Bear Family Encounter – How Would You React?
This article is intended solely to portray and analyze a real life encounter and is not intended as a guide for bear safety. Any reader should fully conduct their own research into bears and bear safety especially as it applies to the area where they intend to visit and take full responsibility for bear safety upon themselves.
Glacier National Park, located in northwestern Montana along the Canadian border, is perhaps the most spectacular scenic area in North America. Its sweeping vistas of ancient glacially carved lakes and valleys, rugged knife-edged peaks, and smaller present day glaciers offer awe inspiring views at every turn. The park is also home to a myriad of mountain flora and fauna, including both black and grizzly bears. Based on United States Park Service estimates, Glacier is home to the densest population of grizzly bears within the lower 48 states. As a nature and wildlife photographer, I am constantly in search of wildlife to photograph – be it a bird, squirrel, porcupine, moose, deer, elk and of course bear. Most of these critters can be found in teeming numbers throughout the west, but the mighty grizzly bear is generally limited to the northern extent of the Rocky Mountains, from the Tetons up through Glacier and on in to Canada. It is this iconic symbol of the American West that I was seeking on this trip.
Hiking alone is a practice not generally recommended in bear country by any means, nor is hiking silently, so to that extent I know that with my personal approach I may take on a bit more risk than the average hiker may or should be comfortable with. I make every effort to minimize the potential for danger by advancing much more slowly than the average hiker, more like a hunter stalking deer or other game, which in effect is exactly what I am doing. My goal is to spot wildlife before they spot me, and in the case of a bear, make sure the distance is manageable and make the bear aware of my presence as soon as is practical and safe. Grizzly bears generally attack for three reasons: they are surprised; they are guarding a carcass/food source; or protecting their young. In my case as a photographer, I seek to avoid all of the above while still getting the shot. Therein lies the challenge.
Common “bear sense” includes announcing your presence by making ample noise. But as a photographer this must be balanced with stealth, for too much noise ruins the potential for the photo of the mule deer and her fawn around the corner, or the moose grazing on willows up around the next bend. I try to make noise only when approaching blind corners or when I am “in transit”, that is, trying to cover ground quickly to beat darkness or inclement weather. I seek the lesser traveled trails, which in Glacier is less possible than for Yellowstone or the Tetons, where the backcountry is far less traveled by the average visitor. In addition, on day hikes I strive to make an early start to ensure I am the first hiker on the trail that morning so that I can cover as much “virgin” territory as possible before being overtaken by ensuing hikers that typically travel at a much faster pace than me when in I am in “stealth mode”. All these tactics are best suited for the experienced and seasoned backcountry photographer, the danger is much enhanced, but that’s what we do. Please note that this article is presented as a learning experience for all, including myself, and not intended as a guide for your own adventure. Any reader should fully educate themselves on bear behavior and safety before venturing out on their own.
I awoke eagerly well before dawn in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park, the previous evening having produced a dramatic electrical storm in a squall line that preceded a late August cold front. The ensueing 20-30 mph northwest winds and a crisp mid-30’s temperature made for very nice sleeping bundled in a goose down bag and small backpacking tent. My days’ gear was prepared in advance – hydration pack, breakfast bars, two cans of UDAP bear spray, folding and fixed blade hunting knives, map, and compass. For camera gear I chose my primary Nikon D300 with 200-400mmVR F4 lens and Gitzo monopod for wildlife shots and my earlier Nikon D200 with 17-80mmVR 3.5-5.6 for wide angle landscapes and scenery.
