I’m walking down a dusty trail above a flat bottomed valley, down below Autumnal colors jump out from a sea of coniferious green, a river of crystal clear, ice cold water meanders and snakes it’s way between gravel banks fringed with young willows, soaring above are snow capped mountains and, for now at least, the sun is shining.
It’s a rare day and I’m playing music. Elbow’s “little fictions” seems the perfect accompaniment to such a scene and my spirit soars with each chord, this is the first time I’ve heard it and I’m sure I’ll remember it forever. However, there’s a reason my music is playing on loudspeaker – I’m following a fresh set of Grizzly tracks, a Mom and her cub, and she’s got a rear paw print thats the size of a dinner plate and a stride bigger than mine. This animal is enormous and if I see her before she sees me, there could be trouble. I’m walking into the wind, which means that this scent I’ve spent the last one hundred (or three thousand?) miles creating is only for the benefit and enjoyment of my fellow hikers, who are some way behind me. A grizzly has a better sense of smell than a blood hound and, whilst mostly vegetarian in diet, they can and do eat meat when the chance presents itself, and whilst very rare for them to attack a human, if the bear is stressed or hungry this can vastly change their behaviour.
There are a number of reasons why these animals known for their unpredictability might be a little more cantankerous right now and that’s partly why I’m on edge – this area, the southern Bob Marshall wilderness, along with one million other acres in Montana, was hugely affected by wildfires and as such the bears were displaced from their habitats and forced into pastures new. As they are only a few weeks from hibernation they are normally much more active this time of year anyway as they pile on the last few pounds to see them through winter, foraging from some 400+ plants that make up their diet, along with the odd bit of carrion or lucky kill (or unlucky hiker). To add to these displaced, stressed and hungry bears list of problems, early September saw 3ft of snow fall and, each week, more storms have arrived piling more snow at elevation and burying even further their food.
Now, you might say that to put yourself in the path of one of these animals would be suicide or an act of lunacy but the site of her prints actually fills me with awe and wonder. I’m ecstatic that she’s out here, excited to maybe catch a far away glimpse of her, buoyed by seeing her prints and huge piles of berry filled scat. This is and, hopefully, always will be their land and they are as much a part of it as the mountains and rivers. It is richer for their presence and, whilst the idea of coming face to face with seven hundred pounds of maternal instincts backed up with rippling muscle, teeth and claws five inches long gives me the willies as much as it would any sensible individual, it is no reason to stay at home.
As with any element of life, there are things you can control and things you can’t and one of the great joys of undertaking a journey of this magnitude is that at some point, if not daily, something will happen that is out of your control, be it weather, animal encounter, injury, act of God or Alien invasion, it is at these moments, when the shit really hits the fan and the plan goes out of the window, that you really learn who you are and what you are made of. It is at this moment that the “trip” becomes a bonefide adventure.
My first grizzly encounter and only the fourth bear encounter of this trip came a day or so after when I was descending to Gunsight Lake in the early afternoon. A bear had come up the trail and walked off to the right, leaving prints in the fresh snow, after a half mile of following its track I saw it had looped back across the trail and just then a sudden explosion in the undergrowth had me frozen in my tracks. I get used to spooking deer, elk and grouse and this thing was making a noise like no other, branches cracking as it burst out in front of me. Within a second I’d noted a few things, my bear spray was already in my hand, safety off, the sky was full of large squawking crows, Gayle already had her camera out, and an Adolescent 400lb Grizzly was barreling into the woods across my path and in its mouth, a huge ribbon of flesh thar bounced as it ran. It dropped the meat and it ran another ten yards before realising. At this point it stopped to face me, looking at me, then back to where it had dropped the meat, it looked puzzled like a dog caught doing something naughty and then bolted into the woods out of site. I was very aware that we were standing in between it and its meal and I didn’t want to hang around for it to come back, our friend and previous grizzly encounter survivor was just behind and I rudely told him to hurry the f#$@ up and we made our escape unscathed.
I was pumped. It was the most beautiful animal I have ever seen. I quickly snapped a picture of its tracks, if you look closely you can see a blood spot from the meat it was carrying. Bear tracks were everywhere for the next four miles and we kept a tight group, I was so excited and we made alot of noise to warn any more in the area of our presence.
So if things had turned out differently i wonder how i would fair if or when I find myself staring down the business end of an advancing Grizzly? I have no idea. I imagine I will literally shit myself lifeless and expire into a heap on the ground, but maybe previously untapped instincts will take effect and I’ll suddenly find myself able to jump 20ft into the air, run at 35mph or climb swiftly and nimbly to safety up a tree. I hope to never have this interaction, but if I do, I will bear no grudge to the bear. It will react to me in the only way it knows how… with animalistic instinct. It will be a sight to see and, if I walk away, a story to tell but the interesting thing is that it probably won’t factor into the bear’s day at all – It was simply being a bear.