Heart racing and with palpable thumping in my chest my quickened pulse, breaths and wide straining eyes all coax me forward into the grandest forest lands I have ever beheld. Pouring down upon my swiveling head was rain akin to being in the flow of a river. My ears strained for sounds of impending danger through this pounding watery symphony. What was that? The whoof of an angry bear, was that a limb snap, no just my imagination tweaking on adrenaline. The energy of this wild green density of life was now coursing through my every fiber.
This is how I began my rain drenched hike into grizzly habitat of NW Montana’s Yaak (Kootenai for straight arrow) country. I had been warned not to venture into these lush old growth drainage’s, home to a remnant population of the often maligned apex predator of wild North America. A predator who’s very presence is an overarching indicator that the habitat in which it relies, is an intact functioning ecosystem. As an umbrella species Grizzlies are helping biologists select the locations of potential wildland reserves. Thus determining the minimum size, variety of species and processes needed to sustain the ecosystems myriad species interactions under which the bear relies.
As much as anything else I wanted to experience this forest on its own terms, the waters, the scents, the colors and yes the bears terms. I fully understood the reasoning behind these warnings. Setting aside for a moment my safety I did not want to experience the canned Yellowstone Grizzly version of wilderness. Where practically every bear in the park is cordoned off from public contact. Instead I wanted a visceral close quarters experience with untamed wild country. And for that the Yaak country has much more to offer than just bears. Since the end of the Pleistocene this dripping with life landscape has held practically every piece of genetic variety that has ever lived on the continent.
But it is in dire need of help from destructive human encroachments, apathy, and yes our rapidly out of control phenom we quaintly call Climate Change. To this predicament, in steps the Yaak Valley Forest Council. The YVFC is a small group of hard working and dedicated advocates with an end goal to get wilderness designation for as much of this prehistoric landscape as possible. The wilderness plan also entails creating a new economy for the local people that will allow them to “stay in the woods” working small logging operations. The wilderness bill holds language that details methods for business models to produce wood products to be sold by local business people. By not selling the raw timber to outside industries the “cut” can be put back into the community via finished products and jobs. Hopefully this “local greening” method will grow an economy with an end point attitude to care for the land and all its wild constituents. If it works the bears win and the people win.
To make a long story short this is why I was warned to stay out of the core Griz habitat. If I was injured or killed the negative (me being an outsider) connotations and political atmosphere would make the YVFC’s job to protect the Yaak’s grizzlies and the cornucopia of genetic wealth that live under this umbrella species more complicated.
As I proceeded down the long closed logging road it narrowed into a cushiony moss covered trail. The forest closed in upon me like a dark green wet canopy. Adding to the din of the downpour was the raging torrent named Burnt creek which further numbed my ability to sense the sounds of an approaching bear. One good thing in my favor, (or the bears favor I’m not sure) was that I was walking downwind and sweating heavily under the rain gear. I kept a slow but steady pace slightly content that my scent would be carried far out ahead of my soggy boot steps. Eventually progress found myself pushing through walls of dripping, face slashing Alders, Maples and Water Birch. Oddly amongst this crowd of plants my apprehension of violent attack began to wane. All the while I had been alert to sight, smell and sounds of bear but had yet to come across any fresh sign. No bear tracks, no scat or claw ravaged logs did I come across. I know this means little given the distance a bear can travel on a whim. This lack of fresh bear sign allowed me to take-in the other major goal of this excursion. How lucky to be here breathing into my pores this treasure of a living forest. I wanted to briefly grasp the essence of this working ecosystem and was awakened by my internally perceived danger of encountering a close quarters bear. The word ecosystem seems like trivial dribble and wholly inadequate in describing the myriad fervor of life that flourishes in the Yaak. The risks are well worth the rewards of traveling in wild country.
I am no forest ecologist mind you, but any visitor whether they be experienced biophile or urban nyctohylophobic can clearly see, smell, touch and hear the true uniqueness in this landscape of ancient hills, waters and life called The Yaak. The Grizzly is the supreme indicator of an intact healthy working biome. Possibly no other place on the continent is in more dire risk of loosing this trophic cascade of life. My time here has convinced me that these last intact drainages are worth wilderness designation. Though this human life is short, our legacies can be long and for all creatures The Yaak is worth saving. Wether on foot or by the written page I encourage all to explore and protect a place that touches you. You see The Yaak’s (including any number of wild places in your own backyards) dwindling assemblage of life deserves to pulse on immemorial. Change has always been seeded by the dedicated passion of individuals, not by large interests. So, find a special wild place near to you, breath it in deep, get to know it, be it rainy forest or sunny desert and having gone out to experience the wild you will have discovered you actually have gone within.