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An old bear experience

Its a good time of year to tell bear stories.  The bears are coming low, getting ready for winter.  I’ve heard a few stories in my valley from hunters.  Last week a ‘bad’ bear was dropped off just a bit north of the valley. Game and Fish spends a lot of their time moving bears around that get into trouble with livestock or grain, or just too close to towns.  My valley is one of the places where the bears are deposited.  Soon after this bears relocation, a hunting party killed a large buck and hung it outside their house to cool.  That night a grizzly came through and ate their kill.  A few nights later, a grizzly ate part of an elk that was hanging outside another home about 20 miles up the road.

This time of year I  imagine the bears hanging around outside the soda shop, talking, laughing, just waiting for a hunter’s gunshot to go off, then heading for their easy meal.

Yes, this is always the time of year we think about bears the most.  Which makes me remember my first, and closest, bear encounter.  Its great to see bears, especially from the car or through binoculars.  This is a great story and I would never want to get this close again.

My first bear experience took place in the backwoods of Glacier-Waterton National Park, on the Canadian side.  I was 17, fresh out of high school, and hitch-hiking across the West with two girlfriends.  It was the early 70’s when you could safely do those kinds of things.  We’d been dropped off in Vancouver by a friend who had received a new Volvo for graduation.  The four of us had talked about driving to the Canadian Rockies.  But as soon as we arrived across the Canadian border, Terri announced she was going to Alaska–alone.  So the three of us piled out of the car with our backpacks and that’s when our adventure really began.

After a few rides through southern British Columbia, we were picked up by a station wagon driven by an aging drunken vagabond and his side-kick.  Pretty soon we were doing the driving while the owners drank.  All three of us had spent our high school years backpacking the San Bernadino and Sierra Nevada mountains in a co-ed section of the Boy Scouts called the Explorers.  We felt ready for anything and certainly very experienced backpackers, or so we thought.

In fact. Karen and I had spent the previous summer studying at Banff  School of Fine Arts.  Every weekend we’d head for the Canadian mountains and explore some new uncharted territory.  We had our share of adventures there too, with blizzards, mosquitoes, and getting lost.  My constant amusement was to test myself to see if I could start a fire with just one match no matter what the conditions.  I’d gotten pretty good at it too.  So when our hosts dropped us off at the Waterton Lakes Park ranger station, we were all feeling completely prepared for trekking into the wilderness.

We headed into the main ranger station, asking about permits and hiking conditions.  I’ll never forget those Canadian rangers look of disbelief.

“You girls are going hiking, by yourselves? How much camping experience do you have?  You know there’s bears in the backcountry.”

We shrugged them off, got the appropriate permits, and began our 10 mile hike to our backcountry campsite.  Our first night took us to a site beside a large lake.  We arrived before evening, set up our sleeping areas, made a fire and dinner, cleaned up our meal and hung our food in a tree 100 feet away.  We were sitting around the fire when we noticed a large black bear come out of the woods and towards the tree where the food hung.

After exploring the hanging bag of food and realizing that he couldn’t get to it, the bear began walking towards us.  He must have smelled our dinner.  In the early days of backpacking, there wasn’t freeze-dried or dehydrated food available.  We brought parts of meals and cooked them; lots of rice, lentils, peas.  These meals required usually an hour of preparation and cooking, so the smells wafted with it.

We knew what to do next, we thought.  The protocol at that time was ‘make lots of noise’.  We banged on our pots and pans until they were full of dents, but the bear just kept coming.  Bears don’t see well, they’re very far-sighted, but their sense of smell is impeccable.

As the bear came nearer, we all contemplated what to do next—jump in the Lake?  Out of the question as it was glacier fed.  Climb a tree?  We looked around but at this latitude and elevation all the trees are spindly sticks their limbs starting at around 20’.  At a loss, we began building the fire up into a roar and huddled together on our rock seats.

The bear, in retrospect, was probably a young male, inexperienced and curious.  Black bears can be more deadly than grizzlies.  When a black bear charges, he’s out to kill.  When a grizzly charges, they’re usually out to frighten you out of their territory or protecting their young.  Most of the time they bluff charge.  But we didn’t know all this at the time.

