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The Truth About Bears: The Mystery

Grizzlies vanished from North Cascades National Park five decades ago. Or did they? Our scout joins the search for Washington's elusive mountain ghosts. By Ted Alvarez
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To our delight and surprise, mid-October feels more like August. It’s warmer than 60°F, and our only autumnal cues come from the broad washes of crimsonVaccinium, flame-orange mountain ash, purple maple, and yellow willow that blend and pour down the mountainside like sessile lava flows. From our vantage on Easy Ridge, the wicked black spike of Mt. Shuksan juts from a thick glacial cloak against a canvas of perfect blue.

Our first two corrals are nestled in coniferous islands that cling barnacle-like to those mountain flanks; we skate down a 30-degree slope of steep mountain heather to reach them. It’s not easy, and I can only imagine the grueling work of setup, when the crew had to reach these same spots hunched under 65-pound packs loaded with 200-foot coils of barbed wire, cameras, extra batteries, and as much as 28 pounds of finely aged bear bait. I smell the corral before I see it, choking on a heady whiff of pungent fish rot.

On average, 70 percent of corrals get snags of hair, but after two, we’re batting 1.000. The second has 17 samples, one of which is a knot of brown-blond fur with silvered tips that makes everyone’s pulse jump.
Woodrow tucks it into a barcoded manila envelope, then sterilizes the pliers with a lighter before moving on to the next tuft of fur.

“My theory is: Black until proven grizzly,” Gaines says. “And it’s bleached from the sun. But that’s very interesting. It’s looking pretty grizzled.” The researchers will get a first crack at identifying the owner after the trek, when they check the camera’s memory cards on a laptop stowed back at the trailhead. The photos will help determine which hair samples get sent to the lab for DNA confirmation.

“Unfortunately, it’s not like CSI,” says Gaines. “We won’t get DNA results back until spring.”

Gaines and team remove all traces of the corral for packing out, and we cruise up white granite ramps to make basecamp atop Easy Ridge, pausing only to tank up at a trickling snowfield. Gaines, who has spent his summers since high school lost in these tumbling ranges, promised the finest views in the park, but he undersold the vista. We pitch our tents on a thin spine of tundra and stone, and spin like dreidels trying to catch photos of alpenglow in nearly all directions. Northward, shark fins cut through a white, green, and blue sea toward Canada. To the west, the upturned spade of Mt. Baker goes apricot behind Shuksan; east, the apropos bear ears of Whatcom Peak lean out in front of the massive aqua Challenger Glacier. South, the sheer walls of the wild Mineral Creek basin fade into featureless indigo. We’ll head there tomorrow on a sunup-to-sunset tour of the final four corrals.

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