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Summer Stories: Backcountry

| By Thom Caraway

Maybe it was just a moose. Almost certainly, a moose. Or a buck or even an elk. Any ungulate. But not a bear. Not a hungry or angry bear. If it was a bear, it was a friendly bear. Curious. Easily spooked by noise. But make no noise, in case it isn’t a bear. There’s no way it’s a bear. Or a homicidal maniac. Or aliens. Or a mountain lion. Mountain lions are silent. If it’s a mountain lion, there’s just nothing you can do. You wouldn’t hear it coming. You wouldn’t know it was there until it already had you down, disemboweled. Somehow, that’s comforting.

The noise again. Heavy. Big. Twenty yards away? The thump is distinct. You can feel it in the ground, through the thin cushion of your sleeping pad. Maybe closer. And distinct sounds. Not just thump, but something cracks, a downed log or branch. A thick one. Smaller branches, brush, too. Snapping.

Why had you picked this spot? Furthest from the cook site, sure, but closest to wilderness. You’d seen a bear on the trail at the start of the hike. Your first bear in the wild. Kind of cool, but also, a bear. Just a cub, and ten miles back. But you’d walked this far. A bear cub could’ve. And cubs have mamas. You saw the berry bushes all stripped down, not a mile from camp. You saw where the bears had sat stripping the berry bushes. The brush still crushed from the weight of all the bears. You knew the lake was called Trout Lake. You knew bears liked to eat trout. You knew the trail guide, with his mule, had looked grim on his way out. When you passed on the trail, you’d stepped aside to let the mule pass, asked how it looked in there. He’d said, “All goin’ to hell anyway.”

This isn’t where you’d intended to be. You’d intended a 12-day trip. A real trek. But after two days of trekking, your feet were raw ribbons of blisters. Your buddy’s knees, as it turned out, were no good up hill. So you’d cut the loop in half, made it to the road and hitched a ride down to Apgar. Spent two days in a car-camping nightmare. Generators, dogs, boom-boxes. So. Blisters and bad knees or not, it was back into the woods. And you couldn’t leave early, because you’d both told your wives, and maybe you had something to prove.

You’d met people. Two girls at the bar in West Glacier. You’d swum across the river with them to prove you still could. Boxcar Bob, who’s 50th birthday present to himself was hoboing all the way out from Ohio. His wife and daughter were meeting him in two days. “Game’s all different now, man. Barely got boxcars anymore. Weren’t much fun.”

The Boy Scouts at Sperry, and the goats. The German family at Lake Ellen, packing cast iron pans and Spam, the dad in his Speedo screaming from the shallow blue of the glacier-fed lake. The two a-hole kids who’d scrambled up Mt. Cleveland just for fun, who’d looked at your heavy packs, laughing in the way of the young, the one of them that understood how close he was, the brief fear behind his eyes when he realized the two of you were the two of them, only 10 years down the road, the kid, finally, for the first time, truly worried. Some small satisfaction in being in pain, if only to teach fear to the kid.

And that’s what it all was, wasn’t it? Fear? What you do in spite of it. Walking around the backcountry of a national park because you were afraid you’d never write again, and at least out here there was a reason not to write. Fear that six years of grad school was worthless, the years in the wasteland, dragging your wife and family that far from home.

Or fear of becoming Boxcar Bob. Turning 50 with so much nothing to look forward to that jumping trains from Ohio to Montana seemed like a good, reasonable, fun idea. You think, what if that guide was right? What if we are all goin’ to hell? What if this is it?

More shuffling in the brush. Couldn’t have been more than 10 yards. You hear your buddy rustle in his tent.

“You hearing this?” you ask.

He hisses. You assume he thinks it’s a near-enough-to-natural-sounding sound that clearly means shut up you moron, I hear it and it’s going to eat us.

He’s so excitable.

It certainly isn’t goats. You’d left the goats behind on the more mountainous side of the park. You wonder where Boxcar Bob is. If he waited it out in Apgar. His wife and daughter were supposed to join him, though they’d given him a five-day head-start. They were just going to drive from Ohio. They don’t understand, he’d said, leaning back against his bedroll.

“Hey, what if that guide was right?” you ask, using your library voice.

The hissing again.

“I mean, this could be hell, right?”


“Seriously, whatever it is has already heard us. It smells us. And there’s a millimeter of nylon between us and it. What if this is hell, though? Always afraid, waiting to be eaten by a bear that never comes?”

Rustling nylon.

“Seems like it could be hell.”


You see his strategy. You’re making all the noise. You’ll be eaten first. You wonder again about what it means to be in the backcountry, on essentially paved trails. Sure, you’re roughing it, whatever that means. It’s not like your grandparents roughed it. Or their grandparents. They had wagons and guns when they came west. They would have unzipped the tent, fired into the dark, and slept soundly the rest of the night. Probably sent their wives out to harvest the meat in the middle of the night. Different times. The knife you carried wouldn’t even count as a knife to them. You feel around the hanging pocket near your head to make sure your knife is still there. It is. You grab it. You feel around for your headlamp.

You sit up, thankful you paid extra for the solo tent with headroom at REI. Your buddy is in a bivy-sack. He can’t sit up.

You unzip the tent and click on your light. The knife is in your right hand.

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