Epic. That was the only word that came to mind.
Charlie surveyed the snow-capped 10,000-foot rocky peaks before him, split by a deep valley and winding glacier-fed streams that led the way to Elizabeth Lake. Glacier National Park was everything Charlie ever imagined – remote and untamed. He and his three oldest friends had finally reached the Chief Mountain trailhead that marked the real start of their trip.
“Guys, look. It’s Canada. Fuck you, pussies!” Mitch Berg, better known as Shitberg since time immemorial, unfurled one middle finger and grabbed his crotch in the general direction of the U.S.-Canada border station just down the road.
“Great to see you’re still an asshole, Shitberg,” Frank said. “What did Canada ever do to you?” Frank had once been the wildest guy Charlie knew. He would eat, drink, smoke or snort any substance put in front of him. Anything. But unlike Shitberg, he managed to grow up, get married, have kids and get fat like every other well paid white collar man in Houston.
“Figures Franky Fatass would love the Canucks. You’re a pussy just like them. I bet you and every one of those dirty Canucks would wash the Queen’s taint with your tongues.” All class all the time, Shitberg mimicked the motion he had just described.
“That’s disgusting,” Charlie said. “Have you guys even bothered to look around? Look at where we are. This is the trip we’ve always wanted to do together.”
“This ain’t no trip I’ve always wanted to do. I said we needed to go to Vegas. I belong in the woods like I belong in water. Those are places black folks go to die.”
Rob was the biggest enigma of the quartet, all friends since grade school. A decorated member of the Coast Guard, highly intelligent, and an insatiable appetite for any white woman who even approximated the naughty librarian look. He clung to certain black stereotypes like he needed them to remain a card-carrying African American. He took pride in not being able to swim, he refused to drink any alcohol but cognac, and he believed nature was something you needed a shotgun to keep out of your house. He was also the most stubborn man Charlie had ever met, which made it all the more shocking he had finally consented to join the guys for two nights in the far corner of northwest Montana.
Charlie loved camping, he loved hiking, he loved the wild. Working for a nonprofit back east to preserve the Chesapeake Bay, he spent most of his days outside. But Glacier was a different beast altogether, and he had reasons for all of his best friends to experience the adventure with him.
Frank had gotten soft – literally – earning high six figures as a senior engineer for ExxonMobil down in Houston. Rob needed someone to hit him over the head with nature because once he actually tried something new, he usually loved it. Shitberg, well, Charlie’s only slim hope for Shitberg was some sort of spiritual awakening that could overcome pretty much everything about him. If anything could do it, 20 miles through the most beautiful backcountry around, to Elizabeth Lake and back, was it.
“Hey Frank, you must be hungry just thinking about having to do this hike. You want some hot sauce?” Shitberg unclipped his bear spray and pointed it in Frank’s face. One well aimed shot of the high-power pepper spray would be enough to send any grizzly running for the hills.
“You might want to save that for the bears. There are plenty of them out here. How about a cookie instead?”
A handsome, lean, extremely tan man stood, his arm outstretched between Frank and Shitberg, holding a bag of chocolate chip cookies. He might have been the same age as Charlie and the gang, but he somehow looked younger, more alive. The grin on his face was sincere, as if nothing could be better than meeting a group of fellow hikers.
“Who the fuck is this guy?”
“It’s someone being nice, Shitberg. Something you have no fucking clue about,” Frank said.
“Actually, my name’s Dan. Nice to meet you guys. You headed down to Elizabeth Lake tonight?”
“Yeah,” Frank said. “How ‘bout you guys?”
“Yeah, us, too.” Dan gestured to a man and woman in their mid-30s a few parking spots away. “My friends over there are doing a bit of traveling and I offered to show them Glacier.”
“So you’re some kind of expert, huh? Are you one of those nature guides for pussies who can’t hack it on their own?” To Shitberg, all human beings were enemies worthy of his derision until proven otherwise.
“Not exactly, but I know the place. I grew up down the road in Babb, sort of an honorary member of the Blackfoot tribe. Now I work around Glacier on wildlife studies and conservation projects. Tagging and tracking threatened species, measuring how increased tourism impacts the native grizzly population. Stuff like that.”
Charlie could feel himself getting excited. Dan was a kindred spirit.
“Hey, if you guys are hiking to Elizabeth Lake, mind if we join you? We don’t know the flora and fauna out here, and it’d be great to have someone to educate these cro magnons.”
As soon as Charlie asked, he saw the couple’s heads snap up, trepidation in their faces. Nothing like having Shitberg around to make a great first impression.
Dan felt their stare, but appeased them with a reassuring smile.
“Sure, we’d love to hike in with you guys. You make so much noise, we won’t have to worry about spooking any grizzlies.”
“Are you kidding me,” Shitberg said. “Fat Frank’s ass smells so bad, there won’t be a grizzly anywhere within 10 miles.”
“Actually, when you’re in Glacier, you can bank on there being a grizzly a lot closer than that, especially when the smells are … interesting.”
Rob picked up a discarded walking stick on the edge of the parking lot and started swinging it like a baseball bat, mumbling something that went about like: “Ah, hell no. Told Charlie I won’t doin’ this shit.”
Dan managed to take Rob’s mind off the dangers of nature, real and perceived, in the first five minutes of the hike. And the couple turned out to be friendly, after all.
The guy was Michael, an Aussie from Brisbane and a serious adventurer. He was traveling the world when he met Kate 18 months ago. They had met Dan a year ago in the jungle in Vietnam where he invited them to Glacier.
“Most people say they’ll come visit, but it never happens because it’s so hard to get out here,” Dan said.
“I don’t bull shit. When I say I’m going to do something, I bloody do it,” Michael said. Kate beamed at Michael, love in her eyes and the half carat diamond studs in her ears.
After two miles, the group emerged from a thick alpine forest into a vast meadow carpeted in an artist’s palette of colors. The snaking Belly River shimmered to the west, as hauntingly blue as the glacial ice that fed it. Small stands of birch and pines dotted the landscape, looking like apartment complexes for bears. But above all, the mountains loomed. They formed a backdrop dominating the landscape, a constant visual contrast of black rock and thick veins of shining white snowpack not yet melted by the early summer sun.