Leaving the trailhead at dawn – but still with adequate light - the need to keep “bear aware” and vigilant was immediately obvious as within the first 100 yards two offshoot trails each displayed prominent signs declaring “Trail Closed Due To Bear Activity”. The main trail then wound along a few small meadows, lightly wooded so visibility was minimally impaired. The majestic peaks of the Garden Wall revealed themselves intermittently through the tall pines, the morning sun just beginning to paint its golden hue upon their slopes and peaks. The early portions of the trail also presented a few moderate inclines to hike up under the pines blocking the stiff northwest breeze, just enough to get your heart rate and respiration going and encourage more than a few beads of sweat under the layers of clothing worn to protect against the chilly breeze. A small ground squirrel darted about there and there, but otherwise the morning was quiet and little was stirring other that the wind. Emerging from this section I rounded a bend that yielded a spectacular view of the east face of the Garden Wall, by this time bathed fully by the golden morning sun. Hiking directly into the cool wind along a south-facing (downward right to left from my perspective) open slope of near 45 degrees, I removed my hat and hung it from the base of my monopod, which, with the big lens attached, is carried over my shoulder lumberjack style. I had a clear view in all directions of the slopes, which were covered in waist high or so brush and berry vines – prime late summer bear habitat - so I scanned them intensely for signs of the bruins.
Some 200 yards across this open slope I suddenly saw the unmistakable dark brown fur of a bear approximately 40 yards ahead, just at a small bend in the trail. At this point it was like many wildlife encounters in the wild, a very minimal view and it appeared they would quickly head down slope into the brush, rendering only photographs of backs and ears and the occasional lucky full view in a small clearing. If there was any chance of a photo, it would be if they came towards me on the trail, and I better be ready because they will surely spot me and then scamper off quickly into the brush. Lowering my camera to rest on the monopod, there she was, a solid mother grizzly with two second year cubs - each appearing well over 100 lbs, by this time clear of the bend in the trail and offering an unobstructed full view of the clan as they trotted steadily towards me. Cubs of this age are no longer cubs, they are basically just small grizzlies. Still cute, but also very capable of inflicting harm.
My heart raced as the autofocus locked on the target and I fired off a few quick frames, letting loose with a few moderate “Hey bear!”s to make sure they were aware of my presence. But they marched onward. OK, no more pictures, its time to act. I follow the protocol and raise my arms in the air and shout louder “HEY BEAR! HELLO BEAR! HELLOOOOOOO BEAR!”.
All to no avail.
The bears are directly upwind, but by now the distance of 20 yards max is
certainly close enough to be easily heard and seen by them. Why aren’t they
stopping? They continue along the trail, and eye contact is made with the mother
so I know she knows I am there - and it is clear to me now that she just
doesn’t care. She wants the trail,
period. There is basically no way
out for me, all I can do is turn and run, stay put and hope for the best with my
only defense being spraying bear spray directly into a stiff wind, or try to get
out of the way. So I step upslope,
bit by bit, the steepness and thick brush wet with morning dew preventing a
steady progress, as momma and her two cubs keep barreling toward me. I
continue to talk to her, lowering my tone, trying to sound calm and all the
while making sure she stays aware that I am there and human.
“Good bear, goooood bear, keep on
walking baby, I am a nice guy! keep walking baby, keeeeep walking”.
My left hand now instinctively had the trigger guard off of the left can of bear spray, which along with the right side can are worn at my sides like a gunslinger. I kept it pointed low and directly at her – remembering that if I have to let loose with a spray I have a strong wind to deal with. Depending on the timing and angle of her approach, if she came at me and I had to use it I would either be spraying directly into the wind and have to deal with the windblown backspray myself or I would have to spray sideways with the wind, aiming upwind from her in order to get it in her eyes and nose. Either way, it was clear to me that in this wind no spray would be effective at greater than 5 or 10 feet at the most.
As the bears neared I felt a slight bit less anxious, momma appeared to avoid eye contact with me altogether at this point and looked like she just wanted to get past me, and in fact the cubs seemed far more bothered than her and gave me dirty looks like “what makes you think you have a right to be here?”. As they passed no more than 15 feet away I finally breathed a muted sigh of relief, it was clear they were moving on, so I once again went into photographer mode and proceeded to record the remainder of the encounter. Once the autofocus locked on I suddenly noticed the little brat grizzlies had my hat! It had fallen off the monopod when I initially leveled the camera for the first photos, and there it laid in the trail as the cubs came upon it. The larger, apparently male cub trotted off with it in his mouth like a Labrador puppy stealing his master’s socks, obviously very proud of his new treasure! The smaller female tried in vain to steal it, resulting in a running game of tug-of-war as they hustled to keep up with momma.
