In the morning, I get just 200 yards before learning that the previous day was only a warmup. Our off-trail path to Mineral Creek basin looks bad enough on paper, but the squinched contour lines hide canted boulderfields, pants-ripping thickets of scrubby firs, and steep chutes carpeted with mountain heather. As I descend, I learn to make liberal use of what Richardson calls the VBS (vegetative belay system), whereby a fistful of slick needles and chopstick branches connected to a shallow root system prevents a 1,000-foot endo of doom. Just as I get comfortable, we run into a 60-degree pit to nowhere, and my Elvis leg kicks in. Gaines sets an anchor on a tree trunk, and when it’s my turn, I make a Looney Tunes rappel through crotch-thwacking branches and rotten ledges crusted in lichen. I quickly determine that mats of fir needles have a coefficient of friction roughly matching that of a banana peel—something they never teach you in climbing school. Two more of these, and we’re at an unnamed area Gaines calls Mineral Pass. It’s a soul-quieting place, an oasis of trees and meadows only a few football fields wide, all of it wedged like a Tetris block between sheer rock walls. This is one of the wildest places in the Lower 48, and you can feel the bears here even if you can’t see them.
“It’s possible nobody visited this spot before us,” Gaines says.
We collect kinked tangles of dark bear hair from two more corrals, following a small creek into an empty, U-shaped valley lit up with the commingling colors of summer and fall: Remnant asters and columbine sprout in between reddening groundcover. Mineral Creek pours over a cliff into the Baker River watershed, perhaps the most remote area of the wilderness, and the one place Gaines and team can’t seem to reach. On the deploy trip, Woodrow and Gaines skirted through cliff bands trying to find a way down, only to get funneled into a class 5 free climb on broken stone next to a waterfall. But with light fading, weather failing, and thousands of feet of 45-degree VBSing ahead, Gaines let it go. “It was so tough to get to that we decided if there’s a bear in there, it deserves to be left alone,” he says.
After scrambling 2,000 feet back out of the drainage, we wind past two placid tarns and round the backside of Easy Ridge to reach the final corral—the last hope for finding a grizzly this year. Located right at treeline, the sky island of trees overlooks the split veins of the hyper-wild Baker River and Picket Creek watersheds, each of them several days from any trail. The thickly forested basins peel back to reveal the Picket Range, a ripsaw ridge of black gneiss spires with names like Terror, Fury, and Phantom. Glaciers fill the crevices between like food caught in the teeth of some wild beast.
And this corral’s loaded with fur, too: We’re six for six. Woodrow snaps a photo as Gaines pulls the last strand of hair for the project; he feigns misting up, and in between the smiles, I think I spy real moisture. Richardson is so absorbed in the meticulous collecting of samples she doesn’t notice the punch-you-in-the-face view until takedown.
“You know, this is a bit bittersweet, a bit melancholy,” Gaines says as he packs the last envelope. “But whether we get a grizzly or not, this is important. When we’re done, we’ll have one of the largest datasets of black bear DNA anywhere, and learning about landscape connectivity matters for them, too—for all carnivores. We can learn so much about bear movements, how they’re related, how to protect them going forward.” During the three-year project, the cameras also caught fleeting glimpses of wolves and wolverines expanding beyond their known territories, plus a Canadian lynx yards from crossing the Cascade crest—where they’ve never been detected before. Biologists all over the world will pore over this data for decades.
To celebrate survey’s end, we march 800 feet up a hump of tundra to summit 6,615-foot Easy Peak, a king’s seat with a 360-degree view of the jagged heart of the most rugged wilderness in the Lower 48. The summit had a fire lookout until the 1960s, but all that remains is a rusted stool frame with a flat stone set atop it for a seat. We each take a turn to sit alone and let our minds disappear into the endless zigzag horizon.
Gazing across the snaking valleys, I can’t help wondering where that last tribe of grizzlies hides. But I’m somehow content simply knowing that they’re probably eating, snuffling, and preparing to den where they always have, far from human eyes.
We all spend a long time gazing from the throne, but Gaines stays the longest. Finally, he says, “They’re out there.”
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Former BACKPACKER associate editor Ted Alvarez (@tedster) is managing editor at grist.org.
Editor’s note The 2012 survey’s motion-sensor cameras didn’t capture any grizzlies at most of the team’s bear corrals (including the one with the promising blond fur). However, the cameras malfunctioned at two of the more promising sites, so results won’t be known until DNA testing is completed in the spring. Regardless, there’s good news for the ghost bears. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee met shortly after Gaines’s final trek, and all parties agreed to move forward with the next step toward grizzly bear recovery: a multi-year Environmental Impact Study, essentially a long-term road map for reaching a healthy grizzly population in the North Cascades.