Grizzlies will seriously mess you up, yet there is primal fascination with these awe-inspiring creatures. You never forget seeing a grizzly. Working on the television program Bear Attacks for National Geographic ‘Explorer’ meant being immersed in the bone crunching, scalp ripping, absolutely terrifying stories of bear attack survivors. Even knowing the power of an animal that flips over 300 pound boulders like my boys turn rocks looking for crawdads, we still choose grizzly country in Montana as our playground.
There’s no question that parents ruminate (in my case, obsess) over what might harm their children. I’ve had nightmares about our sons, Samuel and John, falling through the ice — my husband lives for ice fishing;and seeing all of the crosses along our Montana roads constantly reminds me of the dangers of traveling where people pass you on narrow, winding roads. But since home, the place where worries fall away, is with the grizzlies, it’s a matter of living by their rules, not ours.
Thankfully, spending a decade looking for grizzlies taught me how to be a good guest, which means letting them know you are in the area. The number one reason most people are harmed by bears is because they round a corner and immediately have intruded the bear’s “bubble.” Chances are the bear is going to resolve this problem by neutralizing the threat, namely you.
Your solution is to make noise. But leave the bear bells at home. It is a good thought, but they don’t work. Bears hear about as well as we do, so when it’s windy or you’re near running water, you’re not going to hear the tinkle of those little bells; you need to amp up the volume. Talk, or better yet, sing. Or, like we do, bring along a passel of kids who are chattering the entire way. No grizzly in its right mind is going to stick around with our group playing 10,000 questions or discussing the latest findings of a caterpillar or pile of scat.
Back off. If you do see a bear, give it space. Every situation is unique, but 99.9% of the time, if the bear sees you first and has the opportunity to skedaddle, it will. I’ve seen too many people continue to push towards a bear and it doesn’t end well. It’s one thing if you’re on a multi-day backpacking excursion and you have no choice but to continue along a particular trail, but when you can, give the bear its space. Many times they’ll totally leave the area allowing you to continue on your merry way, but especially with kids in tow, if they’re still in sight, turn around and pick another hike.
While working on natural history films, I always watched for birds and my nose became very attuned to the smell of dead things. Even before decomposition sets in, there’s a particular scent of rumen that indicates a deer or other ungulate is dinner. During filming, indicators of death were a positive signs since we wanted to find the kill and the bear (or mountain lion). But on a leisurely family hike, stumbling upon a fresh kill is my flag to turn around. In what I’ve seen, there aren’t many situations scarier than a bear defending its dinner, especially if you surprise it. This is why the National Park Service is quick to close a trail if a carcass is located along the way, and the reason the US Forest Service personnel typically dynamites stock that die within its borders. A grizzly guarding a carcass and a hiker is not a positive combination. If you see something dead, or even if you spot a lot of ravens or magpies in the trees above a particular area – and they aren’t leaving – look for a different hike that day.
As a backup, we always carry bear spray. Truthfully, even walking 100 yards to look at a wall of pictographs in one of our favorite spots along the Front, I have the bear spray in hand, even if going hardly any distance away from our vehicle. A young boy was mauled by a mountain lion when randomly stepping into the woods for a potty break, and numerous other incidents result from lack of preparedness.
When I was in Waterton trying to film a female grizzly and cubs, they showed me the importance of having the bear spray in hand. When she strolled into the brush I thought she was going to head up the small hill so I walked away from the truck maybe 40 yards waiting to see her emerge on the open hillside. Nope. She came back out of the brush 50 feet in front of me. I had no bear spray in hand and made one step towards the truck to run, thankfully realizing I could never make it before I took action. I stood there absolutely still waiting for her to go where she wanted to go, praying my dog in the truck wouldn’t start barking at her because I thought she might come over to take it out on me. Everything was fine (showing the extreme tolerance of these animals), but it was a powerful lesson. Bear spray is with us always.
Practice with bear spray so it becomes an automatic response. Trust me, critical thinking flies out the window when a grizzly charges you. Samuel, our 10 year old, is allowed to carry it this year, but only after he’s discharged the inert training can of bear spray and is comfortable with taking it out of the holster and removing the safety clip quickly. Plus, he’s not in the lead so it’s not his responsibility to spray a bear in a head to head confrontation.
The reality is that no matter what precautions are taken, there’s always a chance of an encounter. While filming bears on a Kokanee salmon run, the cameraman man and I hiked into the blind during the middle of the day to purposefully avoid the family group. We didn’t know they were bedded down underneath a spruce less than 200 yards from the truck. The cubs’ heads popped up and they took off while mama came at us. Their speed is truly remarkable. I was grateful my automatic response was to pull the bear spray, and even more grateful that she turned 13 paces from us to follow the cubs. She was doing what a good mother does, and we decided to call filming for the day.
I don’t want to say a potential run-in is part of the appeal, but accepting that we are part of nature, and not just a visitor, is why we are out here in the first place. Despite watching more grizzlies than I can count over the years, it’s always a blessing to witness the intelligence, playfulness, and individuality of these animals. I hope Samuel and John someday experience the same sense of awe, without fear, to understand that we are part of the bears’ world, and even more so, that we are responsible for protecting it.