From Our Readers... 4
This page of essays contributed by our readers is part of the series initiated by From Our Readers...1, with additional contributions in Parts 2, 3 and 5. he response by those wanting to share their inspired connections with grizzly bears has been overwhelming not only in terms of numbers of contributions, but also in terms of depth of passion and emotion. So, in honor of our readers:
"My Grizzly Encounter"
by Kirk Robinson
There we were, face to face, a large grizzly bear and me. In two seconds I might be dead! My only hope was that he—I had been informed that a large boar was in the area—would not charge. My right hand dropped to the canister of bear spray hanging on my belt as I slowly stepped backward, my head now turned to the side to avoid eye contact. “You are very beautiful,” I said softly, “you have nothing to fear from me. Good bear.”
Bear spray was invented to deter attacking bears. However, it only works if you can deploy it fast enough. In this case that would have been about two seconds, allowing for a slow start on the bear’s part. A grizzly bear can accelerate to 35 mph in no time. I might have been able to achieve 10 mph—a move that might trigger an attack and gain me at most another second of life. It is not good to act like prey in the presence of a large predator.
Immediately following the initial adrenalin shock, the fact that I was still standing told me that the griz was not going to charge and that I was going to live. Despite this, my heart continued to pound for about an hour.
Earlier that day I had set out on a hike along a trail up the Lamar River in the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, then up Cache Creek. It was the heyday of the resident Druid wolf pack and there were also grizzlies in the area, which put my senses on high alert. However, a couple of hours of hiking only yielded a few squirrel and raven sightings.
After lunch I started back, intending to check out an unusual geological feature I had noticed earlier. It was a large, roughly crescent-shaped slump, about three hundred meters across, where the earth had broken away and begun slowly sliding into the Lamar River, probably because of underground thermal activity so common in Yellowstone. The upper part of the slump was covered with grass and brush, while the lower part had some pines and was steeper. Walking along the rim, I looked for a way down the escarpment. There was an animal trail running diagonally down the side, offering just enough footing for me to get down. Down I went. The ground below was hummocky and there was no trail, so I had to keep my gaze focused just a step ahead of my feet, with an occasional glance farther ahead.
I don’t remember whether I heard or saw the bear first, but suddenly there it was, standing on all fours beneath a pine tree, its small, dark eyes riveted on me. There was no chance of escape had it decided to charge and there was no one to help me if it did. Fortunately, he calmly remained standing in the shade of the tree. What went on in his mind will remain a mystery, but evidently he didn’t perceive me as a threat. Good thing I noticed him when I did or I might not be writing this!
I continued to back up slowly, eventually reaching the escarpment on the opposite side from where I had walked down, where another game trail took me up and onto the rim above. From above I searched for him with binoculars. He was downhill from where I roused him, lying on his back, legs swimming in the air as he scratched his back on a bed of pinecones. Then he lay still, presumably resuming the nap from which I had so rudely awakened him.
I wanted to watch him when he woke up, and since I reckoned that the prevailing winds would not carry my scent toward him, I laid down for some shuteye. As Director of Western Wildlife Conservancy and the author of a pamphlet titled “Living with Cougars and Bears,” I thought I knew what I was doing. In fact, I was quite proud of myself for having followed the instructions I laid out in the pamphlet on what to do if you encounter a grizzly bear. In retrospect, however, it was probably foolish of me to be so cavalier. Fortunately, when I awoke, I found him peacefully foraging below.
Technically, grizzly bears are carnivores because they have carnassial teeth for shearing meat, tendon, and bone, but in practice they are omnivorous and eat mostly plant material, including roots, tubers, grass, and pine nuts. This one was doing a lot of digging.
My grizzly encounter was tame stuff compared to some I have read about. Hugh Glass, a beaver trapper, was badly mauled by a mother with cubs in the fall of 1823 and left to die by his companions John Fitzgerald and a man referred to as “Bridges”—possibly Jim Bridger. Also in the fall of 1823, mountain man and explorer Jedediah Smith had his scalp and an ear ripped off by a grizzly, which were crudely sewn back on by his companion, Jim Clyman. These attacks were the result of sudden meeting of bear and human. But there have been other cases where the bear was after food.
