Prior to moving to this remote mountain community, I was a city dweller who feared muggings. My imaginings of urban peril all fell away when we arrived in Teton Valley. At first, I was able to relax. This was not Minneapolis (give me all your money, eh?), or St. Louis (give me all your money, stupid), or Madrid (dame todo tu dinero, turismo) for that matter. I had to remind myself that if I left my vehicle unlocked overnight, it wasn’t anything I should lose sleep over. Then I came to realize; there are other things to fear in these wilderness adjacent parts.
Number one amongst these dangers (charging mooses, sneaky cougars, fierce wolves and angry badgers) are grizzly bears. Let’s set aside the fact that there are black bears roaming our hills as well. Yes, they present a danger too, but it’s the grizzly that more readily strikes terror in the heart of, well, me.
Warnings are issued during our short spring: heed the griz emerging from hibernation. They are cranky and most of all, hungry. Summer stretches out, and by that time, you have been schooled on the fact that if you surprise one while walking through the forest, there are ways to avoid being attacked. If the bear is feasting on a kill and this happens, attack is very probable. If the bear is a sow and has cubs with her, attack could well be eminent (sows with cubs being responsible for 70% of fatal injuries to humans).
Fall arrives. This season brings the grizzly stage of hyperphagia. During this period, in which they are preparing for a long winter’s nap, they can gain up to 400lbs. They become eating machines. Imagine a great white shark with legs. There ya go. Oh don’t forget – they are hungry and cranky.
Bottom line, grizzlies can be surly creatures, whether they have just rolled outta bed, are going about their summer activities, or preparing for yet another period of winter slumber.
How would one ward off a mugger? Pepper spray is a good option. How would one ward off a grizzly? Well… more or less the same method. When hiking or camping in our mountains, if you do it without bear spray, you are not prepared. And if you think that running away is an option, think again.
Rather than escaping, you become more enticing to the bear. The thought process might equate to this:
Human: Oh shit. It’s a bear. RUN.
Bear: Oh great it’s a human (rolls eyes with exasperation). Wait. It’s running. It wants to be eaten. YAY.
That bear wants to give chase. Oh boy, do they just love the thrill of chasing down a meal. And guess what? Top of the food chain, gigantic grizzly crazy pants, can run fast. They will close a gap on their prey in no time flat. It’s quite phenomenal. But how can you help it? In times of stress, it’s fight or flight, and your legs will move beyond your own control.
Take Teton Valley resident Tim Henderson. His experience with a grizzly has been well documented. He did indeed survive. But the thing that has always resonated with me is Tim’s admitting that he could not control his legs.
Having lived here longer than we have, Tim had been plenty exposed to the many seasonal warnings – or simple common sense warnings. He knows “don’t run.” But to hear Tim tell it, he had no choice in the matter. He told me, “In my head I kept saying to myself ‘don’t run, don’t run’. But my legs didn’t listen. I ran anyway.” The bear chased him down and proceeded to chew on Tim’s skull. From what I understand, he was somewhat scalped. Today he has a full head of wild hair that conceals the scars.
The bear was destroyed, stuffed and put on display at the Teton Valley Museum. It was an aging bear, and I suppose it couldn’t be trusted in its old age not to try this cagey behavior again. It’s age was a factor in Tim’s survival. Had the bear been younger, its teeth much sharper, there is a good chance Tim would not have been so lucky.
I’ve seen exactly three grizzly bears in the wild. Two in Yellowstone, feasting near the road on overturned logs, which I am certain were coated in some kind of writhing, tasty grub. My husband Tim got out of the car with the rest of the turistas and managed to pull off a camera shot of the action. When reviewed, the frame was filled with grizzly fur. He got the bear from the back, and quickly returned to the vehicle. I never got out of the car.
The memory of the other grizzly I have seen is much more vivid. We were up South Leigh, rolling slowly along on a forest service road. I remember looking ahead in the narrow dirt road that rose on a slight grade before us and thinking, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that were bear scat?” As I turned my head from the pile, we passed an opening in the trees. A grizzly bear was running away from us.
He had already run down a good long hill that broke from the tree line into a wide open space. He had covered quite a distance, and was about to run up another hill and into a thick stand of trees, when he stopped, turned, and looked back at us. Even with the distance between us, I felt like eye contact was being made. The hair rose on my skin. This was a magnificent site. He was light brown, his coat was thick, and he was a beautiful healthy specimen. And he was right where he needed to be.
That encounter solidified further my very realistic approach to hanging out in these here woods. Follow the rules. Make noise, travel in groups of three or more, and carry bear spray. When camping, store your food properly, and anything else with an enticing aroma. I’m talkin’ deodorant, toothpaste, and your travel sized Axe body spray. Just because you are camping in a developed area (Yellowstone), and you actually parked your car on asphalt does not mean the threat is not real.
from there to here.
During our courtship, Tim and I talked on the phone like fiends to one another. He was in Minnesota, and I was in St. Louis’ south side. I was near The Hill, but not quite in it. My apartment abutted a sketchy neighborhood, where any person in their right mind, especially a woman, should not be walking alone at night. I worked very hard to be unapproachable. I carried pepper spray and would hold my car keys in my hand in a defensive manner while walking from vehicle to building. The best offense is a good defense, after all.
During one evening conversation, a background noise interrupted Tim’s train of thought. “What the hell is that?” he declared with some alarm.
“I think it’s a police helicopter,” I responded with a degree of nonchalance. “They’re probably looking for someone in the park across the street.” Silence from the other end of the line. “It’s a really big park.” The silence continued. Then in his typically eloquent way he simply said, “What the fuck.”
Let’s review. I have had my purse snatched only once – in Barcelona. I had my car broken into once in Seattle and once in St. Louis. I experienced a Peeping Tom in good ol’ Everett, Washington. I have been more city mouse than country mouse, and my feet have walked through the streets of Seoul, Madrid (and multiple European cities)… and beyond that, Seattle, St. Louis, Minneapolis. I will have cities in my future, I believe. I have those survival skills.
But I gotta be honest.
I’ll take the bears.
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