In hindsight, the decision to take a solo backpacking trip in Montana’s grizzly country was not one of my brighter moments. But that’s exactly what I did on August 28th, 2009. For many weeks, I was planning on a relatively safe solo itinerary involving a “you never see bears here” destination. But I changed plans at the last minute after discovering some incredibly photogenic local scenery while exploring Google Earth. The new trip would involve taking a hybrid ATV/hiking journey to the Goose Lake area in the rugged Beartooth Mountains northwest of Yellowstone National Park – just within the boundary of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. The trek would give me an opportunity to photograph dramatic mountain scenery in a lesser-known setting – a temptation far too great for an adventurous photographer like myself to ignore. There was only one problem. I have a fairly intense fear of grizzly bears. And this place is filled with them. The Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness area is one of the few remaining places in North America with sizable grizzly populations – outside of Canada, Glacier National Park country and Alaska. Furthermore, it just so happens that Goose Lake is just a stone’s throw from the wild northern valleys of the Yellowstone ecosystem – remote areas known for their high concentration of grizzly activity, sightings and encounters. I knew all of this beforehand, and I still I went out there alone. In fact, it was my first solo backpacking trip in Montana. And it would also be my last.
Despite how stupid I just made myself sound, I’ve made a point of learning as much as possible about grizzly bears since moving to Montana recently. I’ve read books devoted to bear encounters and attacks — and how to react to (if not avoid) each. I’ve altered my backpacking habits to accommodate the sensitive process of importing and consuming delicious food within grizzly territory. And I’ve been collecting a list of destinations that involve travel through relatively “bear free” zones. I even felt pretty good about spending a weekend in the tundra around Goose Lake … until I ran into the chatty local at the trailhead. The guy was a local fishing enthusiast who seemed to have a long history of traveling around the immediate area. And he seemed more than happy to reel off tales of the great bear. I didn’t know whether I should punch him, or thank him. “Oh yeah, I’ve seen plenty of bears up here.” What?! So much for my advice about Goose Lake. “They like to come up here and snack on the tundra critters.” Great, thanks. So much for the “grizzlies generally avoid the tundra” advice I was clinging to. Suddenly feeling like a tundra critter, I moved up the trail towards Goose Lake … walking a fine line between a spine-tingling sense of adventure and the desire to run like a little girl back to my car.
As it turns out, I the only exotic wildlife I saw over three days was a handful mountain goats. I heard wolves howling in a nearby valley at night. And heard plenty of bumps and small foot steps in the night. But I never saw a bear. At least not in reality. It didn’t matter. Here’s what was going on inside my head …
The only creatures I saw in abundance was the pika – an alpine rodent that happens to be the snack pack of choice for the grizzly. I became one with these tundra critters, and gave it my best effort over the course of a weekend … staying out there as long as I could. I didn’t sleep for two nights straight. I was constantly looking over my shoulder. My fingers spent more time hovering over my can of bear spray than on my camera. It was exhausting.
But enough about bears. Not all of my thoughts were consumed by creatures during my solo weekend. The scenery was stunning. It was an alpine paradise on a scale that I had not experienced before. There was mile after mile of open tundra … dramatic peaks … massive wildflower meadows clinging to life … and lakes everywhere. I am a huge fan of the alpine environment, and it felt like paradise. And beyond the trailhead, I didn’t see another soul for the rest of my trip. This adventure turned out to be a great scouting trip for photography, and I look forward to returning in the very near future … with friends. People who smell delicious, and run slower than I do.
And now, on to the photos I brought home. This adventure starts with an amazingly fun trek via ATV over miles of what is technically called a “road” … but is more like a wide path strewn with boulders. In fact, the guy I ran into at the trailhead also informed me that the trail was infamous for the number of people who have rolled their ATV’s at various points. It’s anything but a flat path. I suppose that you could bring a highly modified Jeep up here, but this route is generally known as an ATV road. I took advantage of this and enjoyed several miles of open-air driving that was bone-jarringly rough, yet just as fun. And at the end of my drive, I was left with nothing more than a half-mile walk to Goose Lake. It felt like cheating … but these roads aren’t going anywhere. I had access to an ATV, and the approach drive turned out to be part of the adventure.
Nearing Goose Lake on the ATV trail
I started up the trail at sunset, and it made it to Goose Lake as the last of the alpenglow was fading from the high peaks. The rugged Sawtooth/Wolf Mountain massif (pictured below) would dominate the rest of my trip, and provided an inspiring backdrop for the Goose Lake area. I spent the last light of day admiring the view and getting camp ready for the night. I cached my food canister a couple hundred yards away and crawled into my tent before darkness set in. And it was a good thing that I had packed a book, because I did not sleep.
