Sandpoint Magazine Summer 2001 Sandpoint Magazine summer 2001
Sandpoint Magazine

Sandpoint Magazine Summer 2001

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A '5-Bear Day' in the Cabinets

Photo by Trish Gannon

Left, Lake Darling is only one of the surprises you may encounter while hiking up to Pend Oreille Peak

By Sandy Compton

Last night I had a dream that I was a bear, and then I awoke here, camped in the high country in the heart of the western Cabinets.

This range that straddles the Idaho-Montana border north of the Clark Fork contains some inhospitable places. Ridges barely 5 feet wide stand 700 stony feet above wild, steep, rock-strewn streams in canyon bottoms no wider than they are. Forests of hemlock, cedar, and grand and subalpine fir grow over velcro-thick patches of devil's club, nettle, tag alder and vine maple. Hawthorn grows in the water chutes running down the cliffs; viney, bethorned with half-inch needles, tough as juniper, so thick I keep my K-bar in my hand as I fight through it, like a great white hunter in a Tarzan movie.

It's a jungle out here, Jane, and on top of everything else, there are bears ... just a few lions and absolutely no tigers, but plenty of bears.

The bears have an easier time getting around up here than the average human. Their trails are rampant; tunnels through the brush, 3 to 4 feet high, round like a bear is round. If I could move on all fours as well as they, getting into this country would be a piece of cake. I can't, and even if I could, I suppose my pack would catch on everything. It does anyway.

The tunnels are marked every so often by the piles that define bears as the best huckleberry pickers in the known Universe. My theory is that if there were no bears, there would be no huckleberries because there would be no patches started annually with pre-fertilized purple piles of seeds. Huckleberries are as good an argument for bears as any. They are beautiful beasts with a bad reputation, and I love 'em, for some strange reason.

I'm not saying where -- you have to be somewhat demented to come here anyway, and I like to be alone when I do -- but beyond the jungle, above the hawthorn and tag alder, is an alpine meadow settled in a cirque. I am camped there, at the source of the creek. Water, the pure stuff, runs nearby out of talus left by 120 centuries of freeze and thaw. Peaks stand all around, some of which I have stood on, some of which I have not. One of those that I haven't, I will climb today, and before the day is done, I will see five bears.

The first will be right after breakfast, a chocolate brown that wanders into camp and bolts when he realizes he is not alone. The next will be up in the basin across the creek, just his hindquarters disappearing into the brush. The third, I will spot far below, grazing in the huckleberries, as I scan the mountainside with my binoculars from the top of the peak. Number four will appear below me in the basin as I hike off the mountain.

The fifth is the most surprising, materializing 25 yards away as I slog down a rock ridge toward camp. He is working over a mountain ash, gorging on the waxy berries. He is very large and flat black except for a little gray on his muzzle; an old bear who is not impressed with me. He starts and stares, but he doesn't run, and a small chill climbs up my neck and settles in the hairline. His nostrils dilate as he tries to catch my scent. It is apparent he is not afraid, and I think he might be somewhat annoyed that I am disturbing his dinner.

"Hello, bear," I say, but I say that to all the bears.

He wiggles his nose around in the air for a moment, and then, to my relief, goes back to eating. I don't slow down. I don't speed up. The last time I look back, he seems to have forgotten me.

I will not forget him.

I remember my dream of last night, and I imagine being an old man -- 98 or so -- and being confronted by a grizzly out here in the wild Cabinets. Because I am old and tired, anxious to go on and meet my father and daughter on the other side, along with not a few friends, I taunt him into a fight, which of course he wins. I don't just let him win, though. I do my best to beat him, but I am 98 years old, for crying out loud. And, then, at the end of the fight, he eats me.

This is how I plan to become a bear.

Of course, I will probably die in my bed, or taking a nap under a tree somewhere, but a guy can always dream, can't he? That's what five-bear days and the Cabinet high country will do for you.

Sandy Compton divides his time between Heron, Mont., and Sandpoint. Most of his bear sightings are on the Montana side.

Five hikes in the western Cabinets

If you want to avoid wading through tag alder and hawthorn, and reduce the chances of running into a bear, try hiking any of the Forest Service maintained trails into the western Cabinets.

For a beautiful, less-than-strenuous hike into the Cabinets, drive to Lunch Peak lookout via Trestle Creek Road 275 and Road 1091 and hike Trail 67 along the Cabinet Crest to Pend Oreille Peak.

A second, more challenging route to Pend Oreille Peak is via Trail 52, an easy climb to Lake Darling from the end of Lightning Creek Road (access via Trestle Creek Road). Before turning steep and ugly, it intersects Trail 67 on the ridge. Turn right to Pend Oreille Peak. On your way out, bypass 52 and loop back to the road by way of Trail 161 after a beautiful stroll down the ridge.

If you want to sweat continuously for a few hours, let me recommend Trail 65, probably the most well-known -- and spectacular -- in the western Cabinets. Headed in the Mosquito Creek drainage northeast of Clark Fork, it leads to the top of 7,005-foot Scotchman Peak.

Another leg burner to great views is Trail 998, leaving Montana 200 near Milepost 6 and ending at Squaw Peak Lookout. If you don't like how your toes feel going down steep trails, walk out from Squaw Peak to Montana Highway 56 on Pillick Ridge Trail 1036, but pack your dinner, too. It's 10 miles. Trails 65 and 998 are both climbs of about 3,000 feet in three miles, one way.

If you're really crazed, and know how to read a compass and a map, try Sawtooth Mountain. Visible from Heron, Mont., this peak is better accessed from the other side. Take State Highway 56 to Ross Creek Road 398. Park at Ross Creek Cedars and follow Trail 142 and then 321 up the South Fork of Ross Creek. When the trail disappears into the tag alder swamp at the top of the canyon, turn right and follow generally west and up at about the same rate to Sawtooth. If you find yourself on a Forest Service trail, you're lost.

Forest Service maps showing access routes are available at the Sandpoint Ranger District in the Federal Building.

-- Sandy Compton


What to do if you encounter a bear

• Don't hike alone. More people make for more commotion, often scaring off bears.

• Make lots of noise while hiking, either singing, talking or wearing bells, to alert any animals in the vicinity to your presence. When you see a bear, the most important thing is to leave the area immediately.

• If you have an encounter with a grizzly or black bear, do not turn and run. They can run faster than you, uphill or downhill.

• If the animal does not charge, slowly move away from it, keeping a line of sight open until it seems safe to leave the area altogether.

• If the bear is threatening, or charges, skidaddle up a tree, if one is handy.

• If not, then you could be in for the scariest moment of your life. Your last option is to fall to the ground and curl up in a fetal position. The bear may paw at you, bite you and rough you up. But if you "play dead," the chances are you will survive the attack.

• In a case like this, once the bear leaves, ascertain as best you can that it really is gone before moving around. It could be lounging nearby.

• Can you bluff a bear, black or griz? Can you wave your arms, shout and scare them away? Others have, so it may be possible. Each situation is different.

• Do not let the thought of a bear attack scare you away from hiking. Thousands of people hike thousands of miles every year, and many of them see lots of bears without ever having a threatening encounter. Educate yourself about bear behavior, be prepared when in the mountains for any emergency, and enjoy those summer days of cloudless, blue skies.


-- Dennis Nicholls

Summer 2000

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