The tinkle of bear bells on tourists' daypacks and the sight of a can of bear spray (a type of pepper spray) hanging on hikers' chests are common at Glacier. Campground hosts give new arrivals friendly reminders about keeping a pristine camp - all food and cooking utensils go in a hard-sided vehicle when not in use. (Bear boxes are provided for backpackers and bicyclists.) Luckily, these aren't Yosemite bears that have learned to get into cars.
Young backpackers Chris Huston and Amanda Roberson, who boarded our train in La Crosse, Wis., also reported no bear or mountain lion encounters on their five-day trek, though they did see a cow moose, marmots and ptarmigan. Even in the backcountry they said they saw a fair number of people, except the day they went 13.8 miles and up 2,080 feet to get over Triple Divide Pass.
As challenging as the 46-mile trip was, Chris wrote in an email after he was safely home in Rochester, Minn., "It is an amazing feeling to be able to look down upon everything from the top of a mountain."
Hikers willing to fork out the cash to spend the night in one of two historic, primitive backcountry huts can make the trek to see Sperry Glacier. Spending two nights at the Sperry Chalet, a steep 6.4-mile hike from the trailhead near Lake McDonald Lodge on the park's west side, is the best way to see the glacier, which is an 8-mile round trip from the chalet. Plan on booking by November, though.
Within easier reach is Grinnell Glacier, which is a 5.5-mile hike from the Many Glacier Hotel on the park's east side. Or you can cheat as we did and take a boat ride across two small lakes, trimming the round trip to about 8 miles, with a 1,600-foot elevation gain.
The boat ride ($24.25) hooks up with a free ranger-led hike, which provided both fascinating commentary and enough chatter to scare away any bears. Although the hike is listed as strenuous, the group of 20-plus included three generations of a North Carolina family, with the young kids leading and grandparents bringing up the rear.
Ranger Bob Schuster, 70, knows the trail well: He first started working in the park in 1967. Bob grew up in Sun Prairie, Wis., and got a biology degree from St. Norbert College before moving to Oregon. He used to teach high school biology and geology during the winters, so he was happy to name the flowers and explain that Grinnell Lake's lovely turquoise color results from "glacier milk," suspended fine rock particles ground up by the moving glacier.
After a lunch stop with a few trees for a windbreak, we climbed over the moraine and up to the glacier. Young and old alike - bundled up tight after feeling the breeze off the ice - were impressed to see the glacier up close, well, pretty close.
Bob, who has seen the glacier shrinking over the decades, said the lake at its foot has grown dramatically, and hikers no longer can step onto to the glacier because there's too much water to get there safely.
He says the glaciers are definitely receding, though 2020 may be a little early for extinction. "They're going to be gone."
"As far as saving the glaciers, it would take major change," Bob said.
Even if you're not thinking about global climate change, weather is a big concern at Glacier. It can change quickly in the mountains, so being prepared with adequate clothing, gear and food is key.
Bob was careful not to underplay the bear danger - just be aware. But, he said, "weather surprises some people."
According to the park newspaper, the No. 1 cause of death there is from drowning. It warns that stream and river crossings can get slick at times, and falling into the water can also lead to hypothermia.
Indeed, the weather can change dramatically, even in early August. We had one night not much below 60 degrees when we were only half in our sleeping bags, but after a storm blew through two nights later it got close to 32, and the day of the glacier hike it was cloudy and in the 50s - maybe.
But the T-shirts and shorts returned a day later when we did the 9-mile round-trip hike to the stunning Iceberg Lake, which true to its name had plenty of icebergs left, sheltered on three sides by jagged cliffs.
On the way we saw our second moose, this time a bull. Moose also can be dangerous, but he continued to browse, head down, about 40 feet off the trail, despite the dozen camera-happy hikers trying in vain to get a good shot.
Not far away, we spotted a few remaining white beargrass flowers in one of the lush meadows, but not a bear was in sight.
The only grizzlies we saw were from the road, including one that ambled across the highway outside the park in broad daylight on our last day as we headed out for huckleberry pie (a must-try, according to the bear biologist, who apparently knows the food preferences of homo sapiens, too).
And that's just the tip of the iceberg at Glacier.
IF YOU GO
WHEN TO GO: Park ranger Bob Schuster says, "It's all good." June is good, with lots of waterfalls, but the trails and roads are often still closed. Mid-July to mid-August is the most popular, with wildflowers blooming and all the trails open. Late summer and early fall are nice - there may be some snow on the peaks, but the days are pleasant, he said.
COST: $25 entrance fee per car, good for seven days ($15 Nov. 1 to April 30).
RECOMMENDED HIKING GUIDE: "Hiking Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks," by Erik Molvar.
PARK INFORMATION: http://www.nps.gov/glac
Karen Samelson: email@example.com