“They look like walls to me,” Rob said. “Don’t you know you can’t be putting a black man behind stone walls.”
“He’s a funny guy.” The easy grin rose onto Dan’s face as smoothly as the sun rises in the morning.
Dan was like Captain Planet.He could name every wild flower, from the flaming orange and red Indian’s paint brush to the tall, white-capped bear grass. He spotted deer and elk, even big horn sheep high on the mountaintops. He told them the history of the park, taught them about his work trying to stop invasive lake trout, and bewildered them with tales of 50- and 60-mile cross-country ski trips across Glacier, alone, in the dead of winter to trap and tag the native wolverine population.
“When you guys get back in civilization, you’ve got to Google ‘M3 badass of the week.’ It’s about this wolverine we tagged named M3 – Male No. 3,” Dan said. “M3 once ate through an eight-inch log to break into a trap just to kill the rival wolverine inside.”
“Bullshit!” Shitberg offered.
“I’m serious. All that was left was a little bit of fur and bloodstains on the snow. After he killed the wolverine, M3 ran straight up the face of that mountain over there – Mount Cleveland, the highest peak in the entire park – and over to Canada in less than four hours. He’s unreal. If I had my choice of running into an angry bear or an angry wolverine, I’d take a bear every time.”
The group rounded a bend in another stretch of thick forest and saw, to Rob’s great pleasure, a 100-foot-long swinging bridge over the rushing Belly River. Rob charged ahead with the walking stick he had found, ignoring the “one person at a time” sign as he barged past Kate. He turned back to the group on the opposite bank, slammed his stick down on the bridge and in his best Gandalf voice bellowed, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”
No one was laughing. It didn’t take Rob long to notice the looks of fear on his companions’ faces. He followed their gaze to his left. On the bank were two black bear cubs splashing in a shallow eddy, and in the shadow of the tree line was an adult female – their mother.
Rob turned and froze, staring at the bear. She was maybe 30-feet from him.
Everyone froze, except Dan. He moved slowly across the bridge. “Don’t stare at her Rob. Look at the ground in front of her. Back away slowly.”
Rob listened, but the mother bear started to stamp the ground with her forepaws.
“Fuck this,” Shitberg said, “I’m going to shoot that bitch.” Shitberg shouldered past Charlie as he unzipped his pack and drew out a Glock.
“No, he can’t shoot it!” Kate cried.
Shitberg stumbled across the unsteady bridge, Glock brandished in front of him. His weight shook the entire structure, and Rob almost fell over trying to back away from the bear.
“Shitberg, stop!” Charlie yelled. “If you knock Rob over, that bear is going to charge him when he’s down.”
Shitberg stopped in the middle of the bridge, but he didn’t lower his gun.
“That’s a 100-foot shot and you’re on a moving surface. You’ll never hit that bear. You’ll miss it, or you’ll wing it and just piss it off. Put the gun down.”
With all the noise, the bear was distracted from its deadly focus on Rob. When it took in the growing crowd of humans on the bridge, it thought better of the situation and bolted for the woods – its two cubs chasing not far behind.
The verbal beating Shitberg took from Rob left his pride so wounded he took to quietly grumbling to himself for the next hour about it being his right to bring a gun into a national park. At one point, he informed Frank that “waterfalls and rainbows are for unicorns and faggots” when Frank tried to get him to hike a side trail down to Dawn Mist Falls, an 80-foot waterfall with a floating spray of mist that reflected a perfect rainbow.
Charlie wouldn’t have blamed Michael, Kate and Dan for splitting off after someone they didn’t really know started waving a gun around, but Dan made an effort to smooth things over.
“Most people never see a bear in Glacier. You can’t blame anyone for a bad reaction in a situation like that. He just wanted to protect his friend, as stupid and dangerous as it was.”
He told Michael and Kate in confidence later that with the freak blizzards that blew through Glacier this time of year, it was just too dangerous to diverge from the itinerary they left with the park rangers in the backcountry permit office, so they had best get used to the idea of sleeping in the same camp with their new acquaintances.
By the time they reached the small foot of Elizabeth Lake campsite, the group’s mood was sour.
Charlie was relieved to see people sitting in the site’s shared fire ring and eating area, just to have someone new to ease the tension. Wishful thinking, as it turned out.
Dan, Michael and Kate were already to the side pulling out food and prepping their packs to go up over the bear pole when Charlie, Shitberg, Frank and Rob made their way to the fire pit where the two men sat.
“Howdy,” Frank said.
The two men stared at them, but didn’t say a word. Didn’t move. Their stares were cold, searching.
“Y’all camping here?” Charlie broke in before Shitberg said something offensive. “I think we might be sharing camp with you tonight.”
Nothing. Silence. More stares.
At the very moment it became too awkward to bear, the one with a scraggly beard that looked more like a few long, curly public hairs pasted on his cheek spoke.
“We’re camping here.” That was it. The other one, clean shaven with glasses and a boy’s face, never said a word. Never budged.
“Umm, alright. Well, I’m Charlie, that’s Frank, Rob and Mitch…just call him Shitberg. We’re going to pick our sites and set up camp. See you guys later.”
“Shitberg,” the boyish-looking one said, as if he was trying the name on like new skin. “Shitberg.”
“I’m Nevis,” said the pube-face guy. “This is Benson. The sites up next to ours are open.”
“Fuck that, I’m not sleeping anywhere near those guys” Shitberg whispered to Rob, not so discretely.
The gang walked up the trail toward Elizabeth Lake, away from the common area. “Shitberg,” Charlie heard Benson say one last time.
The trail emerged from the wood to reveal the smooth glass surface of a large lake, reflecting without flaw the towering rocky peaks that hugged its shores on three sides. Spring waterfalls poured off the tops of the peaks, boring caves down through the veins of snow tucked into the crags of the mountains only to emerge again below as trickles cascading into the lake.
Among the limited supply of campsites, two faced the lake and its storybook view. Rob was standing in the middle of one of the sites pointing his walking stick at the perimeter babbling about “neither white man nor bear shall pass this line, but white ladies can come on down.”
