Be Bear Aware
One of my earliest memories is based off the fear of a bear attack. When I was two or three I can remember a bear peering through the window of our backdoor. Curiously investigating the smells of our kitchen. Fearing a bear attack on his family my father distracted him so my mother could slam the door on this unwanted intruder.
At that time a bear attack would still make headlines in the local newspaper, but it wouldn’t cause much of a stir among the locals. Our house located in the “cabin country” of Northern Minnesota was an “A” frame my dad and his friends built back in the 80s. Down a dirt road our waterfront property wasn’t exactly off the grid, but no one would mistake us for living in the suburbs. In the spring we filled buckets, pales & bags with raspberries from the end of our driveway. Canned the harvest from our garden.
Over the summer we stocked our freezer with Walleyes, Bass & Panfish. In the fall my Dad and his brothers would take off on weekend hunts to fill their deer tags or bag some pheasants. Grouse, Woodcock, Fox, Raccoon, Duck, Geese & even bear would make their way through our freezer over the years. I was born into a family of outdoors man. We fished in the summers, and hunted in the fall. Our family gathered over the holidays, and waited for spring to begin our outdoor activities again. It wasn’t a complicated life. More like a pursuit of passion while learning how to raise a family. My parents where focused on instilling independence while embracing our freedom. With no concern of a bear attack.
Introduction to Bears
I don’t have a lot of memories from that time in my life, but the ones that I do….. entail canvas wall tents, campfire stories, target shooting and bear watching. I couldn’t tell you for sure whether or not it was because we truly enjoyed it or because it was a family activity that was entertaining. But it was FREE and watching bears rifle through bags of garbage dominate that file cabinet of memories. In the summers my parents would load us up after dinner, and drive us to the town dump. Where we would stay for hours watching bears do bear things. I don’t ever remember being afraid of a bear attack, but there was always a tickle of fear. Maybe that’s what made it so exciting, or maybe I was just young and still trying to comprehend how stuffed animals moved on their own.
I was exposed to bears at a young age, and became comfortable around them. Never considered them one of North America’s fiercest predators. They were simply an animal that required accountability when present and deserving of my attention. They were docile and easily discouraged, but maybe that was because they were black bears with an accessible food supply in nowheresville Northern Minnesota. Then I moved to Alaska where I encountered the bears from TV. You know the ones that stand 15 feet tall. Weigh thousands of pounds. Razor sharp claws longer than the biggest knife in your kitchen. The ones they call Grizzly Bears, and are different from brown bears. Which both live in Alaska by the way. As well as black bears. You know the place were all bear attack stories seem to come from!
At first I was intimidated and apprehensive about my activities in “Alaskan Bear Country”, but I quickly realized the bears of Alaska do the same things as the bears of Minnesota. They raid garbage’s and flee the scene of their crime when you flail your arms. They’re just bigger and have a tan. While salmon fishing one day with co-workers I watched a couple of eight year olds thwart a bear attack by shewing away two 1,000 pound Grizzlies from their salmon lying on the beach. It was an anxious moment, but a validating and impressive moment as well. Just like the bears of Minnesota they had a readily accessible food supply so they were docile & discourageable. Instead of the territorial & aggressive animals you hear about in bear attack tales.
Bear Attack Safety
These experiences never guided me towards proper bear safety procedures, methods or even tools. I never knew what bear spray was, or that it even existed until after my first bear attack. I had never heard of bear barrels, bear boxes or even bear vaults. No one ever told me to act “big” or play dead during a bear attack. The only “official” (and I use the word official loosely) guidance I ever received was that bears have poor eye sight and don’t like loud noises. So the walking tour guides in Alaska carried flares and air horns for their defense arsenal against bear attacks. Which seemed logical enough when they explained why, but than again I had never experienced a bear attack so who was I to judge.
I had just driven for three days across country side I had never seen after a 27 hour flight, and encountered animals I had never witnessed before. I won a game of chicken against 3 buffalo on a deserted road in Yellowstone National Park. While praying they wouldn’t crush me and my car. My destination was Signal Mountain Lodge on Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park. Where I would work as a waiter in the restaurant for the summer in between my adventures.
My experiences with bears never prepared me for that day on Signal Mountain in Grand Teton National Park. I wasn’t prepared for the bears of Yellowstone. I was awestruck by the magnificent granite beauty of the Tetons, and their jagged tooth silhouette dominating the backdrop of landscape surrounding me. I hadn’t even fully unpacked or even properly packed. I had just arrived back in the States from Thailand who were in the middle of a Civil War with the Red Shirts. I was still transitioning mentally with the culture shock of being home.
Travel to Bear Country
My bags were packed with summer gear. Except my day bag. Which was my backcountry ski bag made by Dakine. Designed specifically to carry ski’s, goggles, avalanche shovel and a water bladder. Which besides the ski’s is exactly what it contained because I was planning on going to New Zealand for a “never summer” ski season. But like the bears of my past I was easily discouraged by the “Red Shirts” back to the safety of the states. So my day bag was still prepped for the snow of New Zealand instead of a summer in the Tetons. Just one of many details I overlooked that day.
Day one at my new home was a snooze fest orientation were my managers covered all the usual useless bullshit they think is pertinent to new employees. Sexua harassment, theft & bathroom locations. Nothing remotely close to bear awareness or deterrence. Day 2 was mine to explore whatever was clever. At breakfast in the EDR(employee dining room) a few returning employees recommended a hike up Signal Mountain for its ease and views. It’s a short 5-minute drive to the top by car, but I decided to walk it. If I was a smart person I would have spent the day in bed allowing my body to recoup from the whirlwind of travel over the last 72 hours. Instead I chose to continue pushing my limits.