One such incident occurred at Rainbow Point Campground near Hebgen Lake, west of Yellowstone, in the summer of 1983. A camper was torn from his tent at night, killed and eaten by a male grizzly. The grizzly was later destroyed and some of the remains of the hapless camper found in its stomach. Then there was grizzly bear fanatic Timothy Treadwell. He and a woman friend were killed by a huge, hungry grizzly in Alaska in 2003. Again, the grizzly came in the night and ripped open the tent to get at them. The sound recorder of Tim’s movie camera recorded their screams as they were being eaten. Filmmaker Werner Herzog made an academy award-winning documentary, Grizzly Man, about this weird, tragic incident using some of Treadwell’s own footage. Fortunately, such occurrences are exceedingly rare.
Not long after my grizzly encounter, I met a woman who had gone to Yellowstone to “get close to” a grizzly bear. She had come to have the strange opinion that so long as she was not afraid of death, nothing could touch her. After all, hadn’t she miraculously recovered from a terrible automobile accident? She spotted a grizzly somewhere along the highway between Lakeside and Sylvan Pass, peacefully foraging in a meadow, and followed it for a couple of hours. Like Treadwell, she had convinced herself that she had developed some sort of mystical bond or sympatico with the bear so it would not feel threatened and would not attack her. And luckily for her, it did not.
I am glad to have had my grizzly experience but prefer not to have another one like it and certainly don’t think I can make friends with one. There is a vast gulf between their world and ours and we do well to respect it by allowing them the wild space they need to live and flourish in peace.
Kirk Robinson, PhD, is a former philosophy professor who founded Western Wildlife Conservancy in Salt Lake City in 1997. He is on the Advisory Board of Wildlife For All and on The Rewilding Institute Leadership Council. He enjoys backpacking, river trips, and exploring for Native American rock art.
"Perfumed by a Grizzly"
by Stephen Stringham
As usual, I spent June 2003 camping out in Alaska’s Katmai National Park to study grizzly bear behavior and ecology. After a couple of weeks of constant rain or overcast, the sun finally began to shine. By then, I smelled like an old billy goat. So, down to the creek and rub a dub dub. I bathed myself and scrubbed my clothes. After hanging the laundry on bushes to dry, I figured I’d settle down for a nice snooze. But no such luck. Out of the surrounding forest came an adult female grizzly who apparently thought I hadn’t done a good enough job. After giving my underwear a sniff and snort, she pulled each pair off the bushes and dropped it onto the grass. Thoroughly rubbing the laundry with her head apparently didn’t cover the man-stink well enough, so she rolled on everything until it was thoroughly anointed with her own God-given perfume. Finally satisfied, she ambled off into the nearby trees and plopped down for the night. Waiting until she was snoring gently, I crept up and retrieved my clothes. Later that night, when I contacted my wife by sat phone, I told her this story. To my surprise, she asked why I hadn’t left well enough alone and put up with smelling like a bear – perhaps as camouflage? What could I say? This female was looking for love. Getting chased by a dozen randy boar griz might have been the female’s idea of fun, but it wasn’t mine!
Video footage of the event can be viewed on YouTube under the title Secrets of Living in Harmony With Bears
Dr. Stephen F. Stringham is a pioneering bear behaviorist, wildlife ecologist, and author who lives in coastal Alaska. He is Director of the Bear Viewing Association and Bear Communication & Coexistence Research Program.
"Why Grizzly Bears Matter"
by Harry Rissien
This video of Harry Rissien was recorded during July 2023 at the Great Bear Campout on Idaho’s Lochsa river. The gathering consisted of scientists, lawyers, activists, and passionate citizens focused on developing strategies to protect the grizzly bear. The highlight of the weekend was hearing everyone’s ‘why’—why grizzly bears? Among the most inspiring was Harry's exposition on how grizzly bears, ecosystems, and humans are inextricably connected.
Harry is 11 years old and, at least for now, loves fly fishing. He lives with two proud parents (Adam and Leah) in Missoula, Montana. Adam works for WildEarth Guardians as the ReWilding Manager.