Keeping food from bears is a responsibility that people visiting Glacier must take seriously. While the bear problem does not approach the severity of Yosemite, where all food must be in storage containers due to bears breaking into cars, this is only the case due to better management for a longer time. The bears in Yosemite were taught to break into cars by our leaving food in them and by people in that park having a history of feeding bears. All one has to do is watch old movies of Yosemite and the mass feeding of bears to realize that their associations of food and man became quite natural for them. When they tried to take the easy food away from the bears, they did not want to give it up so easily. You have to realize, a bear only has so much time to consume all the calories they need to survive the winter hibernation period. It is a matter of life and death for them. They must work hard to find food and who can blame them for taking the easy way out if we give it them.
Glacier also had a reputation for handing out food to their bears though not on the grand scale of Yosemite and not for as long a time before realizing it was unwise. To be fair, they had Yosemite to view as an example of what not to do and it was not nearly as popular a park due to its relative remoteness. Also, grizzlies are viewed quite differently than black bears even though they both can be dangerous. While the park may have fed grizzlies behind Granite Park Chalet in the day, it would be the brave individual that hand fed one.
Food must be stored in a hard-sided vehicle at all times when not in use. Food lockers, much like the ones that are mandatory at Yosemite, are provided for those without such vehicles. No food should be left out while camping, not even a cooler full of soda or beer. Coolers are associated with food for bears and they will investigate them.
In the backcountry, things are a bit more involved. There are the occasional storage locker at the backcountry campgrounds but from our experience, these can be infiltrated by mice who will easily chew through your bag to your food. Hanging food is the preferred method in Glacier National Park. This sounds easier than it is due to tree branches not generally conforming to the required hanging instructions. Thoughtfully, the park provides hanging poles and wires to ensure that all food is at a proper height and distance from a climbable tree.
When arriving at a backcountry campground, backpackers should hang their food before setting up their tent. Bears know when a pack is not being watched and will take advantage of your split attention. Immediately after eating, all food should be hung again. It is not a situation where you take the food down and put it back when you go to sleep for the night. The less time the food is not hung, the less chance of a bear getting food, the less chance a bear will return.
Glacier National Park is home to the largest population of grizzlies in the Lower 48 as well as a very healthy population of black bears. Being able to distinguish between the two can be important if you run into a bear. There are different protocols depending on which bear you are dealing with. Color is not the best way to do this as both grizzlies and black bears vary considerably. A black bear can be brown and a grizzly can be very dark. Size is obviously age dependent so while grizzlies are as a rule larger than black bears, a young grizzly will be smaller than an adult black bear. The best way to tell them apart is their shoulders and faces. Grizzlies have a large hump at the shoulder from all the digging they do. Black bears are more sleek. Grizzlies have a flatter, dish shaped face while back bears have more of a snout, not so unlike a dog.
The reason to know the difference between the two is how to handle a potential meeting. Much of the “science” of handling bear encounters is up to debate but there are some general rules. With a black bear, you should stand tall, make noise, stand your ground, trying to get the bear to retreat. If it attacks, black bears should be fought off with rocks, sticks, fists, anything you have. They may be less likely to attack but they are also more likely to respond by fleeing your aggression. Just hope and pray it's not a big black bear as you will have your hands full even with a medium size one.
Grizzlies are another matter altogether. The wise school of thought is to back away slowly, not make eye contact, and hope it does not follow. If a grizzly attacks, go into a crouch position, covering your head with your arms for protection. There is not much use in fighting a grizzly, unless you have a rifle (NOT allowed in NP btw!), you're pretty much a dead man. Ironically, despite grizzlies having huge claws and formidable teeth, they tend to pound people with their paws which can do considerable damage in themselves. If it is biting you, pray harder.
I read quite a bit on this matter before going into Glacier's backcountry. It seems there are many hikers who have had experiences with adolescent grizzlies where they treated them more like black bears. They felt if they gave ground to a young, curious grizzly, it would follow them and see their retreat as a sign of weakness. This certainly makes sense and the truth behind all this is, bears like people, are individuals. Most people are not homicidal psychopaths but we do have a few of them in our population so chances are, there are some more aggressive bears out there too. Now, when it comes to a very big grizzly, you have little chance of defending yourself in an attack and playing dead is likely your only option but there may be times when fighting back in a prolonged attack against a smaller one might be your best option.
These bear photos were shot from the car. When leaving Many Glacier for our backcountry trip, we spotted a mother black bear with two little brown cubs trying to get into the trash can behind the ranger station! As you can see, not all black bears are black, not even within one family.
Camping in Glacier National Park's vast backcountry is quite different from in any other US National Park. Most such campgrounds are skeletal and the idea is to make as little change in the land as possible. Obviously, very popular camping areas show such wear and tear anyway. Glacier's backcountry camping is more like a formal campground. There are designated sites, a pit toilet, and most importantly, a food preparation/eating area. While this kind of takes away from the whole get away from civilization feeling of backpacking, there is something comforting about eating with your peers when you are surrounded by grizzlies.
Generally speaking, the campsites are scattered around a central area where the food is hung, prepared, and eaten. There is some type of seating area, perhaps from fallen tree logs in a circle with a fire ring in the center. Most of those rings are no longer in use as fires in the backcountry tend to be not allowed. The idea is there is strength in numbers and a bear is less likely to bother ten humans than two. It's also a great way to meet fellow backpackers and it takes on a bit of a hostel atmosphere with people trading stories. You can definitely pick up some information this way too. We might not have ever done a trip in the Two Medicine area otherwise, and it was here that we learned that backpacking in the Grand Tetons was free.
