Matt Dickerson: Glacier National Park Diaries 4 — Grizzly bears, birds and snow

Editor’s note: Matt Dickerson was an official artist in residence at Glacier National Park in Montana last month. This is the fourth in a series on his experience there.
I arose at 3:40 a.m. on my final full day at Glacier National Park. Twenty minutes later I walked out the door with a thermos of coffee, picnic lunch, daypack and various cameras, heading up to the Continental Divide on the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The drive was stunning. The line of peaks between Mount Cannon and Mount Wilbur formed a beautiful blue-black silhouette against the pre-dawn sky. One feature of the road is that it has only a single switchback. For the entire first half of the climb, I was inches from a rock wall on my right hoping not to gouge the side of my rental car while sweeping vistas of Heavens Peak filled the expanse to my left. For the second half, my right tires seemed to hang out over space while waterfalls dropped down on my left. I was thankful for the solid railing and to be the only car on the narrow road.
I arrived at Logan Pass before 5 a.m. Though I knew the parking lot would fill in a few hours, it stood empty when I arrived. I looked in both directions for several minutes, torn between videoing the deep valley to my west as the reflection of dawn slowly slid down Heavens Peak, or turning my attention east toward the rising sun itself. I chose the latter. Grabbing my cameras and tripod, I walked to the lower end of the lot and looked down into the watershed of the Hudson Bay.
For three hours, I watched the sun creep up the valley in front of me and down the peaks behind while songbirds sang to me as they flitted in the shadows among scrubby alpine spruce. All month I’d been trying unsuccessfully to photograph one of the elusive thrushes whose music had delighted me throughout my stay. I finally got lucky. A Hermit Thrush paused first on a snowbank and then on a branch silhouetted against the sky, just long enough for me to focus. Then a Mountain Chickadee landed only a few feet away and launched into a full-throated song.   A MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE sings a morning song at Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. Photo by Matthew Dickerson
Finally, the sunlight dropped into the parking lot. I put my video camera back in the car, hauled on my backpack, and headed up the hill behind the visitor’s center for a three-mile hike to Hidden Lake. A hundred yards up the trail I was on snow, glad I had on good hiking boots, and wishing I had crampons too.
Shortly after I crossed over the Continental Divide and started down the west slope, a herd of the iconic mountain goats appeared at the top of a ridge. Further down the trail I could see my destination: a beautiful mountain lake in a steep valley, one end surrounded on three sides by cliffs. Though it was the final day of June, the lake was still mostly covered in ice. I considered the work it would take to get across another snow-covered slope and down to the water, the harder work of getting back up later in the day, and the prospects of finding any cutthroat trout. I continued on.
As I walked away from the overlook, I left behind most of the other day-hikers. Though I eventually saw four hikers following behind, there were no tracks in the snow ahead. I worked slowly across a snow-covered slope and descended along a series of switchbacks. When I paused to take photos, a hiker from France caught up with me. We walked together for a bit. As we approached the lake and dropped into a thick stand of trees, I mentioned bears. In a display of common sense I was apparently lacking, he slowed his pace and let me get 50 feet in front. I put my hand on my bear spray, made some noise, and continued on.
Arriving at Hidden Lake, I found myself nearly breathless — not from the hike, but from the majesty of the setting. I wasn’t sure whether to admire the peaks, ridges and numerous waterfalls surrounding me, or their reflection in the 30 feet of open water by the near shore. Even the ice covering most of the lake was beautiful. Several minutes passed before I unpacked my fly rod.
I walked along the shoreline a short distance. The water was clear, and I could see the silty lake bottom five or six feet down all the way out by the ice shelf. As I neared the outlet where a 30-foot-wide creek escaped to descend down the mountainside, I spotted the cutthroat I had come to find. At least a dozen of them finned in the shallower water where the current appeared and silt gave way to rocks and gravel. As I watched, two or three rose aggressively for flies.
I knew from research as well as sight that these were introduced Yellowstone Cutthroat, not the Westslope Cutthroat native to these waters. They were golden brown in hue, and the bellies and jaws of the males showed bright red with spawning colors. If there is one species of trout I think approaches the beauty of brook trout, it is cutthroat.
I looked for a place to cast. Trees crowded the edge of the water, so I changed from hiking boots to sandals, rolled up my pant legs, and waded out to my calves. Within seconds my feet were aching from the bitter cold. What did I expect in a lake still covered in ice? I stood in the lake until I could bear it no longer, but my casts accomplished nothing except to spook the fish in the calm clear water. So I waded back to shore and continued to cast from a corner of the lake by the outlet where I could keep my feet warm.
When I heard a loud splashing, I knew instinctively what it was before I saw it. My heart began to race. I turned to see a grizzly bear walking right up the stream toward where I was casting. I slowly backed away three or four steps — which was as far as I could go because of the trees. When the bear reached the top of the stream, 25 feet away, it turned away from me and wandered out onto the far bank. I relaxed enough to pull out my camera and get a few photos as it meandered along the snow and ice on the far shore and then disappeared into the woods.
   A GRIZZLY BEAR splashed up the stream to within 25 feet of the author, who was fishing, before turning off toward the far bank, where this photo was taken by a still shaking fisherman. Photo by Matthew Dickerson
It was half an hour before I felt comfortable getting back out and fishing more. The trout were still rising sporadically. I watched them closely. Though I couldn’t see anything in the air, I could tell the fish were feeding on insects emerging from the silty bottom of the lake. I continued to cast small dry flies for two hours using my finest tippet: 6x and 7x. One fish rose to within a foot of my fly and then turned away. That was my only action. They were looking for food coming to the surface from below, not landing on it from above. By late morning they stopped rising altogether.
When I attempted to tie on a small nymph to fish the bottom, I discovered that my magnifier glasses had fallen off. Without them I couldn’t tie on small flies. I gave up fishing, ate lunch, took a nap, and prepared to depart. Just as I was ready to take apart my rod, I spotted my glasses laying on the rocks. One lens was scratched, but they weren’t broken. Hope returned. I tied on two tiny nymphs and added a small weight. Aiming my back cast in a gap between trees, I laid the flies two-thirds of the way out to the ice where the water was four feet deep. The cast spooked the fish, but I let my nymphs sink to the bottom and left them. A few minutes later, the fish returned. Though I couldn’t see my flies, I could see my weight. When a fish got close, I twitched my line lifting the flies off the silty bottom. A big male cutthroat turned and darted. I set the hook.
   THE AUTHOR CAUGHT three Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout by sinking tiny nymph lures to the silty bottom of Hidden Lake.
Photo courtesy of Matthew Dickerson
Over the next hour and a half, I hooked four fish this way. One — presumably the smartest — dove under a branch on the bottom and snapped my light tippet. I landed the other three. They were all bright, beautiful and fat.
Finally, I had to leave. The few other hikers who made it in this far had disappeared, and I was nearly out of drinking water. As I approached the top of the steep ascent on my hike back, my day was made complete when I came upon a mountain goat ewe and her kid feeding on greenery near the edge of the snow just a dozen yards from the trail. I looked back down at the lake and saw rings where fish were rising. I snapped photos of the goats and the rings. A short time later I was back in the crowds of hikers who come only to the overlook, and then I was driving back down the road, reversing my morning trek. A cabin full of gear stood waiting to be packed for my flight back to Vermont. The trip had ended as well as I could have imagined. 

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