I live in far northwestern Montana, in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem. There are more bears than people in my million-acre valley—a lot of black bears and, amazingly, 20 or so grizzlies. I’m thrilled on the rare occasion when I’m able to see a grizzly, or even its tracks. It’s a privilege to realize you are sharing the forest with an animal so rare—once, there were 100,000 in the West; now they cling on as if by a single claw.
Grizzlies can grow to be big—600 pounds or more—and, in their fur coats, look larger. It’s easy to be frightened of them, but the fear works both ways. They tend to run and hide if they hear, smell or see you coming—they’re terrified of humans, and for good reason; we are the number-one cause of their mortality. Famously, though, mother grizzlies will defend their cubs against any perceived threat, humans included.
After 30 years of rambling, both on and off the trail, I was finally charged by a grizzly last summer. It was totally my fault. I came around a bend to see a startled young bear, a subadult scooching quickly up a tree. I hope there’s not a mother bear with that young one, I thought, and for a few electric moments I waited for a charge from the underbrush.
Such charges are almost always bluffs—the bear wants to immobilize the threat. When the hiker drops to the ground, as experts suggest, and curls into a ball, it’s usually satisfactory to the bear. Knowledge of this dynamic doesn’t make such encounters any less concerning to a hiker confronted by such a huge animal.
When no mother appeared—one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi—I was relieved. I watched the young bear, uncertain whether it was a black or a grizzly, and then continued past. He was stressed by my presence, and I wanted to give his poor heart ease.
I had taken only a few steps before the mother made her belated appearance—standing on her hind legs on the ridge above me, maybe 25 yards away. And then, as if drawn toward me by gravity, she dropped to all fours and barreled down the hill.
I don’t believe in taking a pistol with me on a hike. I don’t want to kill a bear. They’re so powerful and fast, a gun wouldn’t be my first choice anyway. In the old days, women in the West carried umbrellas. If they encountered a grizzly, they would snap open the fashionable device. The bears were usually startled and ran away. I want more than an umbrella, however, so I do carry pepper spray.
I sprayed the red plume at her when she was within 10 yards—her long claws flashing and her dark eyes burning with what looked like fear and dismay, not anger.
It worked. To her, I must have looked like someone at the wrong bus stop—someone who had no business just standing there—but she flared to the left, a bluff charge, and followed her cub back up and over the ridge from which she had come. As a result, we still have 20 bears in the Yaak, not 19. I’m happy with that.
Rick Bass, author of Winter: Notes From Montana, is a member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council; yaakvalley.org