By Anna Wells
I’m a southern girl, born and raised in sweet home Alabama. I grew up taking family vacations to Gulf Shores, Myrtle Beach, Pigeon Forge, and New Orleans. My hiking experience growing up consisted of short trails at Little River Canyon State Park, Cheaha, and in the Smoky Mountains. With those experiences, I always thought I was a beach person. Now don’t get me wrong, I still love digging my toes in the sand, jumping waves, building sand castles, soaking up the sun, etc. at the beach. But in 2014 I worked out west and discovered what I like to call “real” mountains, and I absolutely fell in love with it; then in 2016 I returned out west for another contract job. During those summers, I lived to the fullest and was out every possible chance exploring places like Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, and various national forests. I now consider myself a mountain person (although really you could probably just sum it up to say that I’m an outdoors person!) These adventures brought me new experiences, new passions, and many lessons learned.
I’ll be honest, a lot of what I have learned has been by trial and error, but I figure I haven’t died yet, so I must not be doing things completely wrong! I have learned about hiking solo, what’s needed when backpacking, the importance of lightweight items for backpacking, getting lost, using topographical maps, self-confidence, freedom, and much more. One of the things I’ve learned that I consider one of the most important is to be prepared and to be aware of my surroundings. I often joke about how when I’m in Alabama (or anywhere in the south) I hike looking at the ground watching for copperheads and rattlesnakes, whereas when I’m out west I hike looking up watching for bears!! It is crucial to know what could be around you when you’re hiking and to always be prepared.
Now it’s not typically an issue in Alabama, but when I’ve been hiking in Montana, one of the most simple, and in my opinion one of the most important, ways to prepare for hiking is to be bear aware. Many places in Montana are what is considered bear country, and carrying bear spray (and knowing how to use it) is so important and can truly save your life! Along with having bear spray, knowing how to tell grizzly and black bears apart and the different ways to respond depending on which type of bear you encounter can be life saving.
In 2014 I went on a hike that was supposed to be a short, simple trail to a small lake. It was very muddy and I noticed a perfect, huge bear print in the mud! I quickly scanned the area, but I was alone, so I took a picture of the paw print. By the time I took the picture and looked back up, the owner of that paw print was coming out of the woods, less than 100 feet from me! At that time, I was very thankful I was prepared and had bear spray, knew how to use it, and had it easily accessible. That’s the first, and so far only, time I ever actually had bear spray in hand with the safety off and ready to use. Now, I also had my camera in the other hand snapping pictures! Thankfully, that big grizzly didn’t care that I was around, but I am so glad I was prepared!
I was also glad this summer that I was aware of where I was hiking when my family and I took a road trip out west and we ventured from Murfreesboro, TN, to St. Louis, Mt. Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, Banff National Park, along with many other stops along the way. It was quite the adventure! I absolutely loved getting to share my favorite places with my favorite people!
While at Glacier National Park, my husband and I planned to wake up around 0430 to drive to the (popular) trailhead we were wanting to hike so we could beat the crowds. We were kicking ourselves the next morning when we had overslept and it was already 0600! It ended up working out perfectly though, because as we drove to our trailhead, about an hour from where we were camping, we drove by an open meadow and noticed a man with his huge camera, which made him look like a National Geographic photographer. We pulled over to see what the photography subject was, and we were thrilled to see a mama grizzly and her two cubs frolicking in the meadow! We only got to see them for a quick minute before they wandered off into a nearby forest at the right side of the meadow, but then a bull moose walked out to the meadow from a forest on the left side! Soon following the bull moose, the bull’s girlfriend came sauntering out. What a treat! Three bears and two moose within minutes of each other! We were enjoying the wildlife, from a safe distance, and began chatting with the photographer. It turned out that he was a wildlife photographer, with the majority of his work pertaining to bears. The photographer told my husband and I that he was pretty sure the bears were going to cross the road to another meadow and down to the water, and asked if we would like to go with him to a spot he knew that would be a good viewing area if the bears did as he expected. Of course my husband and I accepted this offer! So we went down an unmarked, gravel road and waited. We were chatting getting to the know photographer when we heard a limb snap in a small grove of nearby trees. We were sure it was the bears we were waiting on, so the photographer and I were watching the grove of trees and my husband was watching the water line to see if they were walking along the shoreline, when all of a sudden, the mama grizzly popped her head up from behind a pile of rocks about twenty feet from us!! We spoke to the bear so she knew we were there, and the mama bear led her cubs back away from us. What a sight! What an experience! But, we were being very safe about this entire venture. We, to the best of our ability, kept a safe distance from the bears (except the moment when they popped up closer to us than we expected), had bear spray with us, were in a group of three, and made noise so the bears were aware we were there so as not to startle them.
So, to all of you who have been hiking, who want to get into hiking, and those who may want to only go outdoors for viewing without the hiking: be prepared. Know what can be around you when you’re outdoors and be prepared how to handle the situation. I know there is still much for me to learn, but I can’t wait to get back outside and continue learning!
**I am by no means an expert, but if anyone has questions regarding this subject, or if anyone would like any travel tips for going to this area, don’t hesitate to ask!**