Moosed at UPT: Camping in Glacier National Park, MT

Second Breakfast Conversation

We were sharing spicy Virginia peanuts and dried mango slices, our second breakfast, with a couple of hikers at Upper Two Medicine Lake. Dennis’s peanuts went quickly, my mangoes. . . not so much. With no plans for the next several hours and the strong possibility that I would eat a third breakfast, we sat and talked a while. They had arrived the previous night, late, after a 15 mile day of mostly elevation gain. Comparatively, we had floated up this morning on a different trail, covering only about a third of their distance. They were from Billings and didn’t come to Glacier often enough. We are from Chicago and feel the same way.

When they finally got to the campground, there was an obstacle, other than the dreaded task of pitching a tent in the dark, between them and a well-deserved night’s sleep. On the path that leads to the designated backcountry campsites, their headlamps landed upon what were, unmistakably, two bull moose, doing whatever it is moose do in the night. I don’t think the biologists are quite sure on that, but it has something to do with ‘coming down from timber’. I had never seen a moose, despite great interest and attempts on canoe trips (going so far as rising before the sun and dawn-paddling in prime moose habitat). So, after a period of waiting, they gave up and shared an accessible campsite with someone already bundled up for the windy evening. We secured our foodstuffs while the tired couple packed up to finish their trip. I commented to Dennis that the guy had the same trail shoes as him and that we might catch a glimpse of a moose.

The Perfect Campsite

Being up at the lake so early in the day, we had our pick of the four available sites; The first two we passed were pleasant, but that third one – with a path leading to the water and a beautiful old tree with gnarled bark providing shade and a few seating options – was my vision of camping in a national park. I had Dennis situate the tent to take in the view of the mountainside; I filled two Therm-a-Rests, fluffed up the down quilts, and tested the setup for comfort. It was perfect, breezes flowing by and mountains towering overhead through the mesh windows. Although I was enjoying the setting, it was too soon for a nap, so I suggested some exploration. We left our heavy packs inside, grabbed our canteens and bear spray, and headed out of camp.

A Big Pond and the Biggest Deer

Though tempted to take the connecting trail up a few miles to Dawson Pass, we stuck to the main trail to check out Twin Falls. Along the way we got some intel from a day hiker that a cow moose was feeding in the pond below the trail we were headed down. Possibly she would be there a while. The trail was easy going, losing elevation gradually, and we made good time arriving at what was a considerably large pond within the half hour. I have since learned that the size of a body of water does not determine its designation as a pond. Depth is the key factor – a pond is a body of water, surrounded by land on all sides, shallow enough that plants could conceivably grow across its entire surface. Limnology, the study of inland water bodies, provided me with this useful information. And it’s just a cool-sounding word, derived from the ancient Greek word λίμνη (limne) meaning lake or pond. So, at the time, I was thinking this particular body of water was much too large to be a pond.

I have distracted you with pond facts and observations to build anticipation and to delay the reveal of the moose sighting. But, she was the first thing I saw, really the only thing. There was no pond. There was a moose with some water around it, like an over-sized goldfish placed back inside the miniature fish bowls they give you at the pet store or carnival. And we weren’t terribly close either, she just took up more space than any animal I’ve ever seen. The word majestic has been used countless times to describe the moose, humorously in the opening credits of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and seriously throughout natural history texts and nature photography collections. Rather than being struck by a stately grandeur or lofty dignity, I just kept thinking about her size. Her mass. In the same simple way of being entranced by giant pumpkins in state fair competitions, where the next squash couldn’t possibly be bigger than the enormous one on the scale, but somehow is. The mass was feasting on the plants growing in the pond, moving slowly forward, head bent slightly to reach the shoots beneath the water’s surface. Dennis reminded me that wild moose can be more dangerous than grizzly bears and attack when feeling threatened, info provided by the NPS rangers. As this wild moose exhibited no change in behavior at our distant presence, we watched her dine for several minutes and then left her to her pursuits, happy with our peaceful encounter.

