Appalachia, Winter/Spring 2009
Twilight, late on a midsummer’s evening in the yellowstone high country, 1976. My trapping partner Willy and I had set up camp in an alpine meadow just below Crow Creek Pass on the east boundary of the park. We were on official duty for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. Our job was to entice members of the Yellowstone grizzly population into a large culvert trap a mile up the creek at the divide, dart and drug any comers, and then fasten radio-collars about their necks for scientific tracking purposes. The primary rules regarded trapper safety: Check the trap from a distance. If the door is closed, approach from out of sight and point to your selected climbing tree so in the case of emergency both of us did not run for the same arboreal escape.
Early that summer, a captive grizz down on Flat Mountain Arm of Yellowstone Lake watched from inside a culvert trap as two of our colleagues approached. At critical distance, the bear inserted four of those long stout fore claws into the welded heavy-wire mesh on the door and unwelded it with the sound of a large metal zipper unzipping, walked out, and disappeared. No one hurt. But a lesson or two learned. Our new trap had a heavier, reinforced steel grid welded to the door frame, along with honey, blueberry pie filling, rancid bacon, and one fat, overripe Idaho salmon inside for bait.
We had already collared two grizzlies down near Yellowstone Lake; one of them, coming out of the drug we had administered, had treed us. It was a bluff charge, to be sure, with no intent of contact, but we took the gesture at face value and shinnied up a pair of lodgepole pines carefully selected beforehand. Far up. On another night, down by the lake, Willy disappeared with his camera, snuck back to camp late, and growled just outside the tent for my benefit. I woke up to his laughter, surprised to find myself floating away from shore in our aluminum skiff. A few weeks later, I forgave him.
Our meadow this evening was near the one in which, several years earlier, another member of our team had been camped just with his sleeping bag and his dog, next to a campfire. The night was very dark and moonless. He was sleeping under the stars. Or would have, except that in the quiet moments after settling in, he heard something sniffing at his feet. Something large, heavy, potentially carnivorous. His companion, a veteran of the Rocky Mountain high country, raised his ears and immediately dove into the depths of the bag. Our friend yelled at the bear, but it would not move off. This seemed a little too tolerant on the part of the bear, so our friend arose and tiptoed off, carrying his sleeping bag with the dog and his boots inside.
Willy and I had finished our supper and the dishes, hung the food and all else we thought might be attractive to a grizz from a high lodgepole pine limb, radioed the Park Service of our continued survival (a required procedure), doused our fire, and had just slithered into our tent when we heard a noise outside. Heavy feet in the grass, coming our way. Just a few yards from the nylon tent wall, the footfalls stopped and after a moment, we heard an audible grunt as something large settled to earth. I looked over at Willy; his eyes were round. He was watching me and at the same time carefully, silently unholstering a Smith and Wesson he happened to find in his pack. Firearms were against Park Service regulations. But regulations were not a priority in the meadow that night, and this was long before bear spray. I lay there frozen, terrific images streaming through my mind. Instantaneously I had forgotten our training and the contents of the bear safety brochures. Neither of us made a sound.
And then a very strange thing occurred. I closed my eyes. When I opened them, it was light out. Willy’s eyes were still wide, staring at me. He quietly sat up, pistol in hand, rolled toward the door of the tent, and with his free hand he quietly opened the zipper, one tooth at a time, left, right, left, until he had enough daylight to slip his head, Smith, and Wesson out for an observation.
In an instant, I saw his face soften. He said my name aloud, and when he did, I heard our phantom leap to its feet and thunder off like a herd of something. Willy brought his head back inside the tent with a look of comic relief.
“Three cow elk,” he reported, holstering the gun.
