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Lightning, and Hikers, and Bears, Oh My!

Sean Kamp, Friend of AppGear

     Montana is a beautiful state. I was thrilled to get off the Amtrak in East Glacier and immediately look off into the horizon and see giant snow-capped peaks and a lush green blanket of trees engulfing the rugged landscape. It was cloudy and wet, and the air was crisp like a typical fall day. But it wasn’t fall; it was July 3rd. The highest snow year in decades hadn’t spared the northern Rockies either. After getting off trail at the Colorado/New Mexico border due to heavy snow, I was happy to be back on the CDT. Now I would attempt to finish my trek as a southbounder.

     As confident as I was in my skills and in my drive to succeed, I knew many hardships and challenges lay waiting that would test my resolve. I still had roughly 2,000 miles left in my thru hike, and Montana (with a portion zigzagging in and out of Idaho) was almost half of those remaining miles. This was also grizzly country, a place I had never found myself wandering before. Though Salty and I had planned on reuniting in Montana and continuing to hike together for the remainder of our journey, logistically this didn’t work out. He was already much farther south, having restarted two weeks sooner than I was able to. I had thought a lot about what it might be like to hike through the most remote wilderness in the lower 48 states, and if I could even mentally wrap my head around the prospect of doing so aloneabout whether I could push through, or if I’d let fear take over. I had no choice but to try.

     Seeing the Canadian Border gave me mixed emotions. For years I had dreamed of that monument. I had visualized standing exactly where I now found myself. It was supposed to be my grand finishing spot, the end to an epic northbound journey along the divide! Now it was the start of the final and biggest chunk of my journey. No grand celebration, just nervous excitement. There was so much ahead of me, but I was ready to waltz into the wilderness and put one foot in front of the other until I reached my goal. And so it began. 

     I didn’t see a grizzly in Glacier National Park. I thought for certain I wouldeverybody else did. The anticipation was killing me. On high alert, I once again left East Glacier, this time heading south into “The Bob.” The Bob Marshall Wilderness is a huge swath of land, totaling over 1 million acres, that is home to many wild animals. We’d heard a rumor that when they catch the disgruntled and aggressive bears, they release them in The Bob. Regardless of the authenticity of this rumor, and I had my doubts, I was scared and erring on the side of it being true. I needed to be careful and cautious and, more importantly, loud. Some people liked to loudly proclaim “Hey Bear” every so often and around every blind curve, but I preferred to practice my karaoke skills, blurting out lyrics to terrible pop songs while I danced my way down trail. The nights were the worst. Lying alone under my tiny tarp, every noise became a bear in my mind. The tiniest ruffle by a squirrel put me on high alert. 

     Finally, I saw my first grizzly. It was huge. As I came around a blind corner, surrounded by waist-high brush, I caught sight of a big brown ball of fur. At first I couldn’t believe my eyes, but quickly the bear stood up and locked eyes on me. Before I could react, and while the surprise of the encounter was still setting in, the bear was gone, scurrying down the side of the trail, like a bat out of hell. I was in awe of the speed with which this giant creature moved. As close as I was, and as huge as the bear was, I wasn’t really scared. I had gone over how I thought it might be in my head again and again, thinking about what actions I would need to do to stay safe, but in the moment I did nothing. The bear was gone before I could even release my eyes from their frozen, wide-open gaze. “That was awesome!” I thought to myself. From that point on I was less afraid of grizzlies. My fear had now become a respect. A respect for a beautiful and powerful creature, on whose land I was a guest. I was still cautious, of course, and I never fully let my guard down, but the terror of the unknown was gone, and I looked forward to seeing more bears. I got my wish, and before the state was over, I saw 3 more bears. 

     I wasn’t out of the woods yet, both literally and figuratively, and another fear I had dwelled on would soon come bubbling up into reality. Lightning sucks. Though my fear of bears has diminished the more I am around them, my fear of lightning only grows with exposure to it. And while I knew I’d be in storms in every state of my CDT hike, I’d erroneously believed I’d only have to deal with scary lightning in Colorado, where long stretches above tree line is the norm. I was wrong. Montana is where I experienced my most terrifying encounter with the awesome power of Mother Nature. 

     July was a rainy month. Afternoon storms were the norm. Because of this, I’d made it a habit to try to be up and over the passes as early in the day as I could, to lower my odds of being stuck above tree line while the skies lit up with light and fury. I was successful in my mission. Every pass in The Bob was conquered in good weather, but that didn’t mean I was safe. One evening, while descending a few thousand feet down through a forested valley, a storm rolled in. “I’m below tree line, I’m good,” I thought. But I was wrong. Soon hail was hammering down on me and the forest sounded like a troupe of snare drums. The marbles of ice littered the trail, and the clouds clapped with thunder. Bolts of lightning began dashing across the sky. I could see the ridge off in the distance getting struck repeatedly. Soon this lightning was engulfing me, too. Bolts hit trees so close that a flash of white light continuously obscured my vision. I was terrified, but I continued on. Eventually the storm died down. The freezing cold rain lifted, and the sky became blue. The sun came out and dried my gear in minutes. It was so sudden I had to remind myself what had just happened. This was the closest I came to being struck by lightning. I did later get caught on many ridges in Colorado during intense storms, but nothing would compare to that day in The Bob. 

     The CDT was a never-ending cycle of my fears becoming realities. But it was also a cycle of embracing and pushing through these fears. Some of them disappeared with experience and some of them were compounded. But regardless of how I dealt with them and how I viewed them in my mind, I didn’t let them stop me. I also learned to love the heightened sense of awareness that comes with being in a state of fear, and I learned to thrive in that environment. The CDT was an amazing experience for that, and I am forever grateful.  

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