My Bear Attack
The morning was calm with a brisk bite in the air. Clouds sprinkling the sky while the sun burnt off the morning dew. Adding a gentle warmth upon your face . In khaki shorts, a T-shirt over an Under Armour long sleeve finished off with flip flops purchased in Bangkok I was ready to hike the 1 mile road to the summit of Signal Mountain. Plugged in my headphones and wrapped them around my neck while they played: Rebelution, Courage to Grow, and began the adventure of conquering Signal Mountain.
With each new step the wilderness unveiled itself allowing me to dive deeper into a cave of travel reflection. Song birds were auditioning against one another while I was wrestling with the concept of being back home. Patches of snow trying to hide from the spring time sun. Blossoming buds competing for its attention. About halfway up lost in thought the road started to curve to the right, but something caught my eye to the left. After my eyes focused I realized I was watching two bear cubs scurry up a tree. My music must have startled them, but as cute as they were something inside told me to find mom.
Mama Bear’s & Cubs
I started to scan my vision to the right until I locked eyes with a 1,000 pound mama Grizzly. Nostrils flaring. Gums lines curled back. Teeth bared! Filled with rage and charging at full speed in my direction with only 20 yards to go. There wasn’t time to figure out how I got between a mama bear and her cubs. No time to run! Instinctively, I reached back with my left hand to unhook and arm myself with a 2oz 15-inch purple aluminum avalanche shovel handle. While screaming, “Are we really fucking doing this?!?!!?”
This sudden movement with my off-hand to reveal a foreign object startled mama enough to end her charge. I didn’t need another queue. Quickly I began to back pedal in my bear fighting warrior tested flip-flops & turned my headphones out. So the speakers would play louder. My heart was racing. My breathing was rushed, but my eyes never strayed from hers! An hour ago I had breakfast, and now I was trying not to become breakfast. She had the advantage of strength, size & running downhill. With no “real” weapon or better alternative my only goal was to put as much distance between me and her before round two. Like two gunfighters waiting for the clock tower to strike high-noon we stood their frozen in time. Wrestling with our choices. A branch broke. A bear cub fell out of a tree. Mama turned her head, but didn’t surrender her ground. I continued backwards wondering what the fuck I was going to do with an aluminum shovel handle that weighs less than a lighter.
Bear Attack Round Two
Than she did it. Dropped to all fours and started in my direction for round two. I knew this wasn’t going to end well, but me and my purple piece of aluminum — alone in the woods was going to go down swinging. I tightened my grip. Bettered my stance. Prepared for what was going to be the fight of my life. Concluding that I was only going to get one shot to deter her before she destroyed me. I focused on her mouth, teeth and throat hoping I could jam this shovel handle far enough down to create a window for escape.
In those adrenaline charged seconds fueled by the prospect of being over powered and eaten alive I was preparing for a fight to the death. She was just getting her balance, and now turning towards her cubs. Before she could change her mind about breakfast I jumped off the side of the road and dashed behind a grove of trees cutting off our site line between one another. Keeping the tree cluster between us I ran faster than humanly possible out and up back to the road. With a quick scan of the horizon and roadway; her and the cubs were nowhere to be found.
I was done with the woods for the day. The thumping of my heart could be felt in my ears. My brain wouldn’t stop replaying the blindsided charge from mama bear. Sounds of crunching bone played along side my replay. My first bear attack didn’t result in physical wounds. Blood covered clothing, but mentally it cut deep! I couldn’t run any faster. Horrified I was still being stocked I couldn’t find safety fast enough.
Bear Attack Lessons
Unsure to this day whether it was a bluff charge, my reaction stopping her or something else I learned one undeniable thing. Life can change in an instant. Tomorrow may never come, and today is the moment you need to live for. That summer in the Tetons I went through 4 cans of bear spray. Meaning I was closer than 25 feet to 4 different bears that thought I was their next meal. Read about a mom and her two cubs that went on a rampage in a Yellowstone Campground that summer. The bears of Yellowstone have to survive in a rougher environment than the salmon runs of Alaska, or the door-to-door delivery of Northern Minnesota. The bears of the Tetons don’t have 5 million Salmon to feed off of, or the buffet tables of American waste. Before Signal Mountain I had never encountered a territorial bear, or even a hungry bear. But because of my time in Yellowstone & the Tetons I have a greater understanding of bears. Which also has me carrying a can of bear spray with me everywhere. Guess how well that went over one time at Airport Security in Chicago.
Grizzly Bears, Black Bears & Brown Bears are wonderful animals. Believe it or not they are more scared of you than you are of them. You’ve probably got better odds of winning the lottery than you do being attacked by a bear. Millions of people venture off into the wilderness each year without incident. Bears of the wild are entertaining when viewed under the right circumstances, but the bears of North America command your respect. The second you don’t give it to them you’ll find yourself in a situation you would prefer not to be.
Lessons from the Tetons
I was born into a family of outdoorsman. Hunting when I was 12, and fishing before I was walking. I’ve spent more time in the outdoors than most people spend in their cars, but that summer in the Tetons taught me that while wilderness may be inspirational and beautiful. Danger preys on the unaware and unprepared. The Tetons with their alpine beauty & pristine lakes created an environment not just for adventure, but also for learning as long as I was willing to absorb the lessons.Travel will do that to you. By putting you in a familiar situation, but teaching about layers & variables you never even knew existed. While surrounding you with fellow travelers that are eager to teach, absorb or share in the experiences. I may not be fully prepared for my next bear encounter, but I’m better prepared for my next bear attack because of my summer in the Tetons.