On a recent drive through our neighborhood the wife and I spotted a big ole burly black bear. For an Ursus americanus he wasn’t a bashful guy, which means he didn’t immediately bolt into the woods. He regaled us by running down the road in front of our car, his big butt lopping a hundred or so yards before slipping into a thicket, crossing a creek and lumbering up a steep hillside. When he felt safe, he turned around and stared us down. We met his stare, savoring every second he shared with us.
For me, there’s something special about bears. I have no idea what it is about the animal that instills such meaning. It’s a personal thing – they’re my totem, whatever that means. If you read Shangri-La Trailer Park you’ll get a feel of how they influence my psyche. My little writing nook is adorned with bear things. Even my winter hat is a bear. When I’m not wearing it, it spends its time perched on a light next to my computer.
Knowing this, you can imagine how empty a summer can seem when it lacks an encounter with a bear. In that spirit, I started thinking about my top ten bear encounters, without further ado, here they are in reverse order.
10) Chocolate Legs and her cubs:
If you’re nice to me, I’ll tell you a place in Glacier National Park where you stand a good chance of spotting a Griz. We met Chocolate Legs there. I’m fairly sure she’s a descendant of the ‘famous’ Chocolate Legs that Roland Cheek wrote about. If you’re interested in bears, pick up the book, it’s a great read.
What makes this encounter so special is that we spotted the sow and cubs two years running, when they were cubs of the year and the following year when they almost equal to their mother’s stature. It was special knowing their lineage and seeing the continuation of the genetic line.
9) First Encounter near home.
A few miles from home there’s a trail that leads to an overlook where, if you’re lucky, you can spot big horn sheep. Tammy and I had a luck of a different sort on a long ago Sunday morn’. We were identifying berries when we heard something behind us. I looked over my shoulder to see a black bear a few hundred feet up the trail looking at us before bolting into the woods. We took its hint and skedaddled.
8) Black Bear on Deck.
It was an early November’s night. I was roughhousing with Shannie-Biscuit on the floor when she stops, threw back her ears and growled. I turned on the outside lights and was met by a big Black Bear on the deck on the other side of the window. It looked at Tammy and me, snorted and lumbered off the deck and into the woods.
7) Smirking Bear.
In Shangri-La Trailer Park, a young Maistoinna tells his grandfather he likes how bears always seem to smirk. Well, that idea came from this encounter with a smirking cinnamon bear in Yellowstone. The bear crossed the road in front of Tammy and I and without interrupting its lazy pace, the bear titled its head, bared its teeth and gave us this ‘F you buddy, these here are my woods look’ and continued on its way. Despite being mere minutes after seeing my first Grizzly, the smirking bear stole the day.
6) Local Griz
Though it’s thought my neck of woods doesn’t contain resident grizzlies, they have been known to wander on through. Just a few weeks ago, I stumbled across tracks mere yards from the house. But, the bear I’m referring to was spotted barely two months after I moved in.
Late one evening, along with a niece and nephew, we were exploring a jeep road near the homestead. We rounded a bend and found a heaping, steaming pile of scat. I got out and investigated. At the time, I bought into the general theory that Griz didn’t wander south of the freeway. I was about to learn first hand how wrong this theory was.
I hopped back into the jeep and continued onward. Around the next bend we spotted the guy. It did this half-stand, half-turn and looked at us before dropping off the road and into the forest. What I remember the most was its size and its golden eyes.
Minutes later we turned around and nearly in the same spot, a bull elk ran in front of the jeep from the direction where the Griz descended. Two great spots for the price of one.
5) The Biscuit trees a bear.
One fall evening, when Shannie-Biscuit was less gray and had a bit more spring in her step, she earned the title: “The Protector of the Homestead.” I had just walked outside and she took off barking. As I rounded the house my eyes followed Shannie’s trajectory and watched a small black bear run up a tree like you and I would run across flat ground. It was one of the most impressive sights I’ve ever seen. The strength, agility, and shear athleticism to climb a vertical balance beam while simultaneously defying gravity was mind blowing. Even though the bear was small by bear standards, it still hulked over my dog. The Biscuit ignored my shouts to come back. She jumped at the base of the tree displaying her meanest bark. Despite the dogs histrionics, it was only a matter of time before the bear tired of such nonsense. So I had to march up the hill and drag the dog away kicking and barking. That wasn’t the last close encounter the Biscuit and I were involved with.
4) Medicine Grizzly Lake:
Another Glacier Park story, though this is not nearly as dramatic as others, this made to list simply because of proximity. A buddy and me were hiking out of the above mentioned lake when I looked into a small overgrown meadow aside the trail and saw the ridge line of what I thought was a foraging moose.
“Moose,” I said over my shoulder to my friend
“Um, that’s not a moose,” he replied.
I looked back into the meadow to see a Griz staring at us while chewing on grub. Without another word, we kept on walking, with wary eyes over our shoulders.
The Griz resumed lunch.
