It was just a rustle in the leaves below the trail, something that barely caught our attention. It was a subtle noise, but one that suggested something in the bushes below that was bigger than just a squirrel or a chipmunk.
We stopped and watched and listened.
Like a whale surfacing from the depths of the ocean, the back of the grizzly bear, brown and rippling, rose slowly out of the bright red patch of huckleberries. It disappeared again and the bushes moved in a wave.
Then the bearís head appeared and our eyes met.
It stood up, got a better look at us and then was gone, crashing down the hillside away from us, cub in tow.
Not 100 yards past the boundary of the Great Bear Wilderness, we had already witnessed its namesake creature.
We were on an overnight trip into the Great Bear, which is the most accessible of Northwest Montanaís wilderness regions.
The Great Bear offers a little bit of everything to backcountry enthusiasts. Since it borders U.S. Highway 2 to the north and the east side of the Hungry Horse Reservoir to the west, itís easier to get to than the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Trailheads along Highway 2 in particular offer a casual hiker the ability to experience the wilderness without a lot of exertion. Some hikes are only a few miles long, both in and out of the wilderness boundary. Popular places include Stanton Lake and Skiumah Lake, just to name a couple.
But the Great Bear also offers a multi-day wilderness experience, particularly on the east edge, where it abuts the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Along with the Scapegoat Wilderness to the south, itís collectively known as the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
All told, we hiked more than 100 miles to illustrate this issue. The longest journey extended from Morrison Creek to Schafer Meadows south to the Trilobite Range.
At one camp, a pack of wolves greeted us ó well, greeted would be the wrong term. The wolves high tailed it as soon as they saw us, but the alpha male (or female) stuck around and barked at us every time we moved at night, just out of sight, back in the woods. Then the rest of the pack, which was scattered through the surrounding hills, would open up with howls.
Wilderness is not just about what you see, itís about what you hear and feel. Itís the shocking cold of Dolly Varden Creek as you wade it at dusk, or a pair of great horned owls talking back and forth across the Middle Fork just before dawn or the wind blowing through the dead grass on top of Chair Mountain.
Itís about colors and shapes. The white edge of a huge fin of a bull trout sulking in a crystal clear pool; a green cricket in a patch of bright red huckleberries or the evening light splayed across the cold and weathered rock of Whitcomb Peak.
Wilderness is also about challenges. It is blisters and bad food and a boiling hot sun and a frigid night all in the span of a few hours.
But after a long hike on a hot day you come to a merciful spring, a trickle of water that runs from rock that is so cold it numbs your throat.
For a moment there is no wind. No birds sing. It is a perfect quiet in a perfect place and your glad to be part of it.