Our packs were leaning against a nearby tree, and although there wasn’t any food in them, they had the smell of food on them.  The bear went directly over to the packs and explored them thoroughly.  Soon this curious bear was approaching us.  Having exhausted making lots of noise and waving our hands, we sat perfectly still, not knowing what to do next.  I was sitting sandwiched between my two friends.  Karen on my left had her down jacket on.  It must have smelled like the pea soup we’d just finished cooking and eating.  The bear nibbled at her jacket, grabbing her skin in the process.  She yelled and jerked back. The bear, startled, jumped back too.

I suppose he’d never seen fire before, and probably hadn’t encountered people before either.  The next thing he did was wild.  This bear thrust his nose between me and Karen and put it right into the fire!  Of course, he pulled it right back out, and with his face next to my chest, he brought up a paw and patted his stinging nose.  It was like having your dog nuzzle right next to you and your friend, his face was that close.

Now oddly enough, I felt no fear at all, and was amused at this bears’ antics.  After his fire encounter, the bear walked over toward Sarajo on my right and was about to test her jacket out when she made a loud noise.  The bear sauntered over to our tents to explore them.  It seemed like we were never going to get rid of this bear.  He’d been in our campground over 45 minutes now.  I was glad I hadn’t jumped into the Lake!  Suddenly I had an idea.  When I was a kid, I loved to watch cowboy black and white movies on TV.  A common ruse in the movies was for the cowboy trying to sneak around a guard to throw pebbles in another direction.  That way the sentinel checked out the noise while the cowboy snuck around him.  I started throwing pebbles way out into the forest hoping that would get this bear’s natural curiosity going.  It worked and the bear headed out into the woods not to be seen again.

The next morning we packed up and walked around the lake to a backcountry ranger station.  The resident ranger told us how grizzly bears go after menstruating women.  He told us a story which he said happened just the year before (actually it happened in 1967, several years before, but he embellished it for effect I suppose), where in one night two women were killed by either one or several grizzlies and both had their period.  That mama grizzlies are very territorial and think its another bear in their area.  This idea has since been studied and dispelled, but at that time it was believed to link the two incidents together.    And since one of my friends started her period just that day, we were particularly alarmed.  We spent the next 4 or 5 days hanging around that back country ranger station, taking day hikes, shouting and wearing bells, and watching all wildlife within hundreds of yards from us run away as fast as they could.   The routine was so tiresome, not what we envisioned as backcountry camping, that we high-tailed it out of Glacier to the Tetons where we spent several glorious weeks in the back country not worrying about Grizzlies.

The next morning at the ranger station, there was a nice bathroom. Karen took her shirt off and she had large bruises in the outline of a jaw, top and bottom, with teeth marks, along her back, although luckily the bear hadn’t broken the skin.

I always wondered about myself and why I wasn’t afraid.  I knew that if I’d been in the city and some strange man had invaded our space, I’d be afraid.  I wondered if my innate instincts had become so removed from the natural world that I’d become a kind of freak, unable to judge danger.  Years later I was reading a small book by Jim Corbett about his early life in India.  Corbett has a National Park named after him.  He hunted and killed man eating tigers.  He said in this book that fear is an instinctual emotion that is triggered when the situation is threatening.  He had many encounters with leopards and tigers where, because these animals were not threatening him, he felt no fear.  Fear is appropriate to the appropriate circumstances, and where there is no real threat, fear does not arise.  I finally understood that, even though that bear was right next to my face, the reason I never felt afraid was because he was not challenging us.  He was just curious.  Not being afraid, keeping my cool, probably also kept the bear in a non-threatened state.

Black bear print

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4 Responses

  1. I LOVED this interesting story post. So well written that I could just visualize you all sitting there with the black bear investigating the situation!

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  2. Good post. But carry pepper spray and know how to use it. It will save the lives of bears too.

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  3. Hi Eco, as I was saying, we didn’t have bear spray in 1972. And yes, everyone should carry it today, including and especially hunters. Maybe I should even do a post on bear spray. How to test it, how to use it, when to discard it. Save yourself. Save a bear.

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  4. […] break, hiking in Waterton-Glacier International Park from the Canadian side. I tell that story here in detail and why I wasn’t afraid. It’s a good lesson in how people and bears can read […]

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