My family and I saw a grizzly yesterday. From fifteen yards away. First, it was below the Highline Trail, and then it was on the trail, lumbering towards us. We could see its cinnamon brown body, its dish-shaped head, and its defining hump. It was clearly not a black bear. Then it moved above the trail just a little bit, slowly, purposefully munching on berries. We could have been a stand of aspen trees for all it noticed us, the twenty or so hikers who gathered in a respectful clump away from him, but still. I was scared. My heart was pumping. I have hiked thousands of miles in grizzly country, and I have only had a handful of close encounters like this one. I kept trying to remind my two children of this as they literally shook and wept at my side.
“Let’s hike back to Logan Pass!” one implored me.
“Mommy, I’m scared!” the other one sobbed, grabbing my hand.
I couldn’t see the grizzly very well, because my kids would not get any closer. This was okay; this was a totally natural reaction on their parts. My husband pulled his bear spray out of the holster, along with a few other hikers, and stood, again at a very respectful distance, and watched the bear feed and feed and feed. Our three-year-old daughter on his back was enthralled.
“She doesn’t know to be scared,” my nine year old whispered. No, she did not. But she knew primal, and she knew safety was on her daddy’s back in a backpack. And I think she understood awe right there.
He was doing exactly what a bear should be doing-eating as much as possible before winter. And I trust my husband’s bear judgment. But, still, it is unnerving to stand so close to a predator weighing several hundred pounds who is known to be unpredictable.
I have turned around many times on trails when I’ve hiked by steaming bear scat or an especially fresh grizzly track. I firmly believe in giving wild animals more than enough respectful distance. However, we hadn’t surprised this bear. Grizzlies can smell carcasses from miles away; this sub-adult just wanted to be left alone, to gather his thousands of daily calories for the winter sleep. I only worried that someone would try to get too close to snap the ultimate wildlife picture, and then he could get aggressive, but everyone stood back, in awe, and watched him.
“Look how beautiful he is!” someone murmured.
I just kept thinking, “Look how BIG he is.” Especially compared to my three children.
Two women standing by us said, “The rangers said that this bear has been here all week, feeding right by the trail.”
At this point my older two kids were so terrified that I almost said, “Let’s get out of here. Forget hiking to the Chalet and down the Loop,”(where our car was parked). But we stayed just a few more minutes, and then the bear meandered up the Garden Wall and hopefully into another patch of juicy berries to help him sleep through the winter.
All of us, the pack of twenty or so hikers, started hiking back down the trail together, for our safety as well as the bear’s safety.
When I first moved to Montana, I was terrified of grizzlies. That fear never goes away, but it changes. I am not an adrenaline junkie or a thrill seeker, but there is something about hiking in the presence of grizzlies that changes the experience. You tune into your surroundings in a different way. You pay different attention. You listen more. You notice when the wind picks up and a bear may not be able to hear or smell you. You watch for tracks and scat and notice how fresh they are. You respect the presence of wildness. I found that when I left Montana and hiked in other grizzly-free places, I missed the bears.
The other part of this moment, for me, is teaching my kids how to hike in grizzly country. Our family of five makes plenty of noise. But, a few weeks ago, we were the only people, to our knowledge, on a less-traveled trail. The wind blew right at us, meaning that bears couldn’t hear or smell us very well. Your chances of surprising a bear increase, so my husband and I clapped, yelled, hooted, and hollered as much as we could, especially on blind corners and hiking up little hills. This scared our kids. But they need to know. We’ve taught them to pick up every little morsel of food they drop, and we’ve taught them how to pay attention in the woods and to be respectful. Now they need to know what to do when they actually see a bear on a trail. Not in a car or across a lake. A bear that is within spitting distance of them. Because of where we live and what we love to do, they need to know how to react calmly and respectfully.
There are many bear experiences I hope my children never have, but I cannot protect them from it. I can’t protect our children from everything in this world. But I can teach them how to be safe, how to face their fears, and how to appreciate pure wildness.
Later that day, we told our children, once we hiked the rest of the twelve miles to Granite Park and down the Loop without seeing any more bears, that our grizzly sighting was as good as it gets. Now they know what to do. Now they know how to stay a little bit calmer. Now they know what it feels like to be up close to a very wild animal.