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.