Kyle and I eyed every car that pulled into the parking lot. Why were they there? Did they look like they might be interested in permits? Most cars seemed to be filled with people who just needed a quick trip to the bathroom before hitting the road again. After they left we would relax back into our seats. However, right before 8am, when the backcountry permit office opened, a car pulled up with two very stressed looking young people in it. They looked like us. We leapt out of the car and tried not to walk too fast up to the door of the office, where we stood fidgeting and stomping to stay warm. The other couple joined us on the porch but it was clear who had been there first. When they opened the doors we sidled up to the desk in an attempt to be nonchalant but the ranger could see right through us. She sighed as she booted up the computer.
“Copper Ridge?” She asked. We mumbled our itinerary to her. She checked the computer and booked us one night at Copper Lake Camp and one night at Boundary Camp. We nodded enthusiastically as she explained all of their backcountry rules and told us she would be shocked if we didn’t see a bear. We clutched our permit and scurried from the office, overjoyed at our own diligence. We had been sitting outside in our car for almost an hour before the office opened and it had been worth it – we had our backcountry permits to hike the Copper Ridge Loop in the North Cascades.
After a short drive to the trailhead we swung our backpacks on and headed out. The air was crisp and cold and the sky was white with an even layer of clouds. The trail started out mellow enough, trending gradually upwards all the way to Hannagan Camp. Almost immediately the views around us were amazing. We were in a deep valley with incredible peaks rising across the way. Snow had already softly dusted their tops, creating an ombre effect from summit to valley floor. We started seeing glimpses of Ruth Mountain which was already wearing a thick, smooth blanket of snow.
Shortly after Hannagan Camp we crested over Hannagan Pass. Then we headed straight back down into a valley, meeting up with Boundary Camp where we would be staying the next night, before climbing back up hill to Copper Ridge. It was on the way up to the ridge that we saw our first bear. I had been watching my feet as they skipped up the trail but I was suddenly starting to have this feeling that I should look up. Just as I did Kyle shouted out, “BEAR!” Sure enough, the trail contoured around a little ravine and on the other side, opposite us, was a big, scraggily black bear. He was moseying up the trail, head swinging side to side, paying very little mind to what was ahead of him. If Kyle hadn’t been there the bear and I might have collided head on!
Instead, after a lot of yelling on our behalf, we managed to get the bear to turn around and head back down the trail the way it had come. We lost sight of it and immediately became concerned it had lumbered up the slope above the trail – so we just sang loudly at the top of our lungs and kept moving until we had made it out of the trees and into the high alpine fields above. But once we were there we could see for miles, so of course, Kyle immediately spotted another beer on a hillside about a quarter of a mile away from us. It was grazing like a happy heifer and unaware of our presence. We continued on, giddy with excitement.
The truth is Kyle and I have never had much contact with bears. We only saw one on the entirety of the PCT and the ones we had seen on the AT resembled large labradors more closely than they did the bears of our dreams. To have already seen two was incredible! We stopped for a short snack break in a little clearing and ate back to back, uninterested in being snuck up on by a quite bear. Then we continued up and down along the ridge.
The trail wove around and down and up and over, in and out of trees, up and over crests and down into little ravines, always heading towards a fire look out that we could see up on the highest point of Copper Ridge. We had passed Egg Lake down below us and started an uphill climb towards the lookout when Kyle spotted the third bear of the day on the hill up in front of us, also about a quarter of a mile away. Our trail skirted to the right of where we had seen the bear and then above it as we rose towards the look out. Once up top we roused a backcountry ranger from his sleeping bag so he could check our permits. He was shocked by Kyle’s bare legs and seemed happy for a bit of a chat. We weren’t far from camp though so we powered on down to Copper Lake.
Part way down to the lake we had stopped to snap a picture when we heard an awful screeching noise! We peered down towards the camps, shocked and confused. It happened again – so loud and panicked, it sounded like a person screaming bloody, murder. I immediately imagined someone being mauled by a bear and felt my muscles fill with adrenaline, ready to sprint down the hill, but Kyle pointed to a steep cliff above the lake. Plumes of dust dispersed into the air and two marmots spared off, screeching and lunging as they fought for their mate. We were speechless. Who knew such a lazy, grass munching creature could turn so violent. Once the show had calmed down we continued down to the lake.
We were the first people to arrive so we had our pick of campsites. The sun had never really come out so we were pretty chilled. We leapt into action, pulling out puffys and long johns and throwing on layers. Once we had piled on extra clothing we set up our tent and fluffed our sleeping bag (well, I fluffed the sleeping bag). Then we wandered, locating the bear bin, the privy, and checking out the views. Kyle spotted another bear on a hillside opposite our lake, heading up towards a distant ridge. Another party of guys rolled in and set up in the campsite near us. We took our dinner fixins a good 200 feet away from our camp and set up a little kitchen. With all the bears we had seen that day we weren’t taking an chances.
After a steaming hot pot of mac’n’cheese we took our time packing everything up and organizing our stuff in our half of the bear bin. Then we gladly crawled into our tent before it was even dark and snuggled under our quilt in all of our layers. It was chilly out and I hunkered down deep into the hood of my thickest down jacket. Kyle proceeded to give me a hard time – apparently I looked as if I was weathering a storm on Everest, not enjoying a mildly chilly backcountry hike in the North Cascades. Kyle took out a book to read but I just gazed out the side of the tent at the changing sky, taking deep breaths of icy air and sighing it back out in steamy puffs of happiness. I fell asleep slowly, in a deep reverie of the quiet stillness that surrounded us.