by Ben Goldfarb, Yellowstone '09
One of the requisites to living in Yellowstone is a solid repertoire of near-death experiences involving aggressive, predatory, or deranged wildlife. Every park worker has had multiple such scrapes, and judging from the (alleged) frequency and danger of these encounters it’s a miracle that anybody’s still alive.
by Ben Goldfarb, Yellowstone '09
One of the requisites to living in Yellowstone is a solid repertoire of near-death experiences involving aggressive, predatory, or deranged wildlife. Every park worker has had multiple such scrapes, and judging from the (alleged) frequency and danger of these encounters it’s a miracle that anybody’s still alive. Although no animal is innocuous – I’ve heard harrowing accounts of narrow escapes from mountain lions, elk, bison, mule deer, wolverines, porcupines, and even a feisty chipmunk – most of these stories revolve around the grizzly.
There’s an art to telling a good grizzly tale, and that art lies in making the encounter sound as perilous as possible without completely shredding the truth. (Some exaggeration, of course, is expected.) Yellowstone workers have mastered the form – I’ve heard many conversations veer into a rehashing of bear encounters, the participants trumping each other by relating increasingly farfetched and terrifying interactions, until by the end one contestant is armed