Nicholas and I have hiked and backpacked in quite a few places: New Hampshire, New York, Maine, Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, California – all of which were amazing – but nothing has come close to Montana. Backpacking in Glacier National Park has won my heart, and it has yet to be stolen.
If you read my last post, you know that Nicholas and I successfully hitched 60 miles to our trailhead at Kintla Lake Campground. We camped for the night and woke at 4:30 a.m. to begin our 17.5-mile day to our site at Boulder Pass.
Something that I failed to mention before was while we were at the Backcountry Office, the rangers took us into a small room to watch a video. It was about grizzly bear safety. Montana is frequented by many grizz, and the area where we were hiking had the greatest concentration of these fuzzy, large-toothed animals. Hikers demonstrated that if a grizz greets you, pick up a large stick, talk in a firm voice, and do not run. If the bear decides today is not your day, spray mace into the bear’s direction — and hope there’s no wind. The advice I took to heart was this: the best way to avoid a grizzly encounter was to make yourself known before it saw you. Periodically make loud noises, then the bear can hear you and run away.
My anxiety swelled as we journeyed into the darkness of dawn, a possible bear behind every tree. I did as the video suggested and made myself known: “HEY BEAR! OH, HEYY, BEAR!” Nicholas said we were fine and that I was being ridiculous, but I proceeded nonetheless to yell every 10 to 20 minutes. When I got bored of yelling, “hey bear,” I switch it up by projecting my best montage of accents — British, southern, army general, Santa, and Old Greg. Eventually I settled down to a sporadic “Hoooraaaah.”
We traversed swiftly over the gently graded Boulder Pass Trail, a thin dirt ribbon weaving through purple fireweed and tall pines.
It ran along Kintla Lake and Upper Kintla Lake, both a shade of brilliant aquamarine. I later learned their color is due to the glaciers grinding the mountains for thousands of years, depositing mountain dust into the water. The sunlight refracts off the dust creating these magical blue-green bodies of water.
We ran into two pairs of hikers. Both reported seeing a grizzly bear. One woman told us they startled it during a downpour the previous day. Her eyes grew to saucers as she stated the bear got on its hind legs before running away. While we walked away, Nicholas was grinning, “yes, this means I’ll get to see a grizzly in the wild.” Nicholas has a warped perception of what is “cool.” Anything involving chaos and danger is appealing to him. Whereas I was vibing with the terrified hiker and didn’t want to see a 600-pound bear on its haunches.
Nearing mile 15 the gentle slope of the trail became steep. There was 3,000 feet of elevation to gain before our first campsite; sadly, it was over a 2.5-mile stretch. Unlike New Hampshire, where trails go straight up mountains, this trail zigzagged up the terrain, making for a comfortable climb.
The trail evened out and led us to our site, a small clearing nestled before Boulder Pass. We checked our phones and found we made great time, arriving at 3:40 p.m. We made an early dinner and experienced the ultimate privy — possibly the best view while doing your business.
We woke early and began our next 13.5-mile leg to our campsite at Goat Haunt. The air was thick with a frosty fog making gloves and our puffs a necessity. We made our way over Boulder Pass. The path snaked us through the crease of two peaks, where we walked along glaciers and not-yet-melted snowfields. Bodies of water shimmered like mirrors. Mountains and clouds casted vain reflections. The fog enshrouded as we lowered in elevation but cleared once we reached a meadow of purple fireweed.
Nicholas and I have a running joke about never seeing a moose despite all our trips. Montana would grant us our wish: a bull moose lumbered slowly through the meadow chewing on mouthfuls of fireweed.
Our eyes were transfixed on the moose as we weaved through the meadow. At several points we just stopped and stared, and the moose turned and stared back.
As we left the moose to his feast of flowers, I couldn’t help but think the he was blessing us. A sign. Nicholas and I had finally seen our moose after five years of searching. But the thing was, when we finally found him, we weren’t looking for him. He was just there. Existing. As if he’d been there all along, waiting for us.
Thankful. So thankful.
The trail rounded and aligned us directly in front of Thunderbird Mountain and Thunderbird Falls, a white sash of water flowing down its steep face.
Another bend revealed an aqua medallion in the foreground of an epic mountain-scape: Thunderbird Pond. We unsaddled our packs on a rock directly in front of the water.
It was late morning, so I decided to cook oats while we basked on the rock. Nicholas said, “Man, this is awesome. I wish someone could take our picture!” I was so transfixed on my oats that I didn’t even acknowledge how uncharacteristic this statement was for him. He could care less about pictures. But he repeated the comment three more times before a hiker– magically–rounded the bend. I was shocked. Nicholas was shocked. He somehow manifested a hiker to appear. He told me to put the stove away. In excitement I shoved the cookset under a bush. Nicholas stood as the hiker drew near and asked if she could take our picture. She agreed and took his phone. Nicholas said he needed his hat and began digging into his pack. It’s probably because his hair looks bad, I thought. I smiled for the picture, but when I looked to my side, Nicholas was on the ground. “Oh my!” Squealed the hiker. On one knee and ring box in hand, he stammered, “Julia, you are my best friend and I w-want to spend the rest of my life with you. W-will you marry me?”
My face flooded with tears. I was frozen in shock and excitement. I latched on to his body, hugging him and choking out an emotional “yes!”
The woman congratulated us and left. We sat in bliss, grateful for this moment. The moose had blessed us — he was our sign.
I told Nicholas he pulled off his best surprise yet. Because although we had discussed getting engaged, he had thrown me off his scent two weeks prior when I asked him about rings. He displayed a baffled look and said I had failed to send him pictures of what I wanted. I rebutted that I had a year ago. I was fully under the impression Nicholas was a complete bonehead.
I expected nothing, but in return received everything. When I finally stopped looking, it was right in front of me all along.
Thankful. So thankful.