3) Griz Makes a Kill…
… and I have the pictures hanging on my wall, except damn it, I took them with an old film camera and as of this writing, I can’t find the scanned version. When I do, I will post them. Anyway, it’s not as dramatic as it seems, unless you were the marmot it snacked on. Here’s my take on the drama:
We were in Glacier again, in that sweet spot where you can almost bank on seeing a Griz, when here he comes lumbering along a hillside. He looks in our general direction and goes from zero to sixty in 2.5 seconds. The acceleration was astounding. As it hits the brakes, it pulls back its front right paw and swats a rock and sends it flying. For a few seconds he pokes his snout around before coming up chomping.
After a few seconds of chewing and a big swallow he continues on his way. The picture on my blog’s home page and on my Facebook page is this bear as he is about to slip from view.
2) Fornicating Grizzlies and a Celebrity.
It was a damp, dreary June morning on a back country trail in Glacier National Park. The above mentioned nephew, Tammy and myself were suffering through a miserable hike. At the time, my nephew was a pudgy teenager and I didn’t want to let him off the hook and call it quits. He later told me, though he wanted to stop, he was determined to push on. We were well rewarded for our efforts.
At a small creek that dropped into a hanging valley below the trail, we took a break. As I was refilling our water bottles, Tammy and my nephew spotted something below, but couldn’t make it out. We didn’t have binoculars, but I did have my camera with a burly zoom lense. Looking through the viewfinder, I witnessed two Grizzlies making cubs. The three of us are taking turns watching the amorous couple when two hikers approach.
“What do you see?” one of them asks.
My nephew starts whispering to Tammy and is obviously excited. I’m oblivious and tell them about the great sight below and hand them the camera.
“Excuse me sir…” My nephew begins. “Are you John Lithgow?”
“As a matter of fact I am,” Lithgow answers.
“I think you’re awesome,” my nephew continues.
“It’s no big deal, it’s what I do for a living,” he tells my nephew. He and his brother spend a bunch of time with us watching the bears and a pair of elk who are trying to sneak past the griz on their way to the creek.
In the meantime, my nephew asks for an autograph, we can’t find a pen in our packs and the celebrity does something that forever endears himself to me. He says to my nephew: “Why doesn’t your uncle take a picture of us.”
Moments after we part ways, Tammy finds a pen somewhere deep in her backpack. My nephew tracks Lithgow down and the celeb draws a picture of a bear and writes a great personal message. The man has class.
You would think that would be the number one experience, and it would have been but for:
1) Face to Face in a Huckleberry Patch:
It was a hot August afternoon and I load Biscuit into the jeep bound for our favorite huckleberry patch. Biscuit is also a huckleberry hound, she loves going picking and forages the tasties right of the bush. Upon arrival I get right to business and Biscuit sets off on an adventure.
Moments later I hear a heck’uva ruckus. I look up and see a large brown animal running directly at me. My thoughts went like this: Why is Shannie running at me, wait that isn’t Shannie, that’s a big dog, oh shit, that isn’t a dog, that’s a f’ing bear!
I knew it didn’t see me, I was squating in the bushes picking hucks. It rapidly closed the distance, oblivious of an impending surprise. I stood up and the bear slammed on the brakes. It’s backside jackknifed like a tractor trailer as it came to a screeching stop.
And there I was: Face to face in a Mexican standoff with a cinnamon black bear. It golden eyes stared up at me, unblinking. Its fur was heavily matted. I could have reached out and touched its nose. If I did, I wouldn’t be writing this bit. My writing career – my living career would have ended there.
The thoughts one has in such situations are astounding. My first thought was hazardous to my living career: I’m going to feed a bear a huckleberry and live to tell about it. Luckily, common sense overcame insanity and everything I’ve ever read about bear encounters kicked in.
My next thought was: It ain’t getting my huckleberries!
Here’s the deal… Black bears are generally skiddish, they try to avoid human contact. But, if they attack, it’s over… hope you’ve had a nice life, you know what I’m saying?
Knowing this, I went through this litany in my mind. It’s male, it’s sub-adult, ah, it’s like meeting a teenager in a dark alley – you got to show who’s boss. Easier said than done, especially when those lifeless golden eyes are staring you down.
Not breaking eye contact I proceeded with the craziest action I’ve taken in my life. I reached down, picked up a stick, jumped in the air while swinging the stick and yelling at the top of my lungs, which probably sounded like a twelve year old girl.
To my astonishment and relief, the bear yelped like a puppy, turned tail and ran off into the woods.I stood in shock for a few seconds before pacing back and forth while muttering something to the effect of “I just went face to face with a bear in a huckleberry patch.”
Mind you, the entire encounter probably took 5 maybe 10 seconds… but let me tell you, time stood still.
What about The Great Protector? She broke my trance when she came running up on me with tail wagging and tongue drooping. If she could speak, I’m sure she would have asked: “Did you get my present? Did you get my present?” The goofball had stirred up a sleeping bear and ran it right to me. Obviously, she hadn’t heard the expression ‘leave sleeping bears lie.”