Grizzlies on my trail

The hills around Jardine are prime grizzly country but this summer there’s been hardly a sign these giant beasts that live amongst us. Bears are on the increase all over western Montana and with that there are more reports of bear/human contact. Nearly every walk beyond the confines of our yard I strap on the orange and black canister of bear spray. I admit on a couple of occasions I have absentmindedly left it at home and it always made me queasy when I realized it was just me and the small dogs if we had a chance encounter with Bruno. The bear thoughts were there on every walk despite only one scat and two footprints for scores of hikes. I had those dreadfully lovely feelings of wanting to see a bear but only far away or from in the car. I’d started to feel like I wasn’t getting the full Yellowstone experience if I didn’t see at least one fuzzy butt running away from me before we left.

Proper self-defense requires physical skills and mental preparation. Even though I no longer actively participate in a martial art or self-defense training I still frequently think of the things I’ve learned. Many skills are hard wired like riding a bike. Knee to groin, fist to face…those will come out without thought. I also had the privilege of some hand gun training from a federal law enforcement instructor when I ran in law enforcement circles. For a few years I practiced drawing, aiming, shooting even though I never owned or carried a hand gun. Gun safety when there are guns around is important and so I was given the knowledge. So pepper spray…as a fairly knowledgeable person on these matters it always troubled me that we’re just supposed to pick up a can of spray and know how to use it properly. Since I couldn’t spray without wasting my expensive gas and, most likely, causing myself great physical discomfort (I have been hit by both a leaky canister and a ditz with mace in a restaurant, so I know) the only way to prepare was read and visualize. So I did and do. Remove safety. Wait until the bear is very close. Fire. I practiced removing the safety. It’s tricky with my arthritic fingers. My friend Sue had the chance to practice at one of MT FWP’s training seminars. Faux charging bear and all. I watched the video. That bear moves fast. She told me she learned this helpful hint: Aim for the feet because the gas rises. Also bring soap to clean yourself up afterwards. Because you will get it on you. I’m not going to carry soap. I’ll suffer. Of course, before any of this you want to try to avoid meeting a bear and failing that try to scare the bear away.

Yesterday Burt decided to walk with me. We’ve only shared a handful of walks this summer. Burt’s been very busy working. So it was unusual to have him and Elvis along. Normally it’s just me and the Chalive. The three of us alone are no good at making peremptory noise to give bears the chance to leave and Burt added to the equation is no better. When Burt and I hike we are usually a quarter mile apart. And Burt talks everywhere but on a walk. He’s a creeper in the forest. We try to talk but we just can’t sustain it. We’re natural hunters. So there we were: Olive and Chava twenty feet ahead of me, Burt and Elvis a few hundred yards behind. We were only 10 minutes from the trail head, 15 minutes from the gNash. The trail is a persistent but not steep uphill cut into a steep hillside. The land drops away on one side and the other side is a steep upwards slope. Passing other travelers (horses, anyone?) can be awkward because there’s little land to move. Generally there are no other travelers. It’s very quiet up here.

I rounded a curve in the trail with the Chalive and heard some gentle rustling. There’s a lot of gentle rustling up here. Juncos and ground squirrels are the norm. Not yesterday. Just ahead and slightly above me, maybe 40 to 50 feet away was a great grizzly. A superb grizzled silvery sow was right before my eyes. The dogs didn’t see her but she saw them and she saw me. And then I saw her two yearling cubs. Yearlings are nearly as big as mom this time of year. I was face to face with three big bears. I was relieved to see the cubs were on the same side of the trail as momma bear. We were not caught in the most dangerous situation between mom and cubs. As the sow turned to look over her shoulder to see where her cubs were I began yelling and that canister of spray was in my hand with the safety off aimed right at her. I did not pull the trigger. I knew she was too far away and that she would likely flee.  She turned her ginormous moon face back at me and gave me a good bye glance and headed up hill with the kids on her ass. It was so steep they hardly got a start before the dogs realized they were there. With the bears’ sudden movements Olive and Chava caught on and took off in pursuit. I switched from yelling from BEAR BEAR BEAR BEAR to NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO. And I thought why did Burt have to tell me about dogs turning bears around and leading them back to their screaming owners? What was going to happen?

Burt quickly arrived and I was still screaming. The bears had just ducked over a small flattish area above our heads. The threesome was heading in the direction we had come. Olive and Chava were just reaching the spot where the bears had disappeared from view. Would it be an ambush? Was this the moment the bears would turn and come back our way? Now Burt and I were both yelling NONONONONONO. The dynamic duo stopped at the edge. There was a dramatic pause and then they came back to us with no bears in tow. What changed their minds? Was momma on the other side of the lip glaring at them? Or was the hill too steep and they too lazy? They aren’t talking.

With the bears headed towards town we decided to continue our walk only now we walked as a compact noisy quintet. I sang songs loudly and poorly. If the volume didn’t ward off the bears the missed notes would. While I was not scared during the face-off, the walk home through the area where we knew the bears to be was nerve wracking. I jumped out of my skin when a junco flew out of some grass at my feet. In fact, nearly 24 hours later, Olive scared me just by rearranging herself on the bed as I write this. No walk today. I’m telling myself it’s because its 40 and raining.

It was thrilling to see the bears. I can leave this area satisfied. It was also thrilling to remove the canister and have that safety off without a conscious thought. Be prepared. And, no, there are no pictures. All eyes were on the bears. All hands were on the weapon.

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Some creatures I met this week

A pretty beetle.
A pretty beetle.