Shitberg was pushing Frank down the short entry trail from the second site.
“I got here first, Shitberg. You can’t just take my spot.”
“Fuck you, Frank. I’m not sleeping by those fucking creepers. You’re just going to have to jerk off quietly so they don’t try to crawl in the tent with you.”
“Fine, Shitberg. Fine,” Frank said. “You can have it. I hope a giant fucking sinkhole opens up and takes this site and you with it.”
Frank stomped off almost 300 yards, around a curve in the lake to a point where the stony shore was broad. He slammed down his pack and began to pitch his tent.
“What do you boys think of this view? It never gets old.” Dan had emerged on the shore from his site. He picked up a smooth, brick red stone and flicked it across the undisturbed reflection of the mountains, breaking the calm with a chain of ripples as the stone skipped across the surface.
As Dan followed the stone, his eyes changed focus from the lake to the shore beyond it.
“What’s he doing?”
“Shitberg stole his site and he wants to be by the lake so he’s setting up over there,” Charlie said. “I know he’s supposed to camp in the designated area, but it can’t hurt for him to camp on the shore, can it?”
“It won’t hurt the park, but it might hurt him. Bears are more likely to investigate the scent of one person than a camp full of them.”
By the time they came back to the common area to start dinner, Frank couldn’t shut up about how superior his spot was to anything in the camp.
“I can see it all. I’m going to see every single star in the sky tonight.”
“Have you looked up lately, Frank? You ain’t seeing shit if those clouds keep coming,” Rob said.
“Easy bro, don’t be harsh,” said a huge man with the longest, thickest, nappiest head of hair Charlie had ever seen. Everything about him was super-sized, from his towering height to his bulging forearms to the black snakes he called dreadlocks. Charlie didn’t know hippies came in extra large. This giant Hippie Dude strolled into camp with a 20-something Hippie Chick who Charlie would have found highly attractive if not for the two dozen lip, nose, ear and chin rings laid through her face like a railroad track. They were old friends of Dan just passing through to say hello.
Charlie followed the Hippie Dude’s glance up to see the gathering clouds. The darkening sky above had changed from navy to charcoal grey. Glimpsing around trees down the long belly of the lake, he could see a wall of cloud. In Glacier’s deep and dramatic valleys like the one that housed Elizabeth Lake, weather wasn’t able to go up and over the mountains, so it just shot through the twists and turns at ground level.
On cue, a frigid wind kicked up. Everyone crowded as tightly as possible around the small campfire’s pathetic flame, which still felt like the center of the sun compared to everything outside its glow.
“I hate the cold,” Kate reminded Michael several times, despite being bundled in a high priced mountain climbers jacket that was worth as much as Charlie made in a week.
“If you want to warm up, this’ll do the trick,” Hippie Dude said, producing a clear baggie full of rich green buds. “In honor of Dan, just the man we were hoping to see this summer.”
Hippie Dude rolled a generous joint and passed it to Dan, who took a small hit to avoid being rude, then quickly passed it on to Michael and Kate, who took their turns. Rob made his excuses about being in the Coast Guard while explaining how he would have back in the day. Shitberg informed the group he was a lawyer and didn’t smoke weed like a degenerate douchebag. Much to Charlie’s surprise, Frank took the joint in hand and pulled in a massive hit.
“Frank, you haven’t smoked since college. You had to stop because it makes you paranoid,” Charlie said. “Do you think it’s a good idea to have a freak out way out here?”
Frank gave Charlie a smug stare as he took another deep hit, which he promptly choked on.
“Easy, big man,” Hippie Dude said. “There’s enough to go around. No need to get greedy.”
As he had done all day, Dan showed his knack for lightening the mood.
“You know that bear you tangoed with today, Rob? She was just a black bear – maybe 150 pounds. Out here, we just consider black bears nuisance animals. Like raccoons. A big guy like you should have just shooed that little girl off.”
“Shoot, that’s all you Dan the Man. I’m not messing with no bear. Did you see those teeth? I don’t care how much it weighed, that bitch looked hungry.”
“You’re a smart man, Rob.”
“What about you, Dan? I bet you’ve had some close calls; all the time you’ve spent out here on your own,” Charlie said.
“Well, yeah. I’ve had a few. I’ve had bears stand up on me. I’ve come between a mother grizzly and her cubs.” Dan went quiet for a moment. Kate snuggled closer to Michael on the large wooden log they shared. A cold wind ignited a new bundle of dry pine twigs from the dying embers, and the orange glow seemed to illuminate only Dan’s face from the encroaching dark.
“I’ve actually survived an attack, with contact. I was skiing into the park last fall for a study and I started seeing tracks. I knew I was in trouble because it was a terrible year for huckleberries, and the bears were hungry. We’ve never had so many bears showing up in campsites and going after livestock.
She came out of the woods right in front of me. She started popping her jaw, clacking her teeth, stamping the ground. I had my bear spray out, but the wind was all wrong, blowing right back in my face. I didn’t have time to adjust my position before she charged. I didn’t even have time to get out of my skis. I don’t care how much training you’ve had, when a 400-pound grizzly charges you, you’re going to panic. I fell down. All I could do was close my eyes, turn my head, and start spraying. I lifted my other arm and covered my neck, and that’s when I felt her hit my side. I thought I was dead. I don’t know how long I lay there. Maybe 10 seconds. Maybe a minute. But when I finally opened my eyes, she was gone.”
“Damn,” Rob said. It was the only sound in the woods.
“A week later, that bear jumped two hunters. She tore one’s arm right off and he bled to death. The other hunter shot her and killed her. She had cubs so the park service had to catch them and sent them off to zoos. Once they learn to hunt people from their mother, they’ll do it their whole lives.”
As Dan’s final words escaped into the forest, they were answered by the sporadic big drops that signal the start of a coming shower.
“I think that’s our sign to float on. We’re set up at the head of the lake” Hippie Dude said. “How about it, babe?”
“It’s nature, man,” Hippie Chick answered.
