Hellroaring Bear 5/2010
It only took 16 hours to get from southern California to Gardner, Montana. We had left before the sun came up and made it to Gardner by bedtime. I brought my friend Marie with me who had never been to Yellowstone before, she was really excited; that night driving through the west entrance and up to Gardner she had already counted 2 moose, a swan, a fox and several bison. Too bad it was too dark to take decent photos.
The next morning we got up early and headed towards Lamar Valley, the only thing on my list that I wanted to see were wolves. As we left Gardner and drove into the park I had to laugh! We were stopping at every elk and bison along the way which was pretty much every 100 yards. I finally told her that after this afternoon she will be telling me to keep driving, no need to stop, since they are everywhere.
When we got closer to Lamar we pulled off at the Slough Creek camp ground road where a group had gathered at the turn out at the bottom of the hill. I noticed Rick right away and a few other familiar “wolf watchers” and quickly learned that right above the Marge Simpson Tree, behind the aspens, across the creek was the den of three wolves; a grey female and 2 black males. The female had 4 pups that were now about 5 weeks old. At the time when I asked which pack it was Rick had said that they couldn’t be called a pack until the pups actually lived to be a year old, so this was the soon to be “Lamar Canyon Pack.” We must have spent over 3 hours watching through scopes as the female would come in and out of the den waiting for the males to return from hunting. Occasionally a pup would sneak out and she would quickly gather it back up and take it back inside the den. Thankfully a protective mother because a grizzly sow with 2 cubs was seen almost daily making her way down the canyon to the creek below right by the wolves den. A couple hours after we arrived one of the black males arrived with lunch. We had to laugh because his return trip took him by 2 elk herds including a herd of about 10 elk cows standing right outside the den under the aspen trees.
After the activity quieted down with the wolves we drove out into Lamar Valley and into Silver Gate, took a short walk and decided to slowly head back in toward Gardner. I had mentioned to Marie that there was a nice hike that left Hellroaring turn out down to a suspension bridge so she said we should stop and try that hike. I had spent the past year walking and hiking all over southern CA so that I could take some nice hikes here so this was exciting to me and she didn’t need to ask twice. We pulled in and jumped out of the car and as I made it to the bulletin board I remembered I had left my bear spray in the car! One of the things I had been told over and over again by my photography friend was that I was not to hike in Yellowstone without bear spray – ever!! I quickly ran back to the car and grabbed the bear spray and ran back, happy to be moving around.
We hiked about a half mile when Marie’s knee started to bother her, the downhill incline on a torn ACL was not the best thing for it so we decided to turn around and go back to the car to try hiking another area. I noticed a hiker about a mile down the trail on his way back and there was a hiker approaching us as we started to walk back to the car. When he got up to us he stopped and asked if we had seen any bears and I told him no, not here. That is when he simply said, “Well, your gunna” and started to walk away, “there’s one around the bend on the way back to the parking area.” I figured if he had hiked down this way that the bear had to be a pretty good distance away and there really wasn’t anything to worry about. Marie started to hyperventilate and when I asked her what was wrong she explained that she was terrified of bears! Mind you she has never encountered a bear in her life but like most people she was afraid. Fear is a gift, it is what keeps us safe and it should be listened to most the time. I told her we would be fine, but we did need to head back to the car and I would go on ahead to see if there really was a bear and where. She was having a hard time with her knee and walking a lot slower so she would be right behind me.
I was probably about 60 yards from the parking area before I saw the bear. He was actually standing about 20 yards from our car digging through dirt in a little clearing on the other side. I was starting to think that the hiker had been trying to scare us; why didn’t he just say the bear was in the parking lot. I stopped where I was, not wanting to get any closer and watched the big, black bear. A few minutes later Marie came up behind me, grabbed my shoulder, pointed and loudly whispered “bear!!” Her eyes were the size of golf balls. I tried to tell her to just relax and breath and asked where the hiker was that had been coming back up the trail. I had my bear spray in hand and the bear was by no means acting aggressive or even worried about us, but if I knew there was a third person I would feel a lot better. She could only whisper he was behind us. I could tell that in a crisis, Marie was probably not going to be of much help. The bear wasn’t bothered by us at all and continued his digging, walked further away and eventually in his digging was now facing our direction. He knew that we were there and we were far enough away that we were not in his space; I was content just watching him until he decided it was time to leave. Marie on the other hand wasn’t going to be happy until she made it to the car.
