Both More Than a Beast and Less
“Those who have packed far up into grizzly country know that the presence of even one grizzly on the land elevates the mountains, deepens the canyons, chills the winds, brightens the stars, darkens the forest, and quickens the pulse of all who enter it. They know that when a bear dies, something sacred in every living thing interconnected with that realm…also dies.”
There is probably no other animal quite as iconic in the American West, and perhaps in the American psyche, as the grizzly bear. 800 or so pounds of sinew and flesh (they can get up to 1500 pounds, but the largest in the Rockies are "only" around half that), claws and fangs the size of a man's finger and as sharp as any cat's, the short-burst speed of a thoroughbred horse, and a skull so thick that anything but a perfectly placed shot from a high-caliber gun will only enrage it and virtually guarantee certain doom for the unlucky or unwise antagonist-- that is the "monster" that haunts the forests and the slopes of the Northern Rockies.
But it is less than a monster, and more. Far fewer humans have died under the claws and the teeth of grizzlies than grizzlies have died through the gunsights of rifles wielded by the ultimate predator-- Man. Well more than 95% of the time, when a grizzly and a human meet, it is the grizzly who either runs in terror or ignores the other. No, it is no monster. Yet it is more than just a beast. The grizzly has a spiritual connection to the ancient, wild world; it is both honored and feared in native tradition, and it is a bellwether for the health of the larger ecosystem. It vies only with the wolf as the enduring symbol of the American wilderness, and as the creature most demonized.
I certainly do not come to bury this Caesar, but I do not come to praise him, either. No, this is a tale of self-control (sort of), luck (more accurately), and understanding (so true).
Note: This is not a how-to-behave article. Because my experiences with grizzlies are limited, I can hardly set myself up as some authority on how to act around grizzlies, but I can recommend checking out this great album, which contains USFS guidelines for proper behavior in grizzly country.
The Spirit of the Mountains (to one person)
Almost everyone driving through Yellowstone or Glacier National Park is hoping to see a bear, specifically a grizzly. The few that aren't either have seen them in the real wilderness already or are veterans of the "bear jams" that can slow Yellowstone traffic to a halt and also inspire some amazingly foolish behavior (I have personally witnessed people chasing cubs into the woods to get pictures, and parents placing children near black bear cubs for pictures when the mother was out of sight but still nearby, and I have read about this occurring with grizzly cubs, too-- please pardon me for thinking it's the people, not the bears, that should be shot when attacks occur as a result).
People who venture into grizzly country, especially those who, like yours truly, often do so alone, feel a little differently. Without the relative safety of car doors and windows, one feels a mixture of excitement and trepidation. A part of him desperately hopes to see a grizzly on its own turf and on its own terms, but another part of him hopes that every grizzly around remains outside a nice fat radius from him.
I wouldn't have it any other way.
America, and not even counting Alaska, has its share of beautiful mountain ranges with something to appeal to just about any mountain-minded person. I have been into many of them and seen most of them. Scorched desert peaks, timbered slopes with a beauty more subtle than spectacular, ice- and wind-gouged crags that quicken the heartbeat of the mountaineer-- they are all out there. Although I have my favorites-- Glacier National Park, Bob Marshall Country, the Absaroka Range, and the Eastern Sierra Nevada-- I acknowledge it would be impossible, and arrogant, to say what and where America's most beautiful mountains are. I'm not interested in that debate or the related one over what mountaineering really is.
But to me, something vital is missing from many, actually most, of the country's mountain ranges, and I have felt it every time I've been in the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, the Desert Southwest, the Colorado Rockies, and, of course, the mountains of the East. What is missing is that fear, and hope, of encountering a grizzly, a ratification of the kind of pure wilderness that can literally move me to tears when I think and talk about it. I have enjoyed the incomparable beauty of the High Sierra and the thrill of fighting through Class 5 rock, but not even close to as much as I have enjoyed (and shuddered during) a simple hike through a dark, quiet Wyoming forest in the heart of grizzly country. Hiking over wooded Bear Cub Pass one day in July 2001, I left behind the openness of the Brooks Lake area and suddenly found myself in a dense lodgepole cathedral of the Teton Wilderness. I was not only suddenly on the other side of the Continental Divide but also on the other side of the world I knew, and I sensed the aura of the great bear and trod lightly and carefully. It was with a gasp of relief that I later hiked back over the pass and returned to camp at Upper Brooks Lake, where I was still in prime grizzly territory but where I could at least see better into and over my surroundings.