Eating berries in the wild is one of the great joys of Glacier National Park. I was first exposed to this in Alaska, gathering blueberries around the campgrounds there but on our 2008 trip around the US western National Parks I discovered the joy of eating them while hiking. The first time we noticed people doing it was in Silver Falls State Park in Oregon but the Thimbleberries were not really quite in season and the few ripe ones all seemed to be taken. So, we only got a small taste.
Well, it was a little past prime time for the Thimbleberries in Glacier but the Huckleberries were very much in full force. We would walk along the trails and stop every so often to gobble up a bunch of the delicious berries whenever we saw a nice batch of them, and that was pretty often. When we did find Thimbleberries they were even nicer. Much like Raspberries, Thimbleberries are not true berries but aggregate fruits clustered around a core. Who cares, they taste like berries to me! Huckleberries, on the other hand, are true berries and very closely related to blueberries though generally have less but bigger seeds. They were all tasty and best yet, free. Just don't forget to make noise before you dig in as they are not just our favorites, they are bears' favorites too.
While Glacier National Park is great for both hiking and backpacking, you must realize that you will be sharing those well-maintained trails with lots of wildlife including bears. Bears like an easy path between point A and B too and though they are often in the brush eating berries, they walk on the paths just like us for travel purposes. Bears have an amazing sense of smell, something like 6 times better than a blood hound, and if you are approaching from downwind a bear will undoubtedly know you are coming long before you see them. Chances are, the bear will move away from where you are coming from but that depends a bit on how hungry he is and how accustomed to people he is. The bear might just move further up a slope and keep feeding on the berries he needs for survival. If you are coming from upwind, it is more dangerous as the bear will not likely smell you coming.
Of course, up and downwind are relative terms and you have no idea where a bear might be so what you have to do is let any bear anywhere know you are coming. The only way to do that is to make a lot of noise. Some people buy these little bear bells that jingle, jingle, jingle oh so very lightly. It's like a faint little ring even when they are right next to you. How they expect a bear to hear that 300-400 feet away is beyond me. They may have a super sense of smell but they hear no better than we do. By the time they hear that jingle, jingle, jingle, you are right on top of them, and as far as they can tell, trying to eat THEIR berries. It's no wonder they attack people, sneaking up on them with these little bells and eating all their food even though we have tons of chips back in the car.
So, make LOTS of noise. If you want to use a bell. Get a cow bell and hit it hard with a metal striker, constantly. Get an air horn. Okay, maybe that's going too far. We are trying to enjoy nature a little bit, right and if some joker starts using an air horn on the trails of Glacier, he'll soon be hiking only with the bears. The easiest thing to do is to talk loudly, give the occasional yell, especially when coming up on blind curves. Clap your hands loudly for emphasis. I will have to admit to hating it myself. My wife and I are very quiet hikers. We like to see wildlife and making noise scares everything away. We also enjoy the quiet solitude and getting lost in our own thoughts, often not even speaking to each other. But Glacier is not the place for that and after a day of backpacking, we became adept at making noise. We never saw anything aside from the ubiquitous bighorn sheep and mountain goats that seem to outnumber people in the park.
The tough thing is coming up with stuff to say after hiking for six hours a day for four straight days. It almost becomes like a stream of consciousness exercise and I must admit a bit on the raw side in my case. I just hoped there were no families backpacking with their kids anywhere in my vicinity! We saw a few huge piles of fresh bear scat on our paths but not one grizzly up close. They were all on distant slopes. I guess we made ample noise. You should do the same.
Pepper spray has its adherents and critics. One thing that must be understood is it does not replace making noise. It can be a good deterrent if used properly but it not a bubble that insulates you from bears. They have a limited range and are virtually useless if sprayed into the wind. For the spray to be effective, the bear is going to be within inches of you. So, decide before buying it if you have the nerve to stand there with a full grown grizzly charging at you. Also, be sure you know how to use it prior to putting yourself into that situation. The spray is not cheap and has a certain shelf-life so decide if it is something you will use before purchasing. Your best defense is not surprising bears and letting them know you are coming by making lots of noise, properly storing your food, and keeping a clean camp.
Camping in Glacier National Park's vast backcountry is one of the park's true adventures but as with all such activities, there is red tape that must be dealt with. Despite this being home to the biggest population of grizzlies in the Lower 48, it is also one of the top backpacking parks in the US National Park system. In fact, many come here for that very reason. Due to this popularity, it is recommended that your reserve your desired campsites in advance.
They begin looking at applications on April 15th and anything sent in earlier than that is put into a bin and drawn randomly. They suggest giving alternative routes/campsites in case the ones you want most are already taken. There is a $30 application fee which is non-refundable and hence the reason you should give alternatives. The actual fee for backcountry camping is $5 per person per night. This is actually one of more expensive US National Parks to backpack in but still much more reasonable than a park like Banff just above the border in Canada.
If you travel plans are unsure, the park service thankfully keeps about half the backcountry permits for walk-ins. This was our situation as we were traveling around the US western National Parks for six months, not knowing when we would be where. We managed to do pretty much exactly the routes we wanted but were able to wait things out with no timetable on leaving. We spent 11 nights in the park, five of them in the backcountry.
The Warrior Known as Running Eagle has a legend that the Blackfeet Tribe has attributed to her:
An Indian girl named Weasel Woman’s parents died when she was young. To keep her family intact she took on the male role in the household. She gained her status as a warrior after a Crow Indian raid was successful in taking several horses she broke into their camp and returned the horses and killed many enemy warriors in the process
When she returned they gave her the name Pita Omarkan (Running Eagle) which was once used by a great chief. She went on to become a warrior and led many war parties as a member of the Braves Society. She was finally killed in battle with the Flatheads when she was clubbed and killed.