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National Parks: Glacier

Rule #1 when planning a hike through this iconic park: Let your ambition match the scenery.

We hear soft, almost pained grunting, and it sounds close. But we can’t tell how close, because rain had driven us inside our floorless tent. The throaty whine grows nearer as we watch water slide down yellow walls. When you’re tentbound in Glacier National Park, every unexplained noise sounds like a grizzly, so my first instinct is to withdraw to the precise center of the shelter. Not my buddy Mike. He bursts out of his sleeping bag, grabs his camera, and rockets out the tent’s backside.

He takes the four steps to our front-porch view of Kootenai Lake, a reedy, fir-fringed pond just a few miles from Canada. Then he takes four more, almost running toward the source of the sound: a very large moose, in rut. “As you can see,” he says aloud, narrating the video he’s taking, “I’m very close.” But still not close enough. He takes another few steps toward the bull, its school-bus-yellow, hammer-hard rack now only 20 yards away from Mike, who’s in the open at the water’s edge.

Then the moose pivots, sweeping one mammoth antler low enough to skim the grass, and heads directly for us. This is bad. Mike throws himself into reverse, pointing the camera backward as he runs. I see what the video chaotically records: the moose sauntering into the freezing lake. Bluff charge.

“That was awesome, bro!” Mike says, and laughs his crazy Woody Woodpecker laugh. “Did you see how close I got?”

I did. Of course, moose are one of the animals I’d hoped to see on this epic, 56-mile northern loop in the Lower 48’s premier backpacking park, but seeing a bull’s individual chin hairs and sex-crazed eyes was not on my wish list. I’d been watching Mike go after close-ups like this for days, but this is the first time he brought one of his subjects back toward us. As much as I wanted to lecture Mike for flouting good sense and every rule in the humans-meet-wildlife playbook, I couldn’t help but appreciate the moment. It perfectly represented why I was here—with Mike—in the first place.

I’d long dreamed of hiking through Glacier’s storied terrain. For hikers like me, who cherish mega mountains and megafauna in equal proportions, the park is sacred ground. And I didn’t come here to keep the wild heart of the place at arm’s length. When I got a chance to spend a week backpacking in Glacier, I wanted a journey to match the legendary park: big, challenging, alive with the hourly possibility of coming face-to-fur with an animal that outweighed me by a quarter ton. I wanted long days filled with endless views of stegosaurus-spine ridges. And I wanted to do it in late September, long after the summer crowds were gone and (hopefully) shortly before the early-winter weather arrived.

And to make it all work, I needed a partner who would take the trip to the next level. I needed Mike. He’d proven himself on many such trips over the last decade. And where other companions have gotten doughy, Mike’s legs have toned to angular. Where others are thoughtful and cautious, Mike’s a walking, talking tornado of confidence, bad ideas, and that scary-silly laugh. I don’t always love his impulsiveness, but I’ll tolerate it for never-fail fitness and never-down morale.

Our plan: Hike deep into the Waterton Valley backcountry from Many Glacier, camp alongside turquoise lakes that pool at the feet of steep-sided mountains, and return on the Highline Trail, a contour line below the Continental Divide.

When I picked up Mike in Missoula, he immediately filled the car with his 100-words-a-minute chatter. And that’s when I learned that ha-ha-what-a-character-crazy Mike had become clinically diagnosed Mike. On the two-hour drive to Glacier, he told me that he’d been diagnosed with bipolar II and a condition called hypomania. Doctors describe the latter as a persistent and pervasive euphoric, or “elevated,” state characterized by infinite energy, fierce competitiveness, and a gluttony for risk. Mike described it as “a 24-7 cocaine high!” and laughed his crazy laugh. Then he disclosed that he had gone on a self-regulated lithium wean a week earlier so he could hike faster.

In the moments after the Mike-moose encounter, a few thoughts race through my head: Rather than this hike’s key to safety and success, could Mike be a liability? Or, like many of us who seek out deep wilderness and the challenges it brings, could he find a unique kind of remedy here? And could bear spray deter a charging bull moose?

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