As they departed, the quiet was shattered. The bottom fell out of the sky and ice cold rain spat through the thin canopy of pine overhead. Then it began to mix with sleet. Covered by a small tarp, the gang wolfed down the mac and cheese Charlie had just finished boiling.
Even in those miserable conditions, Frank said it was the best mac and cheese he had ever had.
“That’s because you’re a fat fuck and you’re high as a fucking kite,” Shitberg said. Frank laughed, and half-chewed macaroni noodles poured out of his mouth onto Shitberg’s lap. The entire crew burst into a fit of laughter like it was contagious.
After running a trash bag up the bear pole, the guys sprinted off to their tents through a blanket of darkness, racing for cover before getting completely soaked. Frank disappeared into the night, lost to the fog and black of night, but Charlie could still see the light from his headlamp dancing against the falling rain.
Charlie felt perfectly warm tucking into his winter sleeping bag after stripping off his wet clothes. Despite some rough patches, he was excited his friends actually went off to bed in good spirits.
Charlie drifted into a dreamless sleep, his fatigued body and mind both ready to give in to the weight of the exhaustion pressing down on him. He remembered nothing until Frank’s screams.
He had forgotten where he was, but Frank’s blood-curdling screams called him to the zipper that permitted his escape. As he emerged into the woods, the cold sting of the wet frost on his still-bare feet sharpened his senses and reminded him that he was in Glacier, and that Frank had camped out of the site almost a quarter of a mile down the lake shore.
The rain and sleet had stopped, but the fog was thick, opaque like frosted glass. In the hollow space over the lake between Frank and the campsite, the suspended droplets of moisture refracted his screams. It sounded like he was everywhere, nowhere.
Charlie heard Frank’s voice, rotten with fear, yell “no” and “stop.” Then he heard one final scream, a scream of pain, agony. Then silence.
Charlie almost ran into Dan dashing from his site to the shore. Dan didn’t say a word, but the unclipped bear spray in his hand spoke. As they sprinted down the shore, Charlie made out the colorless silhouettes of Rob and Shitberg, wraithlike in the gloom.
Dan yelled for them to wait, and they held up. “If it’s a bear, you might run right into it while it’s in a frenzy. You don’t want that. Start making a lot of noise right now and stay close.”
“Fat Frank’s probably just having a fucking freak out,” Shitberg said. “That asshole can’t handle his weed.”
The four men began clapping and yelling as they moved down the shore more steadily, eyes searching the grey waste. Shitberg clenched his Glock. The outline of Frank’s tent emerged from the murk, or what would more appropriately be described the wreckage of Frank’s tent.
Another object lay next to the tent, but Charlie couldn’t make it out – whether it was a log or a rock. At 20 feet, the color finally started to emerge. There was red. Too much red. A thick, muddy red covered the shreds of Frank’s beige tent. Fleshy bits and chunks hung from the splinters of a shattered tent pole, dripping more red into a pool that soaked the smooth stones of the broad beach.
Charlie fell to a knee and retched. When he looked up, the object was directly in front of him. It wasn’t a log or a rock. It was Frank’s leg – part of it. His thigh down to his knee. Carnage on either end. The rest was nowhere in sight.
Rob stood frozen in silence, his stare locked on the piece of Frank’s leg. Dan surveyed around them, on guard should the bear come back. Only Shitberg seemed able to move. The sick bastard walked slowly to the collapsed front end of the tent. The door rendered moot, Dan lifted the top and looked in a large hole.
“Oh God dammit,” Shitberg said to no one. “It’s a fucking abortion in there. A fucking abortion.”
He dropped the tent and covered his mouth.
At that moment, the others from the camp showed up. Their jackets and boots made Charlie painfully aware of how exposed he was. The stones under his feet were like ice packs. He began to shiver.
“Bear attack,” Nevis proclaimed, pointing at several huge tracks in the soft sand on the gentle slope leading up to the trail from the stony shore.
“No fucking kidding,” Shitberg yelled at him.
“If a bear tries to come into your tent, it has bad intentions,” Benson said in the strained, high pitched voice of a much younger boy. Charlie did not like the sneer on his lip one bit. It was somewhere between lurid curiosity and sick pleasure.
“What’s that?” Dan said to Shitberg, pointing to something dark sitting by the foot of the tent. Shitberg reached down to pick the object up. He shook it, and a splatter of blood whipped across Benson’s shoe. Kate made a sound of revulsion and tucked under Michael’s arm.
“It’s a fucking candy bar wrapper. That fat, high fuck had the munchies. God dammit, Frank.” Shitberg’s eyes began to water.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Rob said. “This place is crazy. I’m not going down like Frank. Let’s go.”
“And how are we supposed to get Frank out, Rob? We can’t just leave him here. He has a wife, three kids. We have to bring his body home,” Charlie said.
“Fine, we’ll carry him out. Let’s go.”
“Frank weighed 300 pounds. We can’t carry him out. It would take everyone here.” Charlie looked to the others for help.
“We have to meet two friends on the west side in two days,” Benson said. “We barely have enough time to get over Logan Pass. We can’t help you.”
Charlie’s gaze turned to Michael and Kate. He was sure he could count on the good-natured Aussie and Dan to help, but Kate spoke first.
“Charlie, I’m sorry about your friend, but this is his fault. I’m not letting some irresponsible fat man from Texas ruin our trip because he couldn’t make it through the night without a candy bar.”
“Bitch, I will kill you where you stand,” Shitberg roared. Michael stepped between them like a bolt, a knife materializing from nowhere into his hand, an inch from Shitberg’s chest.
“Easy, mate. Just calm down and we’ll get this sorted without you getting sorted.” Shitberg backed away, spat and sat down on a rock a few feet away. Rob looked sick as he continued to stare at the gore oozing out of the detached leg.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Dan said. “Rob’s not maintaining. He’s in no state to be out here, so – Charlie – you, Rob and me are going to hike back to the Gable Creek Ranger Station. We’ll leave Rob with the rangers, and they’ll radio in a helicopter to lift Frank out.”
“That bear is still out there. I don’t know if we should split up.”
“The three of you can’t carry him alone, Charlie. You said it yourself. And if you could, the scent would still bring bears down on you.”