Camp just below Goose Lake on the first night
Wolf Mountain (left) and the Sawtooth ridge at sunrise
I woke to unbelievably calm and quiet conditions. Not a sound anywhere. Not the slightest breeze. Just the soft light of morning filtering through the feathery cloud cover. I broke camp and started a slow journey around Goose Lake towards my primary destination – a high lake carved out of the mountains above.
Reflecting tundra, Goose Lake
Mount Fox reflection
Alpine moss and grass
I walked through still vibrant wildflower meadows, past an old mining site and up to a drainage above Little Goose Lake that would give me access to the higher lakes. The easy walking ended here. From here on, the hiking consisted of rock hopping across glacial till. It was slow going, as I made my way towards Incisor Lake (pictured below).
Incisor Lake and Wolf Mountain
The alpine setting at Incisor Lake
I parted ways with the route to Incisor Lake, and started a steep climb towards Cavity Lake. (Catching on to the “tooth” theme here?) I followed a small drainage that offered little in the way of level hiking. I took the opportunity to rest and photograph at the only flat portion of my climb, which happened to be a very scenic portion of the wildflower-filled gorge …
The terrain became increasingly rugged, and soon I was engulfed in a world of rock. I topped out on a ridge overlooking Cavity Lake, and offered up some immediate thanks to Google Earth. It seemed like this would be a great spot to capture a dramatic view of the Wolf/Sawtooth ridge … and I was not disappointed.
I took a little while to soak in the views, and then proceeding with the seemingly impossible task of finding a place to pitch a tent. After 30 minutes of searching, I found one small patch of level grass for my small one-man shelter.
With camp set up, I spent the rest of midday reading my book at camp – waiting out the unbelievable heat and harsh lighting. I had hoped to spend the evening photographing glorious alpenglow on the high peaks surrounding the lake. But I also had read the local forecast, and knew the storms were likely to dominate the next 48 hours. Sure enough, the nasty weather rolled in around 2pm.
The thunderstorm simply hung out for the rest of the day, but a break or two in the action allowed me to get out of the tent and make an attempt at photographing the surrounding landscape.
The weather finally eased up around 7pm. The sound of a young mountain goat on the far side of the lake pulled me out of my tent. I watched a small group of goats magically move across the cliffs towards the precipitous drop into the nearby valley. After they disappeared, I made my way around the rocky shore of the lake towards what I thought would be a great sunset vantage point.
The glorious sunset light never appeared. But I was able to enjoy some beautiful soft lighting, which really showcased the ruggedness of the setting.
I spent the remainder of the cloudy evening on this steep hillside overlooking the lake – photographing the beauty all around me.
Before it got to dark, I wandered around the lake – looking for future tripod locations. In one of the gullies leading up to the water’s edge, I found a pile of bear crap. That’s it. I decided I had enough. I was going home in the morning. The tension was simply too exhausting, on top of the lightning, hail and brutal hiking. I mostly just laughed about it, but I was certain that I was not going to spend another night out here. I had discovered a wonderful location that would provide countless days of incredible backpacking in the future. I couldn’t wait to come back … but for now, I couldn’t wait to leave.
I emerged from my tent at the first hint of light in the morning. I ate breakfast, filtered water and lingered a short while to soak in the incredible setting around Cavity Lake. There were plenty of clouds hanging around, which provided some interesting lighting as I started my downhill hike towards Incisor Lake.
The beautiful setting around Incisor Lake was almost tempting enough to make me spend another night out here. But it was also located at the head of a narrow gorge through which all wildlife would filter into the high country. I would be return someday, and spend at least a couple of nights here. The views in all directions were truly magical – even more inspiring than the setting at Cavity Lake. I didn’t linger in the area for photography, as another storm front was already threatening. I began the steep, rocky climb (using a new gully) back towards the Goose Lake area.
I could not believe how many wildflowers were flourishing so late in the summer season.
View from the hanging valley above Incisor Lake
There were no trails anywhere. It was, simply, find the the path of least resistance.
By midmorning, I had completed all my scrambling. I walked over the saddle above Little Goose Lake, and enjoyed a slow stroll back towards Goose Lake and the trailhead.
A last look at the high peaks from Goose Lake …
The sense of relief that I felt when I reached the ATV at the trailhead made me laugh out loud. It was quite the exhausting experience, for not actually having seen a real bear. But then again, this is how I will look at Google Earth next time …
No, not really. It’s all in good fun. I look forward to returning to this place soon – especially during the winter months. Despite my unbelievable paranoia, it was good to get out and enjoy the backcountry of Montana for the first time.
I spent the rest of my day exploring the myriad of ATV/jeep roads in mountains above Cooke City – a place famous for its back roads and mining history.
Until next time … thank you for sharing in my adventure.