Something about knowing you’re in grizzly country can keep you on edge, even when you haven’t seen the subject. And rightfully so. The grizzly bear generally offers a more confrontational reaction when protecting its food or its young, or when surprised, than its more retiring cousin, the black bear. And so the grizz is a creature of reputation. Several reputations, in fact. Trouble is, the most widely circulated ones are biased, misleading, and misrepresentative. We’ve all seen the bear attack books and outdoor magazines with covers depicting huge, ferocious grizzlies, jaws agape, fangs bared, all saliva and snarl. Inside are the usual thriller stories, the kind my bear biologist colleagues call “testostermonials.” Never mind that such confrontations between grizzly and human are actually quite rare, and human deaths caused by grizzlies infrequent. Even here in Alaska, twice as many people die in auto accidents each year as have been killed by grizzly bears in the past hundred years. Down at McNeil River, a state game sanctuary in remote southwestern Alaska that supports the world’s largest concentration of brown bears (same species as the grizz, only larger on average, darker brown, and salmon-fed), sanctuary manager Larry Aumiller saw only fourteen bear charges out of 70,000 encounters in 30 years—none producing an injury to either species. Of course, that’s under controlled conditions. The bears aren’t controlled; the people are.
On the other side of the grizzly’s reputation are those who take the odds just reported to claim that, with a little bear-savvy, there’s no need to worry. Timothy Treadwell is the martyr of this faction. His mistake was believing that the bears of Katmai loved him—or even gave a hoot. Timothy expected to “become one” with his grizzly companions; a significant part of him ultimately did. Despite Treadwell’s mistakes, Aumiller knew the man and saw that he held a fairly good understanding of brown bear behavior. Reflecting across his own 30 years at McNeil, Aumiller notes that he started out with a lot of trepidation over safety among the huge bruins, followed by a period of recognizing their normal restraint under conditions in which humans neither threatened or surprised bears nor offered them any food (it helped to come to know most of the bears as individuals) and feeling quite safe around them. After a couple of decades, however, he’d seen and heard enough to realize that unusual things can happen, even to bear-savvy humans, and that one cannot let down one’s guard. He believes that poor Timothy never graduated from that second stage of perceived “no danger.” And he’s the first to note that the wild trust he developed with the McNeil bears was a functionally ecological one only; the bears did not spiritually connect with him or any of his thousands of visitors. Aumiller finished his career, never hurt by a bear (nor were any of the visitors) through many more bear-days than Treadwell, but keeping a middle-level caution in heart and mind. You have to compromise your own behavior a little in bear country, he’ll tell you. And you have to accept that there’s always a little risk. And what would life, or bear country, be without it?
That’s what experience in bear country can do for you. And that’s what defines the difference in grizzly fear between the debilitating fear of the ignorant or inexperienced, and the solid respect for the grizz of a seasoned hunter, biologist, or outdoorswoman. An important point here, not always obvious, is that one can be trained or well read about bear safety and still not make the right move because of lack of experience, by which I mean a history of in-the-field encounters. This can be illustrated by a surprise encounter, when a bear suddenly materializes close up and scares the bejesus out of you and you forget in that instant all you’d read, or you forget to flick the gun’s safety off—all the way down to something as simple as carrying your bear spray in your pack when in most cases you’ll never have time to extract it when you surprise a bear.
Grizzlies in different areas behave differently, depending on the availability of food and their former interactions with humans, so experience in a particular landscape is valuable. For example, bears in some areas have learned to home in on the sound of a fishing reel or the sight of a bent rod to liberate fish from fisherman, or to explore or tear apart a camper’s tent in search of food. Most often, the adventurer in grizzly country will not know the individual bears, as Aumiller does at McNeil, but she can inquire about any bad habits along her route of travel.
In other locations, one can observe the truer nature of Ursus arctos. For example, I’ve stood on “the pad” at McNeil Falls and watched in utter delight as three dozen brown bears fished for salmon, fought over a prime fishing spot, napped a few yards away, or calmly peeled off the fatty skin and extracted the roe from a wild fish still quivering with life—close enough that I could have touched them. Itrusted in the neutral habituation to human presence that Aumiller had generated within these bears. It was obvious that they bore no inherent malice or hostility toward us. They are not so unpredictable, in other words, and they are certainly not out to get us.
Jeff Fair is a contributing editor for Appalachia.
The full text of this story may be found in the Winter/Spring 2009 issue of Appalachia