Charlie chewed his cheek. The pain of early frostbite on his toes made it impossible to concentrate. He couldn’t think. His oldest friend was dead.
He exhaled. “Fine. What else?”
“First, all of us – Michael and Kate, we need you, too – are going to wrap that tent and … umm, everything else in your tarp, tie it off, and run it up the bear pole. Every bear in a 20-mile radius is already catching wind of this. He needs to go up now if you want his wife to have something to bury.”
“You two,” Dan said to Benson and Nevis as they tried to quietly slip away. “Tell everyone you see about what happened. Tell people they need to go another way. You can manage that, right?”
“Sure,” Nevis said.
“Thanks for nothing, assholes.” Shitberg continued to sulk on his rock.
“Michael and Kate, as soon as we’ve tied Frank’s body, hike down to the head of the lake. Shitberg, you should go with them. You’ll all be safer in a bigger group.”
Charlie still didn’t like it, but he swallowed his protest.
It took them half an hour to collect Frank’s body, wash his camp site down and run the mess up the bear pole. Then and during the hike to Gable Creek with Dan and Rob, Charlie was having a hard time warming his body. Despite doubling up two pair of dry wool socks, his feet stung with cold and his toes felt stuck by large bore needles every step.
He fixated on the pain as the group had fallen into an unsettled silence. No one knew what to say. Idle chit chat seemed pointless. They were walking Frank’s wake.
Charlie and Dan knew better, especially with a known man-killer in the woods, so it was no surprise when they snuck up on a large adult male black bear less than 100 feet from the trail on the edge of a grove of shimmering dwarf birch trees.
“Rob, wait,” Charlie yelled.
It was no use. When Rob decided he was going to do something, he did it. And there was no reasoning, nothing you could ever say to stop him.
Dan kept his eyes on the bear, but it didn’t react. After watching Rob, it peacefully returned to the tall grass it had been snacking on. Once out of the bear’s sight, Dan said they needed to track down Rob. People in a panic in the wild could hurt themselves; badly.
Dan started running at measured pace. Charlie tried to follow. He didn’t last five steps before the pain in his feet exploded. White light flashed in his eyes and then his surroundings went dark. It was excruciating.
He yelled to Dan that he couldn’t run; to get Rob without him; that he’d meet them at the ranger station. Dan hesitated a moment, but then turned and ran even faster. Charlie had to remove his hiking boots and socks. It took five minutes of rubbing his feet before any normal sense of feeling came back. His toes were red and swollen.
Charlie had to find a make shift walking stick to help support his weight before he could go any further.
As he struggled down a slippery hill, the trail nothing more than a mud slick after the rain, he noticed several hikers gathered below. He recognized the spot as the short side trail down to Dawn Mist Falls. It was hard to believe it was just yesterday that Frank was posing on the boulders below the gushing waterfall for a photo. That was the last photo that would ever be taken of Frank.
As Charlie approached, his stomach began to clench. The people seemed agitated, scared. And then he saw Dan among them. His face said it all.
“Someone’s dead down there,” a man with two hiking poles and two sons close by his side answered. “It looks like a bear attack.”
Please no, Charlie thought. How long had Rob and Dan been gone? 20 minutes? 30, maybe? How long would it take? Dan looked aimlessly at the mud, trying to hide from the questions in Charlie’s eyes.
“I wouldn’t go down there,” the man said. Charlie ignored him as he shouldered past the bystanders. He could no longer feel his feet. He could no longer feel his body. He couldn’t see the forest around him. It was all dark, except for the brilliant silver white rush of the waterfall and the swirling red pool of water below it, where a black man in tattered water- and blood-soaked clothes lie mutilated on the bank.
No. Not Rob, too, Charlie thought. How could this happen? Why did he leave the main trail? What kind of fucking psycho bear stalks a group of hikers for miles?
It had to be the same bear. One man-killer was rare enough; two was unbelievable. But why would it have wandered three miles immediately after making a meal of Frank? Charlie wondered if the bear’s appetite was so insatiable that after its first taste of man, it decided to come to the place it knew was most crowded with people. Did Rob somehow think he’d be safe by the waterfall and he walked right into the bear’s trap?
It didn’t add up. It didn’t make any sense to Charlie, but he wasn’t thinking straight anyway. All he could do was look at Rob, still clenching the walking stick from the parking lot. On one end was a lash of blood and a bit of grizzly fur.
Good. Rob would have wanted to go out fighting, not cowering while he got eaten alive by his worst nightmare.
“This bear is a killer, Charlie. Our friends need us.” Dan had emerged at the trailhead. “I told the hikers up there to stay together and get out. They’re going to alert the park rangers on their way out. We have to get back to Shitberg and Kate and Michael.”
“What about Rob?”
“Rob is dead, Charlie. The others are still alive. We need to stick together in as large a group as possible until the helicopter comes to lift us out.”
Charlie was numb. He should have been terrified. A killer bear had already taken two of his best friends and was somewhere in the woods, somewhere very close, but all he could think about were Rob and Frank. No, think wasn’t the right word. His mind was dead. He just saw pictures of their faces, of all of them together when they were teenagers.
Following him in sullen silence, Charlie noticed Dan had started limping, too.
“What happened to you?”
“Me? Ah, I fell running after Rob. The trail was slick. That’s why you’re never supposed to run in the backcountry. I fell into a rock and busted my ribs up pretty good.”
Charlie didn’t have any sympathy. Two of his best friends were dead, and the frostbite on his toes was threatening to stop him from ever making it to the head of Elizabeth Lake.
But they only had to make it back to the foot of the lake before finding Shitberg. As they approached the camp, Charlie looked right to see the blue tarp that held the mess that was Frank’s remains. What he saw was Shitberg with both hands on his Glock, rotating slowly in a circle under Frank’s body.
“What are you doing, Shitberg? You’re supposed to be at the head of the lake.”
“I’m not letting some scum-sucking mother fucking bear snack on Frank. Fuck that. I will shoot every bear in this whole fucking forest if they try to come after him. Look, I already killed one of those ugly sons of bitches.”
“What?” Dan said. “You killed a grizzly? How?” Dan raced into the camp site and Charlie hobbled behind.
