21 May 2018

BEN’S BEARGRASS

WORDS x Phil Grove
PHOTOS x Marc O'Brien

Even the true skeptics amongst us will probably have an experience at some point in our lives where we know it’s obvious that it couldn’t have just come from chance. The moment that can at least make a partial-believer out of the non-believer. To quote the Los Angeles Angels manager George Knox (played by Danny Glover) in the 1994 hit movie ‘Angels in the Outfield’ when being questioned about the team’s recent spike in performance; “You can call it faith. You can call it Angels. You can call it whatever you want”.

For many of us who like to ski and ride bikes in Northwest Montana, we had that much needed moment over what seemed like an eternity last summer. We rode through the sub-alpine and later the alpine meadows for weeks on end, completely engulfed in our favorite, yet elusive bloom of summer, Xerophyllum Tenax; the bear grass. The plant has an extensive range stretching north from British Columbia down to California, and east to the edge of the Rockies. Individual colonies however will often only bloom once every 5-7 years. A brief trip over to wikipedia might have been needed for that information, I’m not a botanist, but anyone who has spent some time in the mountains around here can tell you that every once in a while, the bear grass goes into a full on super bloom.

Last summer was one of those years. The reason we love it so much is that it takes us back to winter, our bikes somehow feel like we’re riding lightest and deepest snow, only at 75 degrees and in short sleeves. Riding through fields exploding in the white, softball size blooms of the bear grass, many at perfect handlebar height, can be just as much fun as skiing the best run of the winter. Some plants will inevitably grow a little too close to the trail, leaving riders doused in pollen with smiles plastered across their face at the next junction. If your handlebar hits the bloom in just the right place, it pops off the stalk and floats alongside you for a second or two that feels like an eternity. As mountain bikers it’s something we truly live for.

The once every few year phenomenon we experienced however, came after a winter of great loss.

In a theme all too common these days in mountain towns as more and more of us venture out beyond the relative safety of our local ski hill, we lost a friend to an avalanche. News of our friend Ben Parsons death hit our community like something of a neutron bomb. We were all still alive, but shaken as if you went and kicked an ant hill and watching the ensuing chaos. For anyone who skied in the backcountry or rode bikes in the summer, his range was about as prolific as the bear grass. If there were mountains to climb, powder to ski or trails to ride, he was out there doing it. But somehow making it back to the Whitefish Fire Hall every few days to help serve our community, and also becoming a dedicated husband and father along the way.

I sort of met Ben by accident at a mountain bike race at Riverside Park in Spokane, Washington about 12 years ago. He parked next to me and got out of the vehicle and started talking to me as if we were already friends. I already knew who he was, just from me living in Missoula and him living in the Flathead Valley, and there only being a certain amount of the population misguided enough to consider xc mountain bike racing a good use of their free time. I’m sure he crushed me at that particular race, but I knew he’d be a good person to follow at the races and in life. I later moved to Whitefish and started chasing him around on bikes and skis full time.

Many of us would become fairly decent bike racers just from following him around, and it later earned him the moniker of the Spirit Bear, not only due to his red hair but also due to the difficulty of keeping up with the guy. At the races he would typically still be smiling on the hardest of climbs and always thanking each course volunteer that he passed by. In life he was committed to caring about everyone around him. A testament to this was a funeral that drew nearly 2,000 people, where somehow everyone was simultaneously feeling as if they had lost their best friend.

During one small percentage of one of a hundred ski days in a winter though, everything was changed. He and another close friend were descending off Mt. Stanton in Glacier National Park on January 5th of last year he was caught in a slide. They were prepared for what they were doing, they made an honest assessment of the risks for the day, but still an awful outcome that leaves all of us questioning some of the activities we love to partake in. Not to mention a wife and a young son who are now without the rest of their pack.

With hundreds of us trying to make sense of the situation, we initially did what he would have probably told us to do, get back on the horse. Keep skiing, keep biking. It’s different to just have the memories of a riding buddy instead of being with him in person, but eventually we realize that the memories were still real. The bear grass super bloom of last summer in Montana couldn’t help but make a few of us feel like the two incidents couldn’t have just come from chance.

An ecologist will tell you that the bear grass has rhizomes which grow horizontally under the soil that can survive a fire and bounce back afterwards, perpetuating the colony. Bear grass is an important part of the fire cycle. The plants will be among the first to come back in a scorched area, cultivating the earth and allowing other plants and animals to eventually come back too. Some might argue that it’s a far stretch to suggest that some local mountain plants knew anything whatsoever about the tragedy we all experienced here in Montana last winter, but then again maybe they knew exactly what they needed to do for us to bounce back. I for one can’t help but think they had something to do with telling us that eventually, the mountains come back and we get better.

———- For Ben Parsons: March 15th 1980 – January 5th 2017 ———-

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