Glacier Day 2 – Bear encounter

Posted on September 8, 2014

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The park is unusually full. We had planned on hiking to Grinnell Glacier, it’s the postcard pictures you see of this area. But we estimated the trail would stuffed and it would be like doing the conga, so we skipped it and re-thought our route.

Instead we planned a hike to Swiftcurrent Pass. It is littered with big lakes, waterfalls and tall pines. The walk is flanked by high mountains and thick shrubs and trees. Only after you pass over a few bridges does the elevation climb and you are then hiking up a series of switchbacks.

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It was around 1330 and we had just stopped to look at the mountain side for critters.

“This route doesn’t have as much variety as the other one,”I lamented to B.
“Oh wait till we hit the switchbacks, then you’ll see the views,” he said.
“Sure but right now, we’ve not see much, especially in terms of charismatic wildlife.”

One woman passed us. Trail etiquette is that you acknowledge people and say hello. It can often lead to some funny banter depending on the accents.

“See anything?” I asked eagerly?
“One mountain goat,” she replied un-excitedly.

“Hmmmm….I wonder if the wildlife will come out today,” I thought to myself.

The rain had stopped – finally – and the sun was desperately pushing through. The highs were forecast for about 60. Bears don’t enjoy the heat. Must be all that fat and fur they have to carry around.

We turned on our heels and must have walked for only five minutes, when BAM! The unexpected happened.

B was leading. He turned a corner, stopped and then looked straight back at me with eyes wide:

“BEAR!”
My heart rate increased.
“Holy shit,” I thought.
I did a 180 and retraced my steps very quickly while pulling at my bear spray out of the holster racing through the steps in my head at warp speed:
“Step 2 seen a bear, Step 3 bear seen us, Step 4 remove safety and prepare to fire!”

The grizzly was big according to B. I didn’t get a look at him as I was far too busy moving away gearing up to fire pepper spray and trying not to have a cardiac arrest. Probably just as well. B said he was that quintessential grizzled brown perhaps 450lbs with large shoulders and no radio collar.

Mr Bear been busy easting berries and was casually moseying along the trail when he and B locked eyes. We had walked straight into him with less than 80ft between us. This does happen on trails, and there are signs saying so.

B called out to the bear calmly while we retreated. By the time I had swung around to look at B and what might be following him Mr Bear had sauntered into the berry bushes hidden from sight. It happened in seconds. My heart was thumping so hard I swear anyone close by would have heard it. We scanned the area calling out to let Mr Bear know where we were.

“Did you get look at him?” asked B excitedly.
“NO! I was too busy getting the safety off the spray in case he charged,” I said frustrated as well as somewhat relieved.

For a nano-second I did contemplate getting the “killer” shot (pun intended) but my sensible head told me there really was only one option.

Mr Bear responded with a vocalisation call. It was somewhere between a woof, a grunt and cough. Magical to hear. A sound I won’t ever forget. He clearly wanted back on the trail but a group of elderly ladies with hiking poles had started to come the other way and he was now trapped.

We shouted out to them to let them know there was a grizzly in the bushes and they called out to alert the bear of their presence. They soon caught up with us to get the full story before leaving us while we stopped to break for lunch by a beautiful lake. Here I was debriefed on my behaviour.

I got brownie points for being ready with bear spray asap and not running.
But I got a scolding for turning my back – a massive no-no and for not sticking like glue to B. A bear is more likely to charge a single person than two people. In my defence I argued I thought B was right on my heels. I mean who hangs around for a 450 lb male to get closer?

In hindsight it was obvious how I should have behaved but at the time, when someone is telling you to move away fast, walking backwards is not the first thing that springs to mind. Perhaps if that had been me in front I would have retreated like that, while pee-ing my pants!

The rest of the hike seemed tame in comparison but we did see a Cooper’s Hawk and a Loon (aquatic bird). The story of our bear encounter had began to spread through the valley by the time we hit the switchbacks. People were stopping us to ask, “Did you hear about the griz bear in the valley?”

And we had to say, ‘Yes, that was us!’…and then tell the story over and over. I’m not complaining, it was pretty damn special.

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Posted in: Branching out