“How the fuck do you think, The Man? I shot him right between his beady little Satan eyes and split his skull open with a few 9 millimeters. Yeah, he thought he was going to taste some Shitberger with Frank’s hot sauce on top. Well, fuck you bear. You didn’t know you had just rolled up on I’m the Mother Fucking Shitberg!”
“I know this bear. This was a beautiful bear,” Dan said, crouching down next to the obliterated bone fragments that had been the top half of its skull. He rested his palm on the shaggy fur between its hulking shoulder blades.
“Fuck that beautiful bear. It ate my friend.”
“Wait, how long ago did you shoot it?” Something wasn’t adding up right to Charlie.
“I don’t know, a couple of minutes ago. I’m surprised you guys didn’t hear the shots. I’m still all fucking wigged out. I can’t stop shaking.” Shitberg told the bear to fuck itself and kicked its hulking side, neither having its intended effect on the bear given its current condition.
Charlie and Dan looked at each other.
“Could it be the same bear?” Charlie asked. “Do you think it took off straight from the waterfall back here?”
“Wait, what the fuck are you talking about?” Shitberg said.
“Shitberg, I don’t know how to tell you this. Rob’s dead. It looks like he got killed by a bear. We had to leave his body down by the waterfall. It wasn’t more than an hour ago.”
“What the fuck, man? What the fuck?” Shitberg started to panic. He paced and spun around, his finger never leaving the trigger of his Glock. “No, man. Not Rob. Fuck that. No, no, no.”
Dan spoke calmly. “Take your finger off the trigger, Shitberg. Try to slow down. Try to breath.”
Shitberg threw the gun at him.
“There, Dan the Fucking Man. You know everything; you keep the gun. Because all that experience in the wild has done us a fat fucking load of good so far.” Shitberg stormed off to the lake shore. The cold wind that blew out the storm had churned up the lake surface. The once still mountains now kicked and thrashed in the water, vacillating as if some earthquake for the ages was beginning to fell them.
Dan walked over to Shitberg and set the gun down by his feet, then started to hike out toward the head of the lake. Charlie hung back.
“He’s just trying to help. He’s doing what he’s been taught; what every serious backpacker is taught.” Shitberg turned his shoulder away. He was the only childhood friend left to Charlie, but Charlie did not have it in him to humor Shitberg’s pouting while their lives were still in danger. He turned to walk to the head of Elizabeth Lake.
“Hey, where are you going? Wait for me, man. Don’t leave me here alone with the bear bait.”
Shitberg followed like a recalcitrant puppy, but Charlie paid him no mind. His focus now was on the campsite at the head of the lake. A pair of tents were plainly visible just inside the tree line, but something was off. Charlie didn’t see anyone. Not by the common area, by the lake, by any of the tents or in the woods.
He couldn’t imagine Michael and Kate would be in their tent blind to anything approaching. Dan should be there, too. And where were the inhabitants of the other tent?
“What the fuck are these tracks?”
Charlie looked back to see what Shitberg was looking at. There, in the muddy trail, was a fresh set of animal tracks. Five toes, claws pressing into the soft earth ahead of them. Too small to be bear or mountain lion.
“I think those are wolverine tracks,” Charlie said.
“Oh, hell no! M3 is not going to eat my face off; not after all this.”
Charlie picked up the pace toward camp, the same direction the wolverine tracks headed.
Less than 50 yards from the campsite, Charlie saw it. He expected it this time. Two bodies sprawled out on the ground by their tent. Now he could see the splattered blood sprayed up on their $750 Hilleberg Rogen tent. Charlie could just make out what was left of Kate’s high price winter coat.
“Oh, what the fuck is this?” Shitberg moaned. “I can’t fucking take it anymore, man. I’m gonna be sick, Charlie. What the fuck is going on out here?”
This wasn’t a bear. Wolverine tracks were printed into the mud everywhere, circled around the tent and Michael’s and Kate’s bodies. Their faces and limbs were shredded. Blood, pulp and bits of flesh stuck to their bones like melted cheese and marinara, their gnawed intestines strewn out onto the soft ground around them.
But at that moment, Charlie knew beyond the shadow of any doubt it wasn’t a wolverine that killed Michael and Kate, either. And a bear didn’t kill Frank or Rob. There was a killer, but it wasn’t any wild animal. Someone out there that wanted them to think animals were killing them. It all came clear. Bears didn’t just stalk one group of people up and down the woods. Wolverines didn’t just mutilate people in campsites. It was idiotic, once he thought about it.
“What do you mean it’s a fucking serial killer? Look at these bodies, Charlie. They’re like ground beef. A person couldn’t do that.”
“They could with the right tools. Don’t you remember what Dan said about M3? Wolverines are fearless and relentless. It wouldn’t have run away just because we strolled in to camp. It would have defended its meal. It would have eaten until its stomach exploded.”
Shitberg pondered Charlie’s explanation a moment, then cocked his Glock.
“I bet it was those little shits Nevis and Benson. Rob knew there was something rotten in Chinatown about those fuckers.”
Charlie couldn’t argue. Something was definitely off with those two, but he didn’t have time to think it through before they heard voices coming from the woods ahead.
“Hide,” Shitberg whispered. He sprinted to a tree, waved Charlie to climb into the tent, then sprinted deeper into the woods. Charlie listened, but immediately realized he was a sitting duck if anything happened to Shitberg.
As Charlie bailed out of the tent, he heard four shots ring. He tripped and fell on Michael’s body, smearing his hands in what was left of his chest cavity. It was still warm. He ran until he found Shitberg up the trail, standing over the bodies of Hippie Dude and Hippie Chick.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Shitberg kept repeating. “I saw two people. I thought it was Benson and Nevis.”
“What the fuck, dude? That was not kind.” Hippie Dude sat slouched in the middle of the trail with his hand over his stomach, blood soaking his shirt, two holes marking where Shitberg had shot him. Hippie Chick lay in the trail dead, one bullet through her chest, the other through her eye. Bits of skin hung from her facial piercings.
“Do you mind grabbing the baggie out of my bag, bro. This is not cool, man.”
