We’re waiting for a moose. We’ve joked with several people on the trail about his scheduled arrival. But there are enough of us – many with the kind of camera equipment that makes you think “this guy knows what he’s doing” – that it’s believable that a moose will show.
It’s 5 p.m. on a warm September afternoon in Glacier National Park, Montana. The sun has sunk behind the mountains and it’s remarkably quiet on this shallow pond. If I were a moose, this is where I would want to hang out.
This is my third trip to Montana. Yearbook colleagues David, Juan and I start our weekend trips the same way each time. We work our day jobs, get on evening flights, and head north. We spend Thursday night in Helena – it seemed so quaint and exotic on my first visit. Now it’s been reduced to a Holiday Inn Express and a Buffalo Wild Wings. Helena is not what this trip is about.
Friday we teach a workshop, our focus split between our students and the big world outside. We have wildlife to see. Saturday morning we’re up early and in the rented four-wheel drive SUV ready to head out.
On my first two visits, we headed south to Yellowstone.
When I watched Ken Burns’s documentary National Parks, America’s Best Idea, I loved learning that 19th century Americans referred to Yellowstone as Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had recently been published and the landscape was so foreign – hot pots and geysers and colors beyond imagination – that visitors thought it fictional. I can understand that. The colors, the smells, the heat add up to a surreal landscape that is difficult to believe, much less to describe.
But this time, we’re driving north. I’m excited to see a park I’ve never seen. I’m thrilled that our normal expedition party of three has expanded to include Mark Murray, a photography teacher of national renown. Oh, we’ve got cameras. Let’s go!
Glacier is extraordinary. It is one moment Alpine – familiar, reminiscent of my years in Germany in my teens. The next moment, it looks like a Japanese watercolor – foreign and almost otherworldly. The next moment, it’s a tourist trap with gift shops full of plush toys, posters and t-shirts featuring Glacier’s flora, fauna and landscapes. I love all of it.
We arrive at the Glacier Park Lodge on the Blackfeet Nation an hour or so before sunset. When you’re traveling with a camera and your own personal photography instructor, time is measured only in light. We park the car with time to capture golden sunset photos. We wake up in time to shoot the sunrise on the east-facing façade of the stunning 100-year-old hotel. We head out to start exploring the park before the sun gets too high.
Our first animal sighting is of antelope in the freshly harvested fields along the road. I’m not allowed to sing in the car, a rule David and Juan imposed on our very first trip. Where the deer and the antelope play! is on a loop in my head, though.
Our best animal sighting is of a grizzly bear. We’ve been driving through the park, stopping to observe big horn sheep and take a few short hikes. We’ve taken so many photos, that I have switched to the camera in my iPhone – I am weary lugging my Canon around.
We’re pretty much done for the day – our last stop will be for a (hopeful) moose sighting on a shallow pond about a half hour’s drive from here. We’re driving downhill when the spectacle that can mean only one thing reveals itself before us: a line of cars pulled over on the side of the road, two park ranger vehicles, cameras with the longest lenses – a bear!
Bear lines are a staple of national park excursions.
Years ago, the matriarchs of my family – my mother, grandmother and my cousin Jill – took me on a trip down Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. We were enjoying the scenery and each other’s company when a long line of cars pulled to the side of the road caught our attention.
“What are they looking at, Jill?”
“A line that long can only mean a bear,” she said.
Jill parked our car, too, and we walked up the line of cars to find a mama bear at the bottom of a tree with her cub about 25 feet up in the branches. It was equal parts fascinating and terrifying to see a bear – a mother black bear – that close, in the flesh and fur. I felt very keenly that I was surrounded by my own mama bears. I felt safe even though I should have felt very afraid of that 200-lb. wild animal with her claws and her teeth and her maternal instincts.
This bear line is full of every kind of vision-enhancing technology available.
We pull out our own long lenses and tripods. We’re ready to observe and record our best animal sighting of the day.
“It’s not a bear,” one pair of binoculars scoffs. “It must be a moose.”
“The ranger said it was a bear,” says the 800-mm lens.
A car pulls up and out comes a scope.
“It’s a bear,” the high power spotting scope announces definitively. “Who wants to see a grizzly out for a swim?”
And so it is a bear. I get to see her through the fancy scope. A female grizzly had been spotted up here on the road. The park rangers came to stop traffic for her safety and ours. But she was smarter than the average bear, and instead of coming across the road, she’d jumped in the river. The river is 300 yards across, another pair of binoculars estimated. Yet, there she is. Swimming across, fighting the current, getting away from us. Good for her.
The park rangers are a comfort. It makes me wonder where they were in Shenandoah.
I like my bear sightings from a safe distance – like from the deck of a mammoth cruise ship.
On a summertime cruise to Alaska, my grandmother, my mother and I were in port in Juneau, seated on an upper deck of the giant ms Westerdam. It was our first port and I was excited to go explore, but my mom and grandmother needed breakfast first. I was practically bouncing in my seat. Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go. I was half listening to the conversation and staring out at an apartment building that was eye-level with us – built into the hill high above the dock below. I was staring out at an apartment building being visited by a bear. Wait. What?
“Look! Look! Look! A bear!”
“Where? A bear,” my grandmother scoffed, doubtful.
“There! He’s walking out of the woods and onto the front stoop of that apartment building!”
He acted like he owned the place. This little brown bear just loped out of the woods and walked across the walkway of about four front doors to the apartments of the building directly across from where we were sitting. It was very exciting – so exciting that I forgot to take a photo of him! By the time I pulled out a camera, all I got was his backside heading back into the woods on the far side from where he started. No one believed that the tiny brown spot on my photo was a bear’s butt.
Not even that much of a moose shows up.
We wait. The sun is sinking and our patience is wearing thin. With each of my bear sightings, patience was never part of the story. Serendipity won the day. For us here on this shallow pond, with all of the other things we tried to squeeze into a short weekend trip, we have allotted 30 minutes for this part of our weekend in Glacier. So we spend 30 minutes impatiently waiting for a moose. He never shows. Maybe next time, we’ll get lucky.