What is the face of death in the wilderness? Is it five or six hundred pounds of flesh and fur, with sharp claws and teeth that can make quick work of a man?
For some in Greater Yellowstone last summer, it was, or nearly was so. For me, it was not that close, but it was close enough to change my thoughts and my movements for the rest of the time that I was out there.
In Meeting the Great Bear, I shared some of my thoughts, feelings, and experiences concerning being in grizzly country, including times I'd been close to the bears. They boiled down to these things:
* To me, the Great Bear is integral to the wilderness of the American West. Anywhere that the bears once roamed but in which they have become extinct since the advent of man, no matter how visually spectacular that place may be, is ultimately somehow empty (for me).
* There is something both thrilling and terrifying about being in grizzly territory, especially alone, and the mere potential of the bear's presence has a powerful influence on one's actions and thoughts.
* How would I handle myself when facing a so-called moment of truth before one of these magnificent animals?
On July 4, 2010, I came as close as I ever have, and ever hope I will, to finding out the answer to that question.
Almost every year, I hike and climb in grizzly country. Often, I go alone. I am aware of the risks, and I prepare for them the best I can. On the subject day last summer, I had a very close encounter with two grizzlies, an encounter that I will never forget.
Due to illness, my climbing partner left early that morning, and that convinced me of the wisdom of abandoning ideas for a solo attempt of Yellowstone National Park's Abiathar Peak, part of the Absaroka Range, which with Montana's Glacier National Park is the best grizzly habitat in the Lower 48 and has the highest populations of the bears. Abiathar's summit is less than a mile from the park's Northeast Entrance Road, but the route to it is about seven miles, with route-finding challenges, rotten rock, serious exposure, and Class 4 and 5 conditions. Adding grizzly habitat to it all made it a peak that I would probably be better off saving for another day when a partner could join me. At least one extra set of eyes and ears would be preferable, and even though another person would not save me from a fall resulting in injury or death, at least someone would know where to find me if such happened.
But with my friend's departure, even though my heart screamed for Abiathar, I found myself settling on Plan B-- Mount Norris.
In some ways, Norris had almost equally strong appeal, mainly because it is in the heart of Yellowstone's Lamar Valley country and because, unlike for Abiathar, I had no route beta at all. My studies of the map and of the peak itself suggested a long, easy approach with some potentially difficult scrambling around the summit itself (both turned out to be true, and the venture out to Norris was a great outing in several ways). And since every step of the route would take me through open country, the dangers of solo off-trail travel in Yellowstone's backcountry would, I thought, be much reduced since there would be no bushwhacking through the forests. Quite simply, I would be able to see any threatening animals before they could be a threat to me, and they would be able to see me well in advance, too.
What I'd be passing through...
So there I was, about six miles from the trailhead and four miles from the closest trail, traversing open sage-covered ridges, using a game trail just below a ridge crest, when I heard a snorting sound from the other side of the ridge. Thinking it was a bison since there were plenty about and I'd already unintentionally caused some snorting from bison in previous days, I moved away from what seemed like the source direction in order to avoid its walking into me and making a mess of both the day and me. But instead, a grizzly crested the ridge maybe 10 yards from me, snorting and huffing and running. And then another one came right behind it, doing the same things! I swear the first one turned slightly in my direction.
Seeing the first one was startling enough. The sight of the second one just a second or two later was, well, extra-startling. You could say I was incredulous.
Suddenly, the enormity of my stupidity slammed me. What in the hell was I, married and a father of three young children, doing out alone in trailless grizzly country? Of all the dumb things I had ever done in the mountains, this one occurred to me as quite likely being the dumbest. I can't tell you how helpless I felt and how certain I was that I was going to get attacked, out there in the open, an unexpected, unwelcome, and outnumbered stranger.
I was even outgunned, if you want to think of it that way. Normally when I go alone into grizzly country, I carry two canisters of pepper spray. This day, though, I had just one; I had packed the night before, planning for human company, and I never even thought about grabbing the other canister after my friend took off. Now, it might not have mattered, anyway; getting jumped by two grizzlies would probably only have given me time to spray one of them at best, but it didn't make me feel any better to know that. Rather, I had to consider "sharing" the spray and thus making it less effective or knowing that if I got one, it wasn't going to do a thing about the other.
Luckily, I had the presence of mind to keep moving but not run, and I reached for my spray and got ready to drop and curl. But they just kept going, down into the trees. And then they were gone; I could hear them crashing and grunting for a few seconds, and then nothing. But when they passed by me, they were so damn close that I probably could have spit on them and, had I been foolish enough to try, could have touched them if I'd rushed them.
About where it happened...
After that, a combination of shock and relief propelled me for several more yards until I found a rock outcrop (with a very good view in all directions) and stopped. I'm a little ashamed to admit this, but I pulled out my cell phone and, surprised to see a decent signal, tried calling my wife. No, not to cry-- I just wanted to hear her voice and tell her that I love her. (Also, it hit me that the day before had been our anniversary and I'd forgotten to call; maybe the visit by the bears was a little warning about what would happen the next time I forgot.) But there was no answer.
