From Our Readers... 2
This page of essays contributed by our readers is part of the series initiated by From Our Readers...1, followed by additional contributions in Parts 3 and 4. The 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:
"Grizzlies Saved My Life" by Dave Stalling
It happened on a chilly August morning in a high-mountain meadow about seven weeks into a 10-week, 1,000-mile solo backpack trip through the most remote, rugged, wild country left in the continental United States -- from my front porch in Missoula, Montana, to Waterton, in Canada's Alberta province, mostly off trail, crossing only three roads along the way.
I lay safely hidden behind a downed subalpine fir tree watching a silver-tipped grizzly and her two cubs about 100 yards or so upwind of me. She was lying down, resting, keeping watch on her young ones as they wrestled, rolled, and chased each other in the grass. The cubs ran and pounced on their mom a few times, and she nudged them away with her snout. When one cub tried to suckle her, she swiftly swatted the youngster with her powerful big paw, in a seemingly effortless motion, and sent the startled cub rolling. Then she got up, walked over, and reassuringly licked the cub until all seemed well in the world.
I departed on this big, wild adventure deeply depressed, and I wasn't so sure I planned to return. A few drunken nights earlier I drove to a trailhead with my Remington Model 870 12-gauge shotgun planning to walk a ways into the woods and pull the trigger with barrel in mouth. Instead, I sat in my car thinking of my son, my family, and my friends, sobbing so hard I shook until I passed out. I awoke at sunrise and drove back home.
I was still struggling with my father's death the fall before, and my wife of 14 years demanded divorce; I had grown too damn miserable to live with. Years of accumulated shame, guilt, fear, confusion, and sorrow were rumbling through me like thunderous, dark clouds ready to let loose a dangerously potent storm. As a leader in wildlife conservation, I was commonly praised for my honesty, but I was hiding a dishonest life. I was living a lie, suffocating beneath a deep internal avalanche, and I hated myself. Turmoil ate away at me like cancer. So, as I have often done in my life, I escaped to the wilderness.
When I first I retreated to the wilds of Montana fresh out of a Marine Force Recon unit, I developed a particular fondness for and connection to grizzly bears. They're beautiful, powerful, fascinating, potentially dangerous animals that are gravely maligned and misunderstood. Some people hate them and many fear them because they don't know and understand them. They're bears. They are what they are; they do what they do. They want to (and should) be given respect and space and be left alone to live and be themselves. I've spent most of my life fighting to protect wildlife and wild places, always with this thought in mind: If we save enough room for grizzlies, which need a lot of space, we pretty much keep intact entire watersheds and ecosystems that sustain an abundance and diversity of species -- including us. As Doug Seus, founder of Vital Ground, succinctly puts it: "Where the grizzly walks, the earth is healthy and whole."
Such thoughts and more buzzed through my brain as I watched that sow and her cubs in that high-mountain meadow on that chilly August morning. Then it struck me: I had spent so much time alone in the wilds because in the wilds I could truly be myself. In nature, in the wilds, there are no societally created norms, judgments, and expectations. Everything is what it is. A grizzly might judge me as a threat or feast but doesn't care who I fall in love with and sleep with. I was fighting to defend and protect wildness, naturalness, and the freedom of wild grizzlies while denying and suppressing my own wildness, naturalness, and freedom. Like the grizzlies, I am what I am and do what I do. I want to (and should) be given respect and space and be left alone to be myself.
I accepted myself that day while watching those magnificent and tenacious animals. In no small way, those bears helped save my life. I often joke with friends that grizzlies made me gay.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." Wildlife and wild places preserve truth of reality, of life and death, and our primeval connection to this earth. To deny that is to deny ourselves; to destroy it is self-destruction. To embrace, understand, and accept it is to embrace, understand, and accept our own innate nature and wildness.
Everything is what it is, including us. We are part of it all. We ignore that at our own peril. I learned that from wild grizzlies, in a wild high-mountain meadow, in a truly wild place.
David Stalling is a writer, photographer and wildlife advocate living in Missoula, Montana.
