We had camped West of Glacier National Park by about fifty miles, halfway between Kalispell and Whitefish in a National Forest campground and nine miles back, off a Forest Service road. Far enough back that cell phone reception was non existent. A rare thing in the twenty-first year of the twenty-first century.
Our camp sat in a valley surrounded by pines and very little ground cover, giving one sufficient shade during the unexpected heat wave the NorthWest was under going in June. I liked this camp because you could see fifty yards in any direction, and in some cases further. We had scouted another camp site some forty miles away, earlier in the day and another lake ago that I did not like. There the pines had been almost claustrophobically close to one another, and brush that ranged from three to six feet high. Despite being located along a beautiful mountain lake, in the far northern reaches of the lower forty-eight, I did not like it. I did not like it in a strategic sense. A career spent making threat assessments you learn to weigh various potential outcomes, while also understanding that living risk adverse is no way to live.
I had once read of an account of a couple of Russian lumberjacks somewhere deep in the Taiga. They had been walking through a particular thick forest when a Brown bear emerged, took hold of one of the men and simply disappeared with him. Later when they recovered the various pieces of him, the most predominant part they found were his pants that had been torn from him as he was dragged through the forest.
Montana, is of course what we commonly refer to as “bear country”though much of the U.S Missouri is technically bear country. Strong conservation efforts having made great strides to help return Ursus Americanus , or the American Black Bear to thriving numbers in much of their original range, but when one says “bear country” in America, we mean only one thing. Grizzly Country. Ursus Arctos Horribillis, named in the Latin for literally being horrible, by naturalist George Ord.
Being something of a common sense individual, and having been in “big bear” country more than a few times, I am fully aware that most people who live there and never see or interact with one, ranchers aside of course. So while the topic of Grizzlies between Myself, the Wife, and a certain ten year old Daughter whom I shall refer to as Utilivu*, came up often on our annual pilgrimage westward, as well as in camp, we didn’t hide out in our little Rockwood Roo, anticipating death by fur at any given moment. Like all responsible outdoorspeople we made sure the campfire was drowned out before bedding down. We locked the cooler up in the truck per campsite mandate (this being my least favorite activity) . More than a couple of nights I was tempted to slide it under the camper, and invite McDuff to lay on, but one knows how well Macbeth faired after such an invite.
That all said, while we did not live in constant concern of an encounter with a massive bruin, a .45 revolver of one of two makes rode tucked in a Barranti Leather holster inside my waistband, loaded with Buffalo Bore’s finest loads.
The first story I remember reading about a Grizzly attack was the one that attacked Game Warden Lou Kris in Montana back in the mid to late 1980s. He ended the fracas with his 357, but not before the bear chomped on his knee hard enough that it broke his leg.
Grizzly Bears are a lot like Great Whites. Their mere name elicits any variety of response, let alone a certain healthy fear of them. You know the likely hood of being killed or even attacked by one is incredibly low, even when you place yourself in their environ, but it’s never zero.
Back in 2017, we were camped out in our big 12×12 Cabelas “Green tent”, North of Ketchum, Idaho well into the Sawtooths. I was told this was “technically bear country” but So & So had lived there thirty years and had never seen a Grizzly. With the sunsets being practically at ten p.m. in the early summer the stars didn’t truly show themselves until almost 1am. The women in bed, and dozing off at the fire I was awakened by something crashing through the brush on the hillside behind our camp. Surely, it was an elk, because So & So had never seen a Grizzly in his thirty years of living in the area. I pulled the .30-30 lever gun that hung by the sling off the back of the camp chair, listened for a few moments, searching with the big flashlight, then the infrared monocular made by Leupold to no avail. I conveniently also decided to go to bed. Rifle along side my leg and my Ruger .45 Flat-top loaded quite literally for bear, on my chest.
A few weeks later we were back home, the mountains now out of our visual range, though not out of our spiritual, I sat reading the happenings around Ketchum, and longing for mountain life. I caught a small headline.
“Bear prompts campground closures at North Fork”
Apparently Idaho Fish & Game had to remove a troublesome Grizzly from the area after it raided the campground, and “grabbed the foot of a camper sleeping on the ground”. The article felt obliged to mention that the woman was not injured nor was the sleeping bag damaged, though it did have saliva on it.
It also turned out to be where we had been camped. So much for So & So’s thirty years of inexperience.
This year after leaving Montana in early July, I heard the ill fated story of the California woman who was dragged from her tent and mauled to death by a four hundred pound Grizzly. Camped out in town none the less. She and her companions had broken the cardinal rule of camping in bear country.
They had food in their tent.
I suppose one could take complete umbrage to this. Citing that it’s not proper to call out the deceased for their transgressions. None the less, her death came from a result of poor decision making, and a simple one easily avoided. Perhaps we don’t think it “fair” I suppose. The bear doesn’t know what fair is.
The three of us, talked about this at dinner one night. Utilivu noting that she had this fear in the back of her head the whole time we were camped in Montana, what if there was a bear stalking her. My wife rolled her eyes and remarked “you think the bear is a ninja with night vision goggles on constantly hunting and stalking?” I pointed out, that, yes in fact, that is exactly what the bear is.
Years back, fishing a slough for catfish around sunset, my buddy and I heard the howls of coyotes incredibly close to us in a nearby field. Deciding he would go and investigate he inadvertently walked right into the middle of the pack as he came out of some tall cane stalks. Hearing his yelling I walked out to see what was going on, only to find four or five coyotes running in a circle around him, yapping and barking. I fired a shot from the black powder revolver I was carrying and it proved to be enough. The coyotes scattered and ran, leaving he and I looking at each other as if to say “did that really just happen?”.
We take for granted the idea that a predator is always a predator, as they have to be. The coyote, the bear, the wolf, the hawk, the owl. They are always hunting in order to eat. In order to provide sustenance for themselves or the pack. We visit. We hike, we climb, we hunt, we camp, but we visit.
The Bear is always the Bear.
* ( Utilivu : those of you who are fans of novelist Jack Carr, this is more akin to calling a big man “Tiny”)
3 thoughts on “In the Big Country”
Well done Sir! And being from the PNW myself with some scary bear and wildcat run-ins, correct on all points.
Excellent essay. Thanks for sharing.
A cautionary note on coyotes. I live on the eastern edge of Silicon Valley. There is a hillside cattle range across the street, that a pack of coyotes hunt at least once a week. They are shy, work as a group only at night, and mostly are the size of a small to medium dog. I’m guessing that it is the smaller ones that make the driving noises for hunting, as the voices are fairly high pitched.
However, I got a look at the pack leaders one morning around 2:00 am. Whoa! There were 4 of them with the size and build of a LARGE German Sheppard, with the coloring and tail of a coyote. It looks really odd. I’m estimating 100+ lbs easily. That group is not what you would want to tangle with. I dragged a smaller one out of the roadway that was killed by a car one early evening, and that one was probably 70 lbs, and notably smaller than the alpha group.
I would guess that this is not the only pack that has adopted a stray pet for DNA enhancement.
There was a female that used to climb the rear fence to eat figs fallen on the ground about lunchtime. I startled her one evening, and she climbed that 7ft wood fence like a cat. She hung around for a year, and then disappeared.