The bears are all around this year. Some say there’s not enough food. Others say they’ve had a very profligate couple of years and there are just a lot of them looking for food. Going into Portal is like hitting Costco. Food samples everywhere. Generous stores of bird food abound. There’s even a bunch of fruit trees. Word is five bears have been removed from town this year. Males get exterminated. Females get a second chance. It’s sad.

Many of this year’s Portal Irish Music Week staff and students reported sightings as they walked and drove from classroom to hike to session. SOme were shaken and others thrilled. I was jealous. Burt and I didn’t see any. We heard one in a neighbor’s yard and I found a large print in the sand between our gNash and the lodge. Then just a night or two ago we were walking home in the dark from a friend’s and there was mister bear. I suddenly had sympathy for our timid clients. In the dark, on foot, in brushy country was not the time to wake up a bear sleeping in the creek. I admit I was more than a bit excited and not in the all good way. Mr. Sleepyhead woke himself up and took in our proximity and headed away from us. He was a big boy and I appreciate he decided to give up his bed and let us by without a toll.

A shy black widow.
A shy black widow.
We met this prowling black bear after dark.
We met this prowling black bear after dark.

Green Lynx Spider

Rattlesnake in a cage.
Rattlesnake in a cage.
Lil' bit the sweet duckling.
Lil’ bit the sweet duckling.
A tarantula harassed by ants. I took him to safety.
A tarantula harassed by ants. I took him to safety.
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This happened, too…

Burt and Vicki going over the bartender's Blues.
Burt and Vicki going over the Bartender’s Blues. Buffalo Joe’s, Dupuyer.

So I forgot this tidbit of an event. While driving from Whitefish back to Dupuyer with the Sea King Burt spotted a bear. Actually it was three bears. We turned around and so did every one else on that stretch of highway. One van was full of Hutterite women and kids. Here’s a definition of Hutterite: a member of either an Anabaptist Christian sect established in Moravia in the early 16th century, or a North American community holding similar beliefs and practicing an old-fashioned communal way of life. Hutterites do not shun technology. Here’s a link to their own web page: Hutterites.org. You can read more there. I just learned that music is a big part of their culture. That makes me even happier that they so obviously enjoyed our show the other night. And we shared a moment of joy watching three bears along the highway. The bears’ necessity was a cow carcass in the creek.

Three bears and the bear necessities.
Three bears and the bear necessities.
Hutterites enjoying the bear show.
Hutterites enjoying the bear show.
Hutterites like bears, too.
Hutterites like bears, too.
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Heading into the Yaak

Flathead Valley Bridge Club
Flathead Valley Bridge Club

We’re still up in the north end Flathead Valley. Rain again after a couple of partly cloudy days. Our Mexican tans are fading but our leisure time activities continue. This week we played Bridge twice and took a couple more hikes. Today, while Burt lends a hand helping build a place with his daughter’s boyfriend, I did the taxes. Better late than never. Actually, we had a perfectly legal extension. I could do them on time from Mexico because all the information I seek is on-line somewhere but I prefer waiting until I have paper in hand and the mail doesn’t reach Mexico. Usually. This year Sue brought it down in May but today was the first suitably rainy day with Burt out of the house. As usual I did my best to get them right but being self-employed makes for some bewildering tax questions.

This week’s hike idea came courtesy of Jen. Jen formerly guided backpacking trips in Glacier National Park but since the park forbids canine companions we have to hike on the perimeter. Stanton Lake is just across Hwy 2 from the boundary and located in the Great Bear Wilderness area. Jen had never done it but heard it was a great walk for dogs with nice views. As usual we birded for a portion of the walk, ate snacks, and broke up a dog fight. Okay, the dog fight was not usual. Olive is a bit of a tyrant around smaller dogs on leashes. Normally we do not see many dogs smaller than Olive hiking in the wilderness on a leash. A couple of days ago Olive tried to kill a very small and insecure Chihuahua type dog. It wasn’t remotely funny. What an Ass-hat she can be. The other dog parents were very understanding and had hardly an evil word for us or Olive. Despite the nastiness and length of the altercation there was no sign of visible injuries to the kitten sized dog. Olive was leashed from that moment onward.

The hike culminates at the head of Stanton Like about 2 miles from the trailhead. You can see Great Northern Mountain to the south and a few peaks in Glacier National Park to the north. On the lake we spotted a pair of looms and a lone baby loon. Loons are not prolific reproducers. They lay one or three eggs a year so this was a happy spot. I also found a lovely white crab spider eating a fly. AT the head of the lake the brush along the trail became menacingly high and thick. You wouldn’t see bear in here until it was gnawing on your leg. Also not funny, last week a guy crashed into a bear near here on his mountain bike and was summarily dispatched by the bear. Species unknown. So the idea of crashing into a bear does not appeal. We took the heavy brush as a cue to turn back towards the car.

Dear reader Pat and friends and clients Bonnie and Rolf and Howard and Carol spent a week hiking here last year and almost every day was filled with view impairing and lung clogging smoke. At least the rain is preventing that this year.

Next up we’re heading into the Yaak. Notorious and remote the Yaak harbors weirdness and possibly Bigfoot. Transmission might be delayed. Late next week we’ll be back in Helena for doctor’s appointments and gigs.

Crab Spider
Crab Spider
Great Northern Mountain
Great Northern Mountain and the bear hiding vegetation.
Five bees.
Five bees. Well four.
Stanton Lake looking north towards Glacier National Park.
Stanton Lake looking north towards Glacier National Park.
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