Great Grizzly Sprint of 2020

So here it is, 1 a.m.

It’s hard to sleep when you are covered in pepper spray. No, didn’t get charged by a griz, just decided to spray myself while on a bike ride tonight.

Bill and I tried a new route and came upon a couple of good-sized dogs, including a monster pit bull, so I pulled out the pepper spray. We’ve had to use it before and – it works!! A little dose of capsaicin (active ingredient in pepper spray) humbles an advancing, hostile canine in short order.

These big guys just looked at us apathetically and never moved. So I put the spray back and heard…pfffft….a red cloud spewed from the canister. I didn’t feel anything, it seemed I avoided the spray. Once we returned home, though, I started to feel the heat. Showering before bed just spread it around and made it worse.

Ow. So this is how it feels to bathe in jalapeno juice. Lying here wide awake, I am reminded of bear spray, which reminds me of bears, which reminds me of The Great Grizzly Sprint of 2020. Might as well write.

I’m no bear biologist, but I’ve had an experience or two and have read/listened to others’ experiences with the adrenaline-inducing critters.

warning! bear stories ahead!

The first story I heard upon my arrival in Glacier National Park in the summer of ‘80 was the Sasquatch Incident. Not the creature, but the local bartender from the little hole-in-the-wall bar we frequented (he was aptly named, nobody messed with Sasquatch).

The Belton Chalet, home of Sasquatch and our scruffy little hangout.

He was hiking the Highline Trail with a couple of friends. They were confronted by a grizzly, which charged;

Sasquatch readied himself…

just before the griz reached him…

he thrust his umbrella open – right in the bear’s face! Startled and confused, that bear turned tail and ran down the hillside. (Good thing it was threatening rain that day!)

So goes the local legend. I have no way of verifying it, but knowing Sasquatch, it probably happened.

My first summer in the park I was assigned to the front desk at Lake McDonald Lodge.

It was a great group at the front desk, college students from all over the U.S., including Kim the bellman, a fun-loving, sweet and kind soul. It seemed as if Kim took responsibility for my rite-of-passage as a park employee, taking me on my first hike, pointing out Glacier flora and fauna and educating me on the park. He also bravely taught me how to dance the country swing (even sticking with it after I missed a cue and sent him tumbling backwards into the woman’s bathroom). He was a true friend.

I remember that day vividly, July 25th, as if it were yesterday. A group of us were hanging out on the front porch of our dorm when another employee, normally the class clown, walked up with a very sober, stunned countenance. We were informed that Kim and his girlfriend Jane, who had left on a camping trip the day before, wouldn’t be coming back. They had been mauled by a grizzly the previous night while camping and didn’t make it. It still hurts.

Though we all continued to hike, climb and camp in Glacier’s backcountry, I was always (and am to this day) very wary. If I’m on the trail, I have bear spray in hand or very close, and am making noise. “Hey mama! Hey Bubba! Comin’ through!” There was no such thing as bear spray back in the 80’s – we just rolled the dice and hoped for the best. One thing – the grizzly population at that time was much smaller – we rarely saw them.

Then there was the hike in 2015. It was magical. I spotted mama and her cubs from afar, and eventually our paths converged.

The three of them were ambling along the scree slope ridge above me, I was on the trail just beneath. She didn’t seem the least bothered by my presence (I still had the bear spray ready with the safety off). Her cubs were playful and adorable, and we just walked along together for awhile before they veered off to the base of Mt. Clements. I will never forget that day either – I smile when I think of it.

One experience was heart breaking and terrifying, one was magical and amazing. Bears, especially mama grizzlies, seem to have no template.

More bear stories….

In the summer of ‘81, my second season in the park, a fellow employee, Greg, was solo hiking near the Canadian border. He came upon a griz, who charged him, and with super powers heretofore unknown, Greg leapt into a small tree and scrambled to the top. The bear stood up, growling, and shook the tree, trying to shake him out of it. He clung to the swaying little tree for dear life, and the bear eventually gave up and moved on. When he thought it safe, Greg leapt from the tree and sprinted the rest of the trail to civilization.

During my 2015 season at Glacier, a hiker had gone off-trail in an area that we hiked frequently. This was an older guy, by himself, and he spotted mom and her cubs across the draw (small valley). He watched them for awhile; they moved away from him and disappeared, so he continued bushwacking. Later, returning to the trail, he passed beneath a rock ledge. In an instant, the griz was upon him – pouncing on him from the ledge above. She clamped on to his pack and started swinging him around – somehow he managed to reach behind him for his bear spray, release the safety and spray willy-nilly, unloading it while getting the ride of his life. She dropped him and ran off.