The Perfect Campsite at Night

Perhaps encouraged by the appetite of the moose, we ate an early dinner followed by a stroll along Upper Two Medicine Lake’s north shore. The mountains’ grey, brown, and red reflections mixing with the green of the tree line and the sky’s blue reflections on the water gave the impression of a rainbow. The breeze carried the rainbow across the lake over and over, the late day sunshine soft on the surface. Before darkness took over, we were settled in our tent to rest our eyes and bodies, planning on a quick nap and then some reading. We left the fly tied up at the two vestibule doors, despite the rushing winds, allowing for the mountain air to come in. It felt good to lie down and stretch out. I felt good to be camping here in Two Medicine with my husband. I fell asleep with his arm resting across mine.

Nothing in particular woke me, I was just suddenly very much awake. Enough moonlight shone that I could make out the shapes of things in the dark. I turned my head to see that Dennis had rolled onto his back. I did the same and closed my eyes. A sound, from outside our sleeping quarters, brought my eyes open again. Another thunk . . . I swiftly elbowed Dennis in the ribs and spoke, “Dennis, are you awake? I hear something”. I’ve heard somethings in the woods at night on other trips, but this time I felt something. This was a real something and moving into our campsite. He had also been awake, before I shivved him with my bony elbow, and we both sat up to listen more intently.

The wind was fierce off the lake and through the trees, which did nothing to deafen the sound of the approaching something. At this point, it was obviously the sound of feet, one of which struck heavily into a log that I had sat upon while enjoying camp that afternoon. The scene from Jurassic Park comes to mind when I think about it, where the T-rex approaches the Jeeps in the storm, her footsteps creating ripples in the puddles. I tried to make myself small in the center of the tent, for there were now two bodies, one moving on either side of us. If the tent weren’t there and it were daylight, we could have reached out to pet the creatures and gotten a stunning wildlife close-up, no zoom necessary. Although I kept wanting to turn a light on, we remained in the dark and remained quiet.

Eyes straining to see outside through the mesh in front of me, a dull landscape took shape, the idea of bushes and mountains beyond came into focus. Visibility was low, it was pretty much none, and then it was only dark. The animal was standing directly in front of the adjacent tent doors, entirely blocking out the view of any surroundings and any light. I bought the Mountain Hardwear Optic because I could obtain a 180 degree view if both vestibule doors were tied back. 180 degrees of bull moose and he took a long time. . .with such long legs how could it be going so slowly? Meanwhile, his friend was picking its way around our little dome from behind, its hooves landing at most 1 foot away from where are heads were resting during the nap. Dennis reminded me of this one later since I had been so focused on the moose eclipse. The two joined each other on the path leading out to the brushy area between all the campsites. A snort bellowed from one, which made me sit up even taller and noticeably affected my heart rate, which I’m sure was already above normal. Then their traveling sounds faded; the wind became overpowering, and there was no chance of hearing them unless they returned to timber by the same way, the way that went through our perfect campsite.

I was glad these moose decided not to walk through what may have appeared to be a blue and grey boulder, but was actually some polyester and nylon held up by 3 aluminum poles that people manage to break accidentally all the time. Or was it that gnarled tree that blocked them from going straight through so they kept on the circuitous path? Either way, we weren’t keen on staying. It being dark, and the wilderness, and 1,000 lb. wildlife clearly active, we weren’t keen on leaving. We were going to spend a long night listening for somethings. Well, at least that’s what I thought, but after about an hour of the soothing sound of wind in the trees, I’m told I fell asleep. Dennis stayed vigilant, possibly getting a few minutes of sleep until sunrise got us going on the first alpine start of our lives; we broke camp and hit the trail by 6:00 am. We talk to each other while hiking and our backpacks make squinchy pack sounds as we move. I would say we make our presence known on the trail. As we squinched along, making quick progress, a large brown shape made itself known in my periphery. I turned my head, as I had continued hiking past the shape, and stared up at a young cow moose, only several feet off, just there. She didn’t move, or grunt, or lay her ears back – all good signs. I pushed on Dennis’s pack, encouraging him to keep moving. “A moose”, I think I told him, “a fucking moose”.

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