Shitberg stepped over Hippie Chick and moved behind Hippie Dude, unzipping his bag to produce the same baggie of weed he had shared last night, a glass bowl and a lighter. He packed the bowl and handed it to Hippie Dude with the lighter.
Hippie Dude lit the bright green bud and drew a hit so long and deep that the entire bowl burned down to ash. Hippie Dude’s eyes widened, and then went cold. The bowl fell from his hand. He never even exhaled. The smoke slowly wafted like geysers from the two bullet holes in his stomach.
“I’m going to go to hell. Fuck.” Shitberg picked up the bowl and inhaled, choking on his deep quaff.
“Look, Shitberg, this is a messed up situation, I know. But you thought they were murderers. We can figure this out, but we’ve got to start moving. Benson and Nevis are still out there.”
There were trails around both sides of Elizabeth Lake back to the campsite at the foot of the lake. The killers would expect their prey to stay together to scare off bears, so Charlie and Shitberg would split up instead, always staying in sight on opposite shores of the lake. Benson and Nevis wouldn’t want to expose themselves while someone could see them from the other shore.
Shitberg kept his gun. Charlie took both cans of bear spray.
They had just rounded past the widest part of the lake when Shitberg started waving to hail Charlie. He yelled something, but the sound that made it across the lake was no more than a garbled whisper. Then Shitberg disappeared into the woods, his red Washington Nationals jacket swallowed by the trees.
“Fucking idiot,” Charlie whispered. Then he took off.
He thought he had nothing left, the needles in his otherwise numb feet leaving him clumsy and off balance, but Charlie’s desperation tapped into a new reserve. He ran a mile around the lake to the point where he thought Shitberg had entered the woods.
He was exhausted. Out of breath. Defenseless should Benson and Nevis jump him then.
Charlie edged into the woods and caught a flash of red out of the corner of his eye.
Shitberg’s Nationals jacket was hung by a tree limb; his shoes, pants and sweatshirt neatly folded on the ground below. His gun rested on top of the pile. Charlie picked it up and ejected the clip. The bullets were gone.
He knew Shitberg was dead.
They were screwing with him now. Somehow they knew that Charlie and Shitberg were on to them, so they didn’t even bother killing him like an animal. They took his body and left his stuff to send Charlie a message. We know you know, it said. And you’re next.
Charlie felt everything well up inside him in one pulsing moment, like a volcanic eruption blowing the top clean off a mountain.
“Fuck you, you mother fuckers! I will kill you!” The primordial scream made his will to survive well up inside. He realized he had to start thinking differently. He had to do something rash, unpredictable, something the killers would never be ready for if he was going to get out alive.
Every ounce of his body wanted to run to the ranger station, to let the authorities protect him. But that’s exactly what Benson and Nevis would expect. They could ambush him. He’d never see it coming.
He looked up through a hole in the canopy and saw the snowy peak of one of the 10,000-foot monoliths that protected this valley. He saw the unscalable cliffs, the rock slides, the dripping wet surface.
That was his path to salvation. That was his way out. And if the killers followed him, maybe they’d slip off the side of the mountain and die a slow death so Charlie could have some sense of vengeance.
He started to climb.
It would have been difficult regardless, but the numbness in his toes made it impossible to feel the ground beneath him. He fell, over and again. There was little hope, but to turn back was hopeless. Charlie pressed forward, away from hopelessness. The valley was death. The ridge above was salvation. It would lead him all the way back to the parking lot, to his car, to the key he had hung under the front bumper.
Charlie knew the odds, and he chose to defy them. The rocky mountainside turned into a cliff, but crags and veins of broken rock zigzagged diagonally up its face. It was an expert’s climb, but it could be done. Day after day of kayaking in the Chesapeake Bay watershed had made him strong, but every man has his limit. Charlie was past his. His arms started to go numb like his toes. His biceps didn’t respond when he asked them to pull his body. But he slipped, and flopped, and grabbed his way up. Up and up.
How long it took, he couldn’t say. The valley below was cast in shadow, but the sun shone brightly behind Charlie as he reached up to what he thought was one more ledge. He couldn’t pull his body up, so he took yet another risk. His feet dangling below into the abyss, Charlie began to swing his torso back and forth. With one final surge, he swung his leg up to the ledge and stared 1,000 feet down a vertical face to the mountain slope far below. Somehow, his dead toes caught on a groove in the rock. He carefully worked the rest of his body up to see that this was no ledge; it was the top of the mountain. He made it. He was going to live.
As Charlie stood up and began to dust himself off, he heard a noise. Clapping.
Clap. Clap. Clap. Each clap mocked him more than the last.
“Well done, Charlie. I didn’t think you had it in you.” Charlie heard Dan’s voice, then saw him step out from behind a cut in the rock. “I was just sure I was going to see a good tumble, but you’re developing a habit of making things harder for me.”
“You? Why? … What did you do with Shitberg?” Charlie couldn’t move. The climb had sapped his will to fight. Both cans of bear spray had fallen out of his pocket during the climb.
“That piece of shit you call a friend? I had to make him suffer for shooting that beautiful, innocent creature. There are so few bears and so many assholes. I put an elk antler through his chest a half dozen times and left him naked bleeding to death in the woods. When the rangers find broken elk antler splintered in his bones, they’ll say he’s the first person killed by an elk in Glacier National Park history.
I thought about stamping big horn sheep horns into your chest and leaving you for dead on the cliff. I’ve got a whole bag of animal teeth and claws and horns to kill you with. But one too many one-of-a-kind deaths might look too suspicious. So instead you get to go over that cliff you just worked so hard to climb.”
“I get it,” Charlie said. “I see. You’re a fucking eco-terrorist. You’re taking it out on us because of what society is doing to grizzlies. But why us? I work for an environmental nonprofit, for God’s sake. What did I do?”