Instead, I'd have to seek release by getting to the mountaintop, which I did. The presence of mere grizzlies was not keeping me from a summit, mind you!
By the way, it's not calling my wife that made me feel ashamed; it was the need to call somebody at all out in the wilderness. But every one of us, no matter how solitary by nature, needs to hear another human voice at times. Even I.
After hearing this story, a couple of people have asked me what I think the bears were after. I wish I knew and have only three guesses:
* They were hunting the large bull elk I saw shortly afterward in the forest they entered. But I don't think that was the case. First, that bull was there all along; it had not crossed the ridge anytime recently in order to get into those woods, so the bears could not have been pursuing it. Second, that bull was too large and healthy-looking to be prey for all but the largest, most powerful grizzlies. Easier food (like me) was in abundance.
* They were playing. Judging by the sizes, I'd say the pair was a small mother and her older cub, the latter being almost ready for life on its own, or a pair of siblings at the young adult stage. Maybe it was even a mating pair, though I don't know what time of year the Yellowstone grizzlies mate. But if that last case was the truth, that might explain why they didn't give a damn about me even though I was so close and such easy prey.
* They were running from something bigger, a disquieting thought. Something that happened a couple of hours later lent some credence to that theory.
All I really know is that during the encounter, I couldn't think of any reason why they wouldn't attack, and I even had some strange serenity that allowed me to wonder what it would feel like to be mauled and to die. But a little later, with the adrenaline subsided and the fear gone, I could think of several reasons for them not to attack me, and not just because I stick up for them on internet forums. Chief among them were that I'm not their food and that because of the location and their probable ages, it's quite possible that I was the first human they had ever seen and thus they were neither interested in nor threatened by me. Once again, a reminder that in almost every instance in the backcountry, the animals are either indifferent to us or afraid of us.
Come to think of it, it was a little insulting that I didn't warrant at least a little more attention than I got, but I won't really complain about that.
My initially erroneous and unfair assessment also made me think of what the day before some law enforcement rangers told me was their main concern about the new right to carry guns in parks-- people firing upon and killing animals for bluff charges. At that proximity, how many people would have drawn and fired? I suspect a lot. Maybe I would have, too, and it would have been unnecessary. It probably would have gotten me killed as well, for only in the movies and a few alcohol-fed fantasies is some dude going to draw a handgun and down two attacking grizzlies after encountering them at close range. Hero delusions don't apply in the real wilderness.
I saw a third grizzly that day. Heading down, I came across it. This one I saw well in advance, maybe 100 yards away, and it was much larger than either of the other two. Despite being far off, it presented a problem: it was busy digging away right on my path. I had the choice to go down and way around to the left, which I didn't really want to do; go down and around to the right, which would have been stupid since that would have put me very close to the bear and between it and the forest; or stay put and wait it out. Eventually, I chose the third option, partially because when I started on the first, I found a bison lying in the grass, and I did not relish being stuck between a bison and a grizzly. So I stayed far and high and kept my eye on the bear. After it showed no signs of leaving, I made some noise, and it finally looked up and saw me. Then it stood on its hind legs and raised its nose, getting a good look at and whiff of me.
When you see that in a film or from a car, it looks cool. When you see it with nothing between you and the real bear and you know you are what it's checking out, it's not so cool.
And then it took off down into the woods. That's what happens the vast majority of the time when people and grizzlies meet each other-- the bears run from or ignore the people.
I'll tell you, though, that as I hiked through where it had been, I had spray in hand and was singing country music as loudly as I could. Thus, George Strait's "Amarillo by Morning" and "All My Ex's Live in Texas" are semi-proven grizzly deterrents.
So did I pass the test? Since I wasn't attacked, it's hard to say. No, I didn't panic or run (I think I did mutter "Oh holy fuck, this is it," but that was the closest I came to losing it). Yes, I acted almost on instinct in moving slowly but steadily away, avoiding eye contact, and going for my pepper spray while mentally preparing to hit the ground if necessary.
In that sense, I passed the test. I did what, leaving the car, I knew I was supposed to do in that situation.
But if they had really gone after me, would I have had the nerve to curl up or the courage to fire that spray, or would I have been a cowering, whimpering wreck until it was over one way or another?
I don't know.
And I really don't want to.
People who know my writings and my interests will now be waiting for the typically glib statement that after it all, I went right back out and did it again the next day.
Not so this time.
I did go back into prime grizzly country on that trip, many times (five days, in fact). But each time, somebody else was with me, and I felt better for it. On the first day after that somebody else went back home and I was alone again, I had to decide on a solo climb that entailed seven miles, none on a trail and a few miles of it forest bushwhacking. Or I could just have an easy day, doing a few tourist stops en route to that night's destination, still in grizzly habitat but not in the thick of it. I took the easy day, justifying it by telling myself that after 11 straight hard days in the mountains, it was time for a rest and recharge. But although that was true enough, the larger truth was that I was still a bit unnerved by my recent close encounter.
Next summer, I'll be out that way again, probably alone for some of it. I can't divorce myself from either the mountains I love best or from my preferred way of loving them. Still, for my experience, I will be more cautious and more alert, and I will again tread with the simultaneous hope and fear of meeting the Great Bear.