Hellroaring Bear 5/2010
I was explaining to her why she just couldn’t make a mad dash to the car which was now probably 30 yards from the bear since it had been moving when the other hiker came up and asked if everything was okay. I pointed out the bear to him and he asked what the bear had done and I explained nothing at all, except that the bear was basically hindering us from getting to our car. He noticed the can of bear spray in my hand and asked if I had tried anything to get the bear to leave and I told him since the bear didn’t seem concerned about us or aggressive I had decided to leave him well enough alone. The hiker smiled and then clapped his hands and hollered out “Hey bear!” in hopes the bear would move farther away from the parking area. Personally I was just fine waiting for it to leave when it wanted, why stress it out by scaring it or making it angry. The bear glanced up, looked at us for a bit and then actually walked towards us a few steps. I looked at the hiker and noticed that he didn’t have any bear spray and wondered if he honestly thought that I would be sticking around to defend him since it was his idea to clap and holler at the bear. The hiker said, “Well, that didn’t work, did it?” and started digging in his pack and I said that obviously this bear hadn’t read the rule book concerning what bears are suppose to do when yelled at by humans. The bear had gone back to digging and I quickly glanced at the hiker to see what he was looking for and noticed a badge in his pack at the same time he found the bear spray he was looking for and I asked if he was an off duty park ranger. He smiled and said yes and took the safety off the bear spray.
I guess if you’re going to have a bear encounter the safest person to be with is a park ranger. The ranger hollered at the bear again and clapped his hands but the bear simply looked up and started to slowly walk our way while digging and searching. Marie was beyond panic by this time and when the bear got to the trail between us and the car, it lied down and started to lick its paws. The ranger shook his head and sighed and I told him if I had the rule book with me, he could toss it at the bear and then I asked if he had any other ideas. We were now closer to the bear than I felt comfortable with and surely closer than the mandatory 100 yards we were supposed to be. I knew we should have just left the bear alone. The ranger then told us what his plan was; we were to walk at a normal pace out farther up along the side of the rock pile and straight to our car while he kept an eye on the bear with the bear spray in between it and us. Marie didn’t wait for the ranger to finish and bolted for the car literally within feet of the bear, her ACL injury forgotten. I don’t think the bear even looked up from licking its paws, I gasped and the ranger and I just stood shocked as we watched her jump into the car and slam the door. The ranger looked back at me and before he could say it, I did, “I will not being doing what she did.” He shook his head and said “Please do not.”
I headed for the rock pile keeping an eye on the bear that was still lying across the trail licking its paws. I still had the bear spray out and ready if needed but the bear hardly acknowledged my presence. The ranger wasn’t far behind me and when we had crossed to the other side of the bear it stood up, looked around, walked to some fallen trees and started digging again. As we got to the car I tried to open the door but Marie still had the doors locked. The ranger laughed and I decided now was a good time to take a few photos. He told me to enjoy the moment because this was probably the closest I’d ever get to a bear. The bear moved on about 5 minutes later and Marie finally unlocked the car door. The ranger said to be careful and have fun and he left. I finally got Marie to start breathing again but she stayed pretty quiet until we got to dinner that night. Then all she would say was that she thought she was going to die, she thought “my Hellroaring bear” was going to kill her.
The photographer I’m friends with called later that night and I told him about my Hellroaring bear and the park ranger. After he got past being worried about us he said he was happy we had been lucky enough to see a bear. He explained that if the bear had displayed any signs of aggression or worse it could have literally cost the bear its life. If a bear becomes a threat to humans the park will have the bear destroyed. If it was a mom with cubs it would be a good chance that the cubs would be destroyed as well, if not by the park they might not be able to survive in the wild alone. This really bothered me. It was us who had trespassed into the bear’s world knowing that was where they lived. It was our choice to chance an encounter with wildlife and had we made a mistake in which the bear reacted in a negative way I didn’t feel it would have been the bear’s fault.
I was more than happy to sit and observe the bear from a safe distance until it moved out of the area on its own so that we could have gotten to the car. It was interesting to me to see what bears did, what they looked for to eat, how they could move objects around, the strength and power that they have. It was also interesting to me what they have learned to tolerate; yelling and loud noises. It made me wonder if that bear would eventually end up in some sort of trouble since he seemed to have lost some of his natural fear of people. Then I started to wonder why the ranger didn’t want to wait on the bear to leave on its own and tried to move the bear away; was he in a hurry or was that what they are told they need to do?
Like the grizzly I had seen the year before this bear was just doing what it had to do to survive, looking for the nutrition that was needed to carry it into the next day. It wasn’t aggressive and kept its distance until we drew its attention to us. I noticed that a bear’s body language is a little like that of a horse and I wanted to learn more. To me an animal speaks with body language and their eyes, this bear never really made eye contact once it got closer to us but from a distance it would look up and was very much aware of us. I felt lucky to have seen the bear that day and relieved there was a park ranger there. I didn’t feel threatened when we were standing farther back down the trail observing the bear but there is something to be said for safety in numbers. I sure didn’t want to be the cause of a bear being destroyed because of my stupidity. I had a lot to learn and I intended to get on it right away.