"A Herd of Grizzlies" by Leslie Patten
I live in a place where “problem” grizzlies are dropped off.. Wyoming bear biologists tell me there’s a grizzly up every drainage in this valley.
I have seen grizzlies many times on hikes, but there are a few times that are indelible in my memory. Here is one of them.
Fifteen years ago the State of Wyoming did a logging project on private properties that butt up to the National Forest next to my house. I’d been reading about living with grizzlies, especially trying to understand their nature not just how to stay safe in grizzly country. I’d recently read a story about a Woman Who Married a Bear: a native girl who falls in love with a handsome grizzly that can transform himself into human form. The woman joins the bear villagers in their lodges, sharing food, talking and laughing about bear things. The woman returns to her village every winter, teaching them what plants are good for food and medicine.
It was fall and I walked into the small meadow next to my cabin to search for a ball my dog had left there. The nearby logged areas had stumps with high new growth; among the autumn shadows they could be fooled for bears. As I searched the grass, at first I paid no attention to a multitude of out-of-place stumps. But looking a second time, I realized I wasn’t seeing tree stumps, but four very large grizzly bears about seventy-five feet away. This was a mom with her 2 ½ year-old offspring, yet they looked almost as big as her. Since I was so close to my house, and hadn’t planned on venturing far, I hadn’t brought bear spray. My dog Koda was well trained for bear situations. He never barked, wasn’t aggressive and obeyed. So I tried to quietly corral him to head back to the house. The bears were very busy digging up thistle roots and hadn’t noticed us. But Koda was also busy looking for his ball. I had to firmly call him; and once I did, mama grizzly looked up. With Koda in tow, I slowly started back to the house, keeping a sideways glance on the bears. It was clear Mom was accessing the situation—fight or flight, threat or not? I sensed I could read her thoughts. Instantaneously, she gave her signal and four large bears ran off into the woods.
Within moments I too was gone, into my house. Adrenaline pumping, but also wonder and amazement. I’d seen solo bears before, but never four bears together, all looking as big as adults. A family unit of bears. It was an experience I’ll never forget. I thought about the woman in the lodge, living in the company of bears. It was if for a few moments I’d been in a bear lodge. For a few precious moments I felt melded into bear consciousness. That experience was so powerful, that although I’m not an artist, I spent days drawing and painting it.
Leslie Patten is an author and advocate for wild animals and wild lands who has lived in the remote Sunlight Basin of Wyoming's Absaroka Mountains for the last 18 years.
"Grizzly Bear Telepathy" by Mike Bader
Of the many dozens of fascinating grizzly bear stories I can tell from my days as a Yellowstone ranger and Montana wilderness guide I will share this one.
In 1982 myself and two friends hiked up to Sepulcher Mountain (about 9600') in the Gallatins inside Yellowstone Park. My habit then was to walk ahead and not engage in much conversation as I saw and heard more of the wild things.
Near the top there was a small meadow I had just begun walking into when I heard my companions shouting "Mike! Mike!" Annoyed I said "what?" When I looked up, I saw what. About a 400-pound grizzly looking right at me.
I swear I had telepathic communication with this bear. It said "you have to help us. There aren't very many of us and there isn't anywhere we can go to completely avoid humans." It then walked off and vanished into a dog-hair stand of trees without a sound, as a bull elk with a rack of antlers can do.
From that point on I was an advocate and in that year of 1982 I obtained the first draft copy of the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan which I still have.
Mike Bader is a former Yellowstone ranger, independent consultant and researcher with several papers published in science journals and has been a grizzly bear advocate for more than 40 years.
"The Language of Grizzlies" by Tom Sachse
We had permits to backpack Lamar Valley in Yellowstone. Once in the park we stopped at the ranger station to pick up the permit and to view the required safety video. My son Dan was well prepared. He researched the dangers of bears in the wild and the steps to remain safe in bear country. I, on the other hand, had just read a book by a backcountry guide who wrote that in 35 years of guiding in the back country of Yellowstone and the Tetons he had never encountered a bear. I took the guide’s lead over my son’s research and decided I didn’t need bear spray.
