Bear Spray and a Baby
A short adventure creates lasting memories near the Gates of the Mountains
It’s late June and the sky is blue. The scent of far-off wood smoke hangs in the morning air. I drive east on York Road, drinking coffee. A herd of mangalarga marchador horses munch spring grass along Trout Creek. At the York Bar, I swing right on County Road 4 and travel north toward Nelson and the Refrigerator Canyon Trailhead in the Big Belt Mountains, part of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.
After making a left and driving about four miles, I reach the trailhead, where I pull up near a large rock and hitching rails. I’m at 4,514 feet, and I’ll be following a trail that leads into the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area, the place Meriwether Lewis recorded as “much the most remarkable cliffs we have yet seen” during the westward journey of the Corps of Discovery. I imagine it will take me a good part of the day to reach my goal of the Gates of the Mountains boundary. I will be hiking slowly, and I have a passenger.
In the back seat, my six-month-old son Walter snoozes in his car seat. I know better than to wake him, so I wait, amusing myself by watching squirrels busily running along the wooden fence. Finally, I hear Walter fussing. I unstrap him, and load him into his baby backpack carrier. Then, I do something I regret later—I pack three extra diapers and an entire package of baby wipes. The wipes are heavy, saturated in water.
In addition to Walter, I load up water and bear spray. Into a back pocket I slip a folded baby blanket and a tiny hat. Into eager chubby hands, I place a baby bottle filled with water. Shouldering the pack confirms what I already know: Walter gets heavier every day, but my muscles grow to keep up with him.
For the first quarter mile of the hike, we are surrounded by stone. Limestone cliffs embrace us, shooting up on either side of the small creek that flows along the trail. Cool breezes float down the canyon - it gets its name from the cooling effect of the towering cliffs - and the sound of the water echoes against the rocks. The creek winds through the jutting limestone at the bottom of the canyon. It’s hard to believe the 200-foot walls were cut by slightly acidic water dissolving the stone over millenia.
I step carefully, wishing Walter was wearing a helmet in case I fall on the wet rocks. Ahead of us, a 10-foot-wide slit in the limestone opens up. We step through, and the canyon releases us into daylight.
The rocky trail soon turns to gentle switchbacks that lead up the side of Sheep Mountain. Tender pink feet poke out at my elbows, and I realize Walter has somehow kicked off both his socks. I make a mental note to look for them on the way back down.
The switchbacks enter the forest, and as I peer down the mountainside, I hear cracking timber. I scan the slope, at first seeing nothing but pine duff and grass. Soon, I spot a fallen tree that is decomposing on the ground, and a small black bear, who must have been digging for grubs in the rotting wood, is startled by my dogs, Buddy and Oreo. The bear runs through the trees away from us. It’s small, which makes me wonder if it’s alone. I call my dogs back, and they run, tails wagging, up the trail ahead.
At the top of the switchbacks stands a wooden lookout, perched above exposed rock and, further down the slope, more trees. Walter is quiet. I listen for the steady rhythm of this breath as he sleeps.
I hike until I reach the edge of Gates of the Mountains Wilderness. Beside the Forest Service sign, I take off the backpack, pull Walter out, sit down, and hold him in my lap. He looks around at the trees. I look at the trees too. The bear spray, freed from the pack, lies on the trail in front of me. Walter, clad in a red onesie and blue fleece pants, nurses while I sit on the ground. Oreo sits to my right, while Buddy explores the hillside below us.
To our right, the trail heads back to the parking lot. To our left, it goes on and on. Other, less encumbered individuals could spend weeks exploring the 28,560-acre Gates of the Mountains Wilderness. But not me. I stand, stretch, and pick up Walter, who turns from the trees to look at me. He smiles, and it begins to rain.
That’s my cue. I load Walter into the carrier and attach the rain hood. The drops are sparse and warm. The air is humid. I adjust my backpack and boots and start slowly back down the trail, on the lookout for a pair of very small white socks.
- Melissa Peterson is interning with MWA while she earns her master's degree in environmental writing at the University of Montana