There was the bow hunter from Bozeman. He spotted a sow and cubs on the far side of a meadow. This griz was having none of it- she wasted no time, covering the length of the meadow in seconds, blasting through the cloud of bear spray and bulldozing him to the ground. She took a few swipes but didn’t stay long; the bear spray probably got to her. The hunter was wounded but able to walk out. He had nearly reached his truck when he heard something from behind. Uh oh. There she was again – she had followed him! She took him down for another round, and again ran off before inflicting life-threatening damage. Capsaicin is sticky business, it lingers for a good long while (as I found out this evening) and that probably saved his life.

Then there were the biologists in Yellowstone – three of them on the trail conducting wolf research when confronted by mama griz and cubs. Safety in numbers is not always applicable when it comes to Mama Bear. She charged right into them, singling out one of the biologists. They all unloaded their bear spray and she did an immediate 180, not to be seen again.

Sprinting in flip-flops

And that brings us to Mama B and her two cubs- Hillary and Anna. It was a beautiful evening in Glacier and we were having a mother/daughter photo shoot in stunning high country. We had met our photographer Kate at Apgar on Lake McDonald, and after fighting about salad (please refer to the Contentious Salad Conspiracy for more info on that) we headed to Lake McDonald Lodge for our second stop of the photo tour.

After leaving Lake McDonald we headed high into the mountains to the Loop, the iconic hair-pin turn on Going to the Sun Road with views of Heaven’s Peak – this is where we got a great shot to commemorate family feuds and forgiveness.

The infamous salad box

We continued further up the road; it was dusky and traffic was light. We nearly had the park to ourselves. Kate had a couple more spots in mind, and directed us to pull off where we would get a few shots at the Westside Tunnel. Hillary was driving – we pulled off, parked and walked back a ways to the spot Kate had in mind.

We lingered awhile; it was beautiful, the sun was setting and the mountains were bathed in a soft glow. More magic. After some time we turned around to walk the 50 yards back to the car. We saw movement, and then –

there she was.

Mama griz and one, maybe two cubs emerging from the trees. They were up the road on the opposite side of the car, a little further from the car than we were, but not by much.

Dang. Who thinks to bring bear spray on a photo shoot? Don’t grizzlies know it’s bad manners to go photo bombing a mother/daughter photo shoot? So now I’m running a dozen exit strategies in my head, and it seems the options are rather limited.

-No bear spray

-Mama bear can definitely reach the car before we can.

-Retreat, stand our ground, try to make it to the car….what to do?

Well.

I don’t have to make the decision. Hillary does. No bear spray? No problem. She just starts sprinting for the car!!! Lord have mercy.

She had always said that she didn’t have to outrun the bear, just outrun the rest of us. Well, she’s outrunning the rest of us alright. Straight at mama and her cubs. So we all start running. I’m trying to catch up to her – she is definitely bear bait at this point and if I have to fight mama griz for MY cub, GAME ON!! But I’m old and slow and wearing flip flops and Hillary is far ahead, outpacing me.

And then the other thing – where is mama griz? She has disappeared, and the cub is just meandering around the road alone. I am very confused…this breaks every rule and template I know of. Is she gonna come blasting out of the brush and take one of us down?? The 50 yards to the car feels like 50 miles and 50 days.

Out of breath with hearts pounding, we make it to the car and jump in. Much relieved and exulting in beating mama bear, we roll ahead to the cub, and with windows down (OMG we are truly dumb tourists!!) we swoon over the cub, taking videos and pictures (well, them, not me. I am still on the lookout for mama and NOT HAPPY about the windows rolled down).

I’ve bumped into bears quite a few times out on the trails – but none of those episodes were quite as adrenaline pumping as this one. I’m glad for God’s protection and as the old adage goes…

all is well that ends well.

****************************************

Hillary and I discussed the Grizzly Sprint recently. She explained that she noticed the sow leave her cub and disappear while we were still standing there wondering what to do. “Ambush” was her first thought -so rather than standing there defenseless, ‘flight’ seemed a better option than ‘fight.’ It proved to be a good call – when mama saw four very loud, raucous ladies rushing down the road toward her she probably thought, “uhhh, I’ll pass…” That’s my best guess, but who knows?? There is no template with Mama Griz.

Our final thoughts on the matter:

To wrap up the story of our very beary evening in paradise:

Not to be undone by this little incident, we continued up the road and took more photos.

It was a crazy, fun time and we made a new life-long friend in Kate. I can’t wait to go back to Glacier and hang out with her again!

We made it back to Apgar and said our good-byes to Kate. It was time to head back to the B&B and get ready for the Tuesday surprise!

Oh – and as we’re driving back Anna says,

“I’m hungry again. Think I’ll make a salad.”

Next up: High Country Surprise

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