“You? You’re a good guy, Charlie. You were just in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong friends. I lured Michael and Kate out here to kill them, pretentious posers burning carbon dioxide to fly all over the world like it’s their personal playground. But your friends were even bigger assholes. An Exxon oil man? A soldier? A fucking Washington lobbyist? They all deserved to die. I was going to let you go to tell the tale, until you figured it out. You saw right through it, Charlie. Those in touch with nature understand wild animals, but the world thinks they’re all monsters. They’ll buy it. They’ll eat it up. Every TV station, magazine and newspaper in the country will come to Glacier to report on the killer beasts. After a week, they’ll leave, but the tourists won’t come back.
With any luck, the National Park Service’ll shut access to whole stretches of backcountry. Those bastards let Glacier turn into a fucking zoo. If the park service can’t manage a resource this magnificent, I’m going to do it.”
The cool, calm façade Dan had kept up the last 36 hours had melted away. He was fidgeting, pacing, almost yelling at Charlie. A new ray of hope emerged in the back of Charlie’s mind. He was exhausted, his body defeated, but Dan was manic and ranting. Charlie needed him to lose control.
“So it makes you feel good to kill innocent people to protect bears? You’ve actually convinced yourself you’re doing the right thing? What a one-of-a-kind psychopath you are.”
Dan stared at Charlie, a golden glimmer in his eyes as the yellow sun shone across his body and made him look like some kind of god framed against the blue sky.
“You think I’m the only one?”
“Benson and Nevis!” They were part of it all along, Charlie thought.
“Benson and Nevis? Those flamers? No, no, no, Charlie. They’re as harmless as fat free yogurt. Gay lovers that come up here every summer to get away from the bigots in Montana, and meet up with other men. Haven’t you heard? The backcountry is one big gay orgy every summer. No, it wasn’t them. River and Solstice had the great pleasure of killing Frank and those rich assholes. Oh, how bad I wanted to kill Frank. I wanted to jam an oil pipe down his throat and drown that fat fuck in black crude, but I had to lay low and earn your trust.”
Charlie smiled. A wicked, awful smile.
“What are you grinning at Charlie? The irony of peaceful hippies killing? Hippies aren’t just stereotypes. You mock them. Call them Hippie Dude, Hippie Chick, but they feel the earth’s pain with me. They knew what needed to be done.”
Charlie’s grin grew broader. He started to laugh. Dan’s face turned red.
“No, I guess it’s not the irony. I think you’re just losing it, Charlie. I think it’s time for you to die.”
“You’re right, Dan the Man, it is the irony. It’s just too ironic that my friend you hated so much capped those fucking hippies without even knowing they were killers. The hippies are dead, Dan-o. Smoking joints in the Big Dispensary in the Sky.”
Charlie started laughing again. This time a hysterical laugh. He couldn’t help himself.
“Lie,” Dan shouted, but his face showed he knew otherwise. He charged.
Time slowed, and Charlie remembered. He remembered Dan’s fall on the rocks. It wasn’t a fall at all. Rob had figured him out and fought back before Dan killed him. Rob was a big, strong man, and a strike or two from that heavy walking stick would have broken ribs.
As Dan bore down on him, Charlie launched his body, turning every ounce of his weight into a projectile. The impact against Dan’s ribcage caused a sickening pop inside his ribs. Dan’s grunt turned into a howl of pain, but it disappeared as the air in his lungs was forced out. Charlie unleashed a torrent of right hooks into Dan’s hurt side. One after another as he pushed, pushed Dan around, and then back toward the cliff. Just as he was ready to send Dan hurtling over the edge, Dan realized what was happening. With a surge of adrenaline, he grabbed Charlie’s jacket and tried to spin him around.
They both went over the edge. Charlie watched Dan plummet 1,000 feet in a flash. His sprawling body shattered on the rock below like a dropped melon. Charlie couldn’t yet grasp why he hadn’t fallen arm-in-arm with Dan, and then he turned, ever so slowly. His jacket had caught on a rock at the cliff’s edge; he was dangling like a freshman hung from a locker. This is why you buy the expensive gear, Charlie thought. No rips or tears, guaranteed for life.
Late in the night, Charlie hobbled cold and weak to the Canadian border crossing. Startled from his copy of Hunting Illustrated, the U.S. border guard gawked in stunned horror when Charlie slapped his dirty face and bloody hands against the closed window.
It was over. Finally over.
The border guard called in the park rangers and police. Authorities everywhere had heard about the bear attack at Dawn Mist Falls and had already discovered a series of gruesome animal killings in the park. Search parties had been all over the trails looking for missing groups and evacuating all hikers out of the backcountry. The border agent said the last 12 hours had been pandemonium.
There’s an understatement, Charlie thought.
But when the police brought Charlie in for questioning and it was time for him to explain everything that had happened to him, to his murdered friends, in the last two days, something didn’t feel right. He opened his mouth expecting to tell the detectives how they had been set up to die by Dan and the hippies. How they were supposed to become a national story that would drive Glacier’s tourist numbers down, maybe even get the park closed.
But that’s not what came out. He heard himself lie about the bear they ran off from Frank’s tent, how Shitberg had later shot it when it came back to finish them off. How they tried to get to the ranger station to report what happened, but were attacked again. How they found Michael and Kate at the head of Elizabeth Lake, and how Shitberg had panicked when he saw movement in the woods and shot the hippies dead. How Shitberg lost it and ran off after he killed them, and Charlie hadn’t seen him since. How he and Dan had feared for their lives in the valley, and tried to climb out to escape, only for Dan to fall tragically to his death.
It was so unbelievable, they believed it. How else would all those bodies have been mutilated in ways that only a bear or wolverine could do?
Charlie would have done anything to bring his friends back, but that wasn’t going to happen. Being killed by wild animals was tragic, but that story would allow their families to heal and avoid the festering hate that lingers for years after a loved one’s murder. Their legacy as a cautionary tale would do far more good than becoming caricatures in some made-for-TV movie about the bear claw serial killers.
In the end, Dan was right. Glacier needed protection. If Charlie couldn’t save his friends, at least he could save Glacier. Close the floodgate, shut down the rotating doors of disrespectful tourists destroying the beauty and serenity and wildlife that made it one of the last special places in America.
Charlie closed his eyes and begged his friends for forgiveness. As far as anyone would ever know, he led them to their grisly deaths. And through their death, new life for the grizzlies of Glacier.