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My First Time Using Bear Spray

A reader visits a notorious site in Glacier National Park—and comes back with a story of his own.

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Why did I get so infatuated with Trout Lake? First, some history: Back in 1967, on a single night, Glacier National Park had two fatal grizzly attacks. They were the first ones ever in the park. One of them was at Trout Lake.

Forty-three years later I was working at the park’s dispatch office and I found the original incident report. I’ll confess my brain doesn’t work like other people’s—I was soon convinced I needed to visit the place so I could see my first grizzly.

My first attempt was in early June and I got maybe 2.5 miles—halfway to the lake. I came to the top of Howe Ridge and it was just white—no trees, no nothing. I was alone. I turned around.

The second time, there was no snow on the ridge, but every 100 feet or so, there was a fresh pile of bear scat. Soon, I reached a slide path: Where the trail should have been was anyone’s guess because there was just debris. That was the end of trip number two.

I was frustrated but not defeated. For the third try, I went in the height of summer, intending to hike past Trout Lake to explore the waterfall-rich drainage behind it.

But really, I was hoping to see a grizzly. I was on my own, so I was being very cautious about the bear spray. Somebody I worked with told me that to really be prepared, I should make sure the safety was off. Otherwise, by the time I saw the bear, it’d be too late.

I got to the ridge where I’d lost the trail, no problem. I got to the place where the avy had been, no problem. I kept going and finally reached the lake. I was feeling good and decided to take pictures.

I had my tripod with me and I set it up near a creek to do a nice long exposure of one of the waterfalls. When I went to pack up, I heard hissing. What the hell? I thought. Is that a snake? I saw this cloud of orange coming at me and my eyes went wide with surprise. The bear spray I’d accidentally fired wafted in from point-blank range. I instantly started gasping and wheezing. I doubled over, my eyes burning and filling with water. It was like chopping the hottest pepper imaginable and rubbing it in your face. I crawled over to the creek and dunked my head as though it were on fire, which it was.

I stumbled down the trail, blind and breathless, stopping to soak my face in every creek I could see with my swollen eyes. It took me four hours to get back to my car, gasping and coughing.

So yes, I made it to Trout Lake that day, and even got to enjoy it for a minute before I blinded myself. I’ve hiked to many other lakes in Glacier since then, but that was the last time I went to Trout Lake. I think maybe I’m not supposed to be back there. Never did see a grizzly. 

–As told to Casey Lyons

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