loose rock which piles up on both edges of the glacier and is carried along by the ice. In that freshly mixed moraine, gigantic boulders perched precariously on unstable heaps of lesser rocks. Quite nerve-racking if you were struggling upward over the moraine, ankle deep in cobbles, carrying a heavy pack.

To get our four packs up on Icefall Point, we negotiated the steep, loose, worrisome lateral moraine on our side of the glacier. Three times. By the second morning we were finally above it and comfortably settled in, sitting at our tiny campfire while our gear dried in the sun.

A grizzly bear appeared on the faint game trail above us and paused, peering down. He was very big. In fact, from below, he looked impossibly huge.

Jim Stanton had given us an interesting warning. “Up above timberline,” he said, “you might meet an old bear who is losing his smeller and having trouble hunting. Those big old guys go up there to lie in ambush on an overhang and drop on a mountain goat. Stay out of places where they might make a mistake and drop on you."

We remained calm. As if we were being crowded by some stranger on a restaurant terrace, we glanced up and pointedly continued talking.

Just like someone who had accidentally interrupted a tete-a-tete, the grizzly dropped his gaze politely. We knew enough to turn our heads away a little too, not staring, watching from the corners of our eyes.

Taking small steps with his eyes lowered, the bear continued down the trail toward us. We were both wondering when we should stand up together, spread our arms and tell him he was too close, a technique that works more often than not. But then he did an extraordinary thing, communicating across the species barrier, and we understood at once.

Like a soldier in a drill, he made a sharp right turn and walked up the heather-covered slope next to us. About 20 feet up, he made an exaggerated left turn and continued across the slope above us. We got a great look at his pigeon-toed feet and magnificent claws. Then, sure enough, a third imaginary corner brought him back to the trail below us. He had boxed us in an unmistakable way. We were in the middle of the only easy route, and he just wanted to get by.

He disappeared downslope and we crept over to watch as he negotiated the lateral moraine to the glacier below. When the loose rocks began to slide under his thousand pounds or so of weight, he simply sat down like a giant teddy and pushed off with his rear feet sticking out in front of him, whooshing down in a big dusty rock avalanche, going so quickly that the large rolling boulders never caught up.

On the ice he waggled his dusty rear and resumed the 60-mile-a-day pace of a traveling grizzly, heading straight down the glacier. We watched, wondering how he would deal with the network of big crevasses below the icefall which we had spent much time negotiating.

He simply hopped over any crack in the ice that was less than 7 feet wide. Some of the wider crevasses were funnel shaped or had collapsed snow bridges in them. When our griz got to those, he disappeared down inside the gleaming blue ice and reappeared in a few seconds, climbing briskly up the steep opposite wall. Of all the big crevasses that forced us to zig and zag, he had to change direction around only two.

"Boy, he's good!" said Larry. "Of course, he's got four built-in crampons.”


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