In the other places, I only had to worry about my own abilities and mistakes (including misjudgment of the weather), but in the realm of the Great Bear, what was beyond my control made everything, including being alive, that much sharper, more precious, and more real. For me, the mountains elsewhere (in the Lower 48) are beautiful but somehow ultimately empty for me, and thus the Rockies of Montana, Wyoming, and Canada keep dragging me back year after year after year. I must, again and again, immerse myself in that world that is larger, older, greater and yet much simpler and purer than I am. It is a wilderness that is about as intact as one can expect wilderness to be in the Lower 48, and a large part of that is the fact that grizzlies roam its corridors of wood, water, and stone. It is a wilderness that is alive more than any other wilderness I have ever experienced is, mountain or non-mountain.
Wise people will tell you there is more to fear from the mountain lion, who stalks its prey and pounces on its neck from behind, severing the spinal cord to make the rest easy, and they are probably right. But at least you can, and should, fight back. Try that with a grizzly. Before you do so, make sure you've made peace with yourself and/or whatever god it is you believe hears your prayers, because you probably won't be getting any more chances to do so.
Wise people will also tell you not to downplay the dangers of black bears, which are smaller than grizzlies but more widespread and still powerful enough to kill an adult human with ease. They are right, too. In fact, the most frightening encounter I have ever had with a bear (up through the date of writing this) involved a black bear in the Sierra Nevada. Still, though, there is something different about just the feel of grizzly country.
Sightings and Meetings
The first time was, as it is for most people, in a car. Wait-- I didn't mean for it to sound that way...what I meant was...oh well.
It was July 13, 1998. My wife and I were on our honeymoon. We'd gotten our first taste of Glacier National Park the year before and knew we would have to come back. So there we were, driving up the east side from Yellowstone, crossing to the west side on U.S. 2, and then driving north on the dirt road to Kintla Lake, to a section of the park we hadn't seen yet.
Not far past the ranger station at Polebridge, as I was driving, my wife saw something and wanted me to stop. The "something" turned out to be a young male grizzly busily digging close to the nearby stream. From a safe distance, we watched the bear, and, jaded windshield tourists that we were, we were not even scared when the bear stopped his digging, started sniffing, and looked in our direction. Why, we didn't even put the convertible top back on. We knew that the wonders of Detroit would get us away long before that bear could reach us (come to think of it, it's probably fortunate that the bear never charged).
As that bear dug for insects or ground squirrels (it might shock the fearmongers who drum up anti-bear sentiment to know that grizzlies consume huge amounts of things like bugs and berries), we were able to see the rippling muscles of its powerful shoulders and admire the incredible strength of that magnificent animal. It was late in the day and we still had more to do, but there was no choice but to stay there and watch that bear until it drifted off into some trees and out of sight. We might have been standing by a car a good hundred yards away from the bear, but we nevertheless felt closer to the real wild than we ever had before.
The next day, we drove across the border to spend the afternoon in Alberta's Waterton Lakes National Park. As we drove the Red Rock Parkway to its end, my wife again spotted a grizzly, three actually, almost right next to the road. It was a mother with two cubs moving through a stand of aspens. Driving, I only caught a glimpse, but my wife saw enough to get a good look at the sow (the mother), who was larger than the male we'd seen the day before, and she witnessed the cubs actually playing. But by the time I turned around and drove back, a matter of less than a minute, all three bears were gone as if they'd never been there at all, and we at least knew enough not to go beneath the canopy of trees to see where they went.
The Real Deal
It's easy to be brave and responsible from the protection of a car. How, I often wondered, would I handle myself before a grizzly out on the trail? I'd encountered black bears, sometimes even within touching distance, several times before and kept my cool, but, as I said before, there's just something different about a grizzly. How would I react? I knew all the rules, but what would I actually do in the real situation?
I "finally" got my chances to find out in the summer of 2003 during a trip to Montana.
It was July 24, and my brother and I were on our way back down after climbing Great Northern Mountain, which is, appropriately enough, in the Great Bear Wilderness, a part of the larger Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
The route we took involved bushwhacking through dense tree cover for about two miles, the first mile of which was very steep. It also involved an elevation loss to reach the base of the peak before climbing it. After summitting, hoping to find an easier return route, I thought it would be a good idea to descend to nearby Hungry Horse Creek and follow it back to the car. (This route was actually worse; this route page explains why.)