The hike was infiltrated with mishaps. We already had a long day and when we finally got to the trailhead, at 3:30pm, it started to rain. We hiked the five miles to our campsite experiencing a slippery trail and a fast-running creek we had to cross. We reached our campsite, set up our tents and began cooking our dinner. It stopped raining as we finally settled around 7pm. While our food was cooking, I looked over at our tents which were 50 feet away from our fire when I saw something big and blond moving around our tents. I thought it odd that an elk would be going through our camp. Looking more closely I saw it was a grizzly.
Dan saw him about the same time and slowly got up and began banging a pot and talking softly to the bear. I stood there watching.
The bear, unimpressed with our responses, continued to sniff around the tents and noticing when he had our attention, walked over to the remains of an old elk carcass which was only about 10 feet from our tents, but we hadn’t noticed it when we set up camp. The bear rolled around on the hide and threw the leg bone into the air a number of times.
After sending his message he slowly walked away from the carcass. We settled back down and continued with dinner while keeping an eye on the bear. The bear circled our camp and every time we moved or made a sound, he stood up to see what we were doing. He crossed the same river that we struggled with, without a issue. Showing his true strength. We enjoyed his presence until it was dark. What the bear did after that we hadn’t a clue. We were tired from the long day and realized that we were not going to be able to get back to the trailhead so we turned in for the night. I resigned myself to the fact that if the bear returned, I only had Dan and his bear spray to rely on.
The bear didn’t return, but we got his message. The carcass was his and as long as we respected his space, he would let us stay in his territory.
That was nineteen years ago. Dan now guides in Yellowstone and I’m retired, but that night with the bear is embedded in our memories. We still reminisce about that backpacking trip and the grizzly has become our totem. It’s a connection my son and I will always have.
Tom Sachse is a retired educator who helped develop Utah's Secondary Comprehensive Counseling & Guidance Model.
Jennifer Watson is a wilderness and wildlife advocate and member of Great Old Broads for Wilderness who lives in Lolo, Montana.
"My Encounter with One-oh-Four"
by Jennifer Watson
I’d first heard about her through the sort of grapevine that is typical in small towns. The town was Cody, Wyoming, and the creature I’d heard about was Grizzly Bear #104, the iconic North Fork of the Shoshone River grizzly bear.
One-oh-four, as she was known without further explanation in Northwest Wyoming in those days, spent her entire life near Pahaska Tepee, a dude ranch type of lodge just outside of the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
Now I had the opportunity to view this magnificent creature in her natural environment.
Word had it that she was consuming and guarding her kill on a gravel bar a short distance from the Pahaska Tepee Lodge.
I had to go.
We walked a faint path northward from the lodge, leaving behind the protection of our vehicle and other forms of human shelter. It was late afternoon, and the afternoon sun filtered down through the forest as we picked our way quietly up the small tributary where we understood we would find her.
We rounded a corner of the stream, and there she was! Not more than 400 or so yards away!
Her kill lay in the bed of the stream, where she had covered it with debris and branches. She guarded it diligently. We froze in place, speechless, and in awe of the animal before us, a gorgeous animal of brown with golden highlights.
Suddenly, she rose up largely on her hind legs, and sniffed the air. She had caught our scent!! Although there was what amounted to a 75-foot cliff between her and us, and some distance, a sense of uneasiness quickly consumed me. I felt exposed, vulnerable. I’d never before viewed a wild grizzly this close without the protection of a hardened steel vehicle.
Were we a threat to the food she had procured with great effort? We didn’t stick around to find out. We granted her her grace and her meal, and backed away toward Pahaska and our vehicle.
One-oh-four lived nearly her entire life on the North Fork of the Shoshone. Though she was captured and relocated several times, she always found her way back home to the place where I had glimpsed her in her domain. She raised several litters of cubs there, and though she met her unfortunate demise on the very highway she clung to, I like to think that her descendants are roaming wild and free in the hills of the Shoshone National Forest, where I was lucky to briefly glimpse their famous great-great- grandmother.