My adrenaline still surging, I continued to snap frame after frame as they moved along – then abruptly stopped – some 30 yds down the trail. Momma apparently decided this is where she wanted to forage for berries, so she stepped upslope approximately level with my position and began grazing. The cubs stayed on the trail, the male completely enamored with his trophy as he shook it from side to side, stomped and clawed on it in the mud, and engaged in more tugging matches with his sibling, occasionally taking time to give me more dirty looks, but all the while remaining in sole position of his prize! Now directly downwind, both cubs were keenly aware of my presence and clearly somewhat annoyed by it, but momma kept munching on berries, seemingly completely ignoring me. Based on the agitated state of the cubs, I knew better than to approach any closer and was content with my position; however, I did want to move a bit lower on the slope, perhaps to the trail, to get a more level angle on the bears. As I began to step I looked back and was totally taken by surprise as here came a third cub, a full two minutes (based on time data from the camera) behind the rest of the family. Just as the others, the straggler leered menacingly at me as it passed and went to join its brother, mother, and sister. By this time, the smaller sister had given up trying the wrestle the hat way from big brother and went to grab some berries with mom, while the straggler took her place, obviously equally annoyed that it could not get its share of time with the strange smelling human object of which its dominant sibling was in sole possession.
Then, as if on cue, momma decided that now that all three cubs were back together it was time to move on. I followed the family only a few steps – just enough to get one parting shot – of the dominant male cub as he looked back at me. As they disappeared into the brush I could easily see their ears pinned firmly back, a sign that they were keeping tabs on me and I best not follow.
What lessons can be learned from this experience? Perhaps the most important lesson I would like to impart to others is that before hiking in bear country do your homework and always carry bear pepper spray. Learn everything you can about bear behavior and the signs they provide to interpret their mood and disposition. Make noise, especially when approaching blind corners. In the event of an encounter, the biggest asset you have is to be well-versed in what to do and remain calm so that your actions are instinctive, natural, and the most appropriate for the situation. If the bear does not feel threatened, there is a good chance it will just try to go about its business and ignore you, just as in many cases when you view bears from a distance. In my case, that’s exactly what this momma bear wanted, but it also wanted to stay on the trail at that time. I must oblige. Mistaking this for an aggressive act could have proved fatal, for turning to run would very likely invoke a predator response from the bear (like running from a mad dog), and charging and trying to scare the bear off could be interpreted as a threat to her or her cubs, eliciting a defensive attack..
Also think about what you learn and rehearse potential encounters in your mind in your spare time, and think about what you would do if a bear encounter were to occur at various times during your sactuasl hike.. One of the key actions to avoid trouble from bears, repeated in most all bear safety publications, is to “appear big” – you do this by raising your arms, holding an open jacket above your head, and/or staying close together in a group. In my case, moving uphill made me appear bigger to the mother bear, and keeping calm likely made her think “that is a confident animal bigger than me and I don’t want any trouble if he doesn’t”. I could have made a grave mistake by taking the easier path downslope – certainly I could make more distance, but then I appear small and would be scrambling away, again likely to evoke the predatory nature in the bear, and if she were to attack she has a significant advantage pouncing from above.
So above all, read up on bear safety from as many sources as you can find, and always carry bear spray and know how to use it! I was amazed at the number of people I passed on my return trip that were hiking in dense grizzly bear country with no bear spray. Secondly, report all close bear encounters to the local rangers. These folks work very hard and perform a valuable service as they track local bear individuals and families as best they can, and know when a bear or family is new to the area. At their discretion problem bears or bears that have lost their fear of humans are “counseled” so as to renew that fear. This saves both the lives of the bears as well as the lives of future hikers.