Near the creek, we found ourselves in thick brush that was often over our heads, and as I stumbled into a relatively open spot, I startled a young male grizzly perched on a boulder about 10 yards away. That bear flew up the hillside and away from me after a momentary locked-gazes moment that said "Oh shit" from both sides. My can of pepper spray stayed in my hand most of the rest of the way. I can only imagine what might have happened if our meeting had occurred in one of those places where the "undergrowth" was over my head.
Did I pass the test? I really don't know. I stopped short and prepared to back away as soon as I saw the bear, and I most certainly didn't lose my cool and run. But it happened so quickly that I don't think there was even time to panic and run. Had that bear run at me instead of away from me, I'd have been at his mercy; there was no way I could have dropped and curled up or used my pepper spray in time. There wasn't even time to be afraid or amazed; all those feelings rushed in seconds after the bear had vanished.
A few weeks later, I was back in Montana, alone this time, after a trip into the Canadian Rockies with my wife. For two nights, I stayed at Granite Park Chalet, a hike-in lodging destination in Glacier National Park's backcountry. Normally full every night of the summer, the chalet was pleasantly quiet and uncrowded due to many cancellations resulting from the serious wildfires that burned much of Glacier that summer, and I enjoyed the opportunity to traverse a nearby section of the spectacular Garden Wall in absolute solitude, an outing that still stands out as one of my favorites.
Leaving the chalet on the third day, I came across a mother grizzly and her two cubs along the Highline Trail about a mile from the chalet. The bears were below me but not far away, and if I'd been mean enough (and stupid enough) to throw rocks at them, I could have hit them. Instead, I just watched. There was no surprise on either side this time. We were all out in the open and noticed one another almost as soon as we were within visual range of each other.
Still, out came the pepper spray along with the camera. I was taking no chances when almost within spitting distance of a mother grizzly with her cubs. In that vein, I kept my backpack on as extra protection in case of a charge even though I was dying to remove it and get out my telephoto lens. As I watched them, I spoke loudly and avoided sudden movements or direct eye contact with the mother, doing all I could to let them know I was no threat.
It was a thrilling experience, but I'd be lying if I said there wasn't any fear at all. I don't think anyone, no matter how many times he's seen grizzlies in the wild, can be that close and feel no nervousness at all. The grizzly is known to be unpredictable, and no distance can ever be considered completely safe.
The cubs were very curious about me and kept standing up and craning their necks to get a better look. The mother gave me no more than a glance before disregarding me, which was both insulting and relieving. As the mother moved on, though, the cubs kept watching me, and she put an end to that with a single "huff," whereupon the cubs dropped to all fours and ran to catch up. Then they were gone into the wilderness, just like that.
Those are, to date, the only times I have seen grizzlies in the wilderness. The next year, I was in Wyoming, but not in grizzly territory. In 2005, my summer travels took me to Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California, far from the grizzlies. In 2006, my wife and I were back in Glacier, this time with our son, who was then almost two. The only bear we saw at all was a black bear running through the cabins area at the Rising Sun Motor Inn, and that was not a good thing; for one thing, I worry about the survival chances of a bear that gets that close to developed areas, and for another, I worry more about a black bear not too afraid of humans than I do about a grizzly deep in the backcountry. No bears met us out on the trails, though, which probably was a good thing.
But they are always there; at least the potential of them is. They are constantly in the back of one's mind when passing through their domain. They are a shadow in the shadows. Their signs are easy to find-- hair tangled in brush where they've passed or on trees against which they've rubbed, scat piles, fresh tracks in mud. Last summer in Wyoming, I found a grizzly track over my own uphill track on my way back down from Mount Crosby one morning (fortunately, the bear was headed the other way), and a few days later, my climbing partners and I found several large, fresh tracks along the route to Breccia Peak. As anyone who's gone through grizzly country can tell you, knowing they're nearby changes everything.
In a few weeks, I will be back in Montana, where I will spend almost all of 21 days where the grizzlies roam. As before, I will hope to see a grizzly. Also as before, I will feel that nervousness as I trek alone through the forest. If I see no grizzlies at all, I won't be able to avoid feeling some relief, but the disappointment will be greater. That's just the way it is for those of us who love these mountains.
Go back to the quote at the start of this article, for it says it all; the idea that a grizzly, the living heart of America's greatest mountain wilderness, may be out there is at once all of the following: inspiring, thrilling, romantic, and terrifying. Count yourself lucky to see one. Count yourself even luckier if your encounter is just a sighting, which in all likelihood it will be. And, if you have the spirit for it, consider yourself luckiest of all to have been, just for a moment, a piece of that great wilderness in which the echoes of a younger, simpler world still reverberate.