Navigating Wisely Through Grizzly Territory
“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.” —John Murray
In the summer of 1997, I cancelled a long-anticipated, one-week backpacking trip to Yellowstone because I could not surmount my fear of grizzly bears. Ten years after that embarrassing example of cowardice, I walked for three weeks through one of North America’s largest intact grizzly ecosystems, one that spans northern Montana’s Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
What exactly changed within me in that decade that allowed me to let go of my overwhelming anxiety and calmly walk, eat and sleep in grizzly habitat? I’m not exactly sure, but I’ll chock it up to being more knowledgeable about their behavior and preparing as much as possible to prevent potential encounters.
Nothing has changed with the bears. Maulings by bears in North America remain rare but constant. Each year, grizzly bears attack one or two people in North America, usually hikers or hunters, and the attacks are often fatal. The bear may be defending food or cubs, or it may be preying upon people as a food source…or it may just be in a bad mood.
Whatever the reason, it’s a sad statistic for both humans and bears – which are usually hunted down and killed after attacking people. But it really is fair to say that bear attacks are exceedingly rare, especially given the ever-increasing number of humans entering their territory. Despite the infrequent nature of bruin/human problems, fear of bears is very valid. Even Native Americans were said to be exceedingly fearful of these massive and intelligent predators.
It is important to know exactly where grizzlies, also known as North American brown bears, live. Although black bears range through many U.S. states, grizzlies have been relegated to the two largest wilderness areas remaining in the lower 48: the Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks greater ecosystems. Occasional and questionable sightings of grizzlies in the North Cascades on the Washington-Canada border have recently been validated. Nearly all of northwestern Canada and the entirety of Alaska is also the domain of the griz. They also live in parts of Europe, southern Asia and extensively through northern Asia.
It is wise to do a little homework before you venture into grizzly country. For me, this consisted of reading a few books and buying the appropriate gear. If you only have the time or interest for one book, then Dr. Stephen Herrero’s classic, Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, is the one. Although it may induce anxiety in the previously ignorant reader, this book gives very detailed instruction on what to do to in specific cases, such as when spotting a bear, when attacked while on the trail vs. in a tent, and when to play dead vs. when to fight back. Herrero also does an excellent job of comparing the behavior of different black and brown bear species, which does differ considerably.
It may seem that reading about actual bear attacks would increase my apprehension, but learning a bit about bear behavior made me feel calmer, a bit more in control. It wasn’t so much understanding how an attack might happen, as it was why bears attack. North American brown bears are highly intelligent and, hence, unpredictable. You can’t know what a particular bear is going to do, but there is a distinct body language that is fairly easy to identify and allow for some preventative measures that are critical for hikers. Despite the underlying uncertainties, I felt ready to take the small risk of a bad bear encounter in exchange for immersion in the last true wilderness in my home country.
My husband and I set out on the Continental Divide Trail, which traverses the spine of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico. We would be walking through prime grizzly habitat for weeks. Our bear protection gear, contemplated at length, ultimately consisted of marine whistles we found at a sporting goods store, worn around our necks, and extra-large cans of bear pepper spray worn at our waists. Guns never entered into our consideration; they are too heavy for thru-hikers and probably create more hazard than they protect against. I do admit, though, that we slept with our ice axes and pocketknives, as well as bear spray, at the ready by our heads.
Educated and equipped, we set out into griz country. My bear anxiety slowly faded into the background as we hiked through the gorgeous mountains. After the first few nervous days, we blew our whistles less and listened and watched more. We talked while hiking and cooked far away from camp, changing our clothes after cooking and eating. We deliberated, sometimes at length, where to pitch our tent. Shadows and dark shapes in the distance were analyzed and studied before approach. We watched our backs while taking snack breaks.
We learned a new level of awareness, always living in the moment, always wondering where the bears were and what they might be doing. It wasn’t just curiosity – this was life and death. We couldn’t stuff candy bars in shirt pockets or ignore that smear of peanut butter that landed on the pack. While near rushing water, we looked around constantly, nervous that we couldn’t hear well…and that they couldn’t hear us. The vigilance was tiring at times, but I began to like the new mindfulness the bears had generated within me.
I have always had some deep, indescribable longing to be a wild animal myself. It may sound strange, but I have never liked feeling so apart from the natural world, a creature that all other creatures run from and fear. Here, I was “on the menu” and a creature from whom at least one animal would not always be compelled to run.
In the end, after stepping over umpteen giant steaming piles of fresh bear poop and plenty of plate-sized grizzly tracks, getting charged by a confused moose that was probably as dangerous as a bear, stumbling upon an old elk carcass torn to pieces, and sleeping very uneasily for weeks, we ended up seeing two grizzlies from a comfortable distance. Those sightings are easily some of the highlights of my life.
Even though I admit to still being scared of grizzlies, I would hike with them again, calmly and with respect, as well as awe and a quiet thrill that a person can still be justifiably frightened in this country by something stronger than, and as capricious as, a human.
A few more tips
I’ve compiled a few excerpts from Doug Peacock’s book, Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness (Holt, 1990), to provide more insight on navigating your way safely through bear territory:
Setting up camp: “Where you choose to sleep in bear country is critical…. Hence, the most important consideration in picking a safe campsite is finding a place that bears are not likely to visit: a spot that is not on or near a bear trail, a potential feeding site, or a place where (they) bed or travel to/from beds. This means don’t camp in a meadow, along a drainage, a saddle or ridge gentle enough to encourage bear travel, or hiking trails…. In a defile, such as a coastal beach in Alaska, you will have to crawl into the miserable alder thickets if you want safe sleeping.”
Using a tent: “Even during good weather, I use the tent. I am not sure why. Perhaps it provides a visual screen, giving me one more chance to talk to the grizzly. I also sleep in the middle of the tent. I keep this tent and the rest of my bear-country gear as odor-free as possible; I never cook or use smelly foods around this gear….”
Avoiding others’ mistakes: “Whenever possible, one should never camp in old campgrounds that have bear sign around them. If you do, you will inherit all the mistakes made by previous campers, especially if they left food out, which teaches bears to associate people and their camps with something to eat.”
Karen Borski Somers is a native of Spring, Texas, and currently resides in Huntsville, Alabama, with her husband, two daughters and their hiking sheltie. An avid hiker and cyclist, she has logged more than 9,000 trail miles in 36 states, including the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. Click here to read her journal concerning her journey on the 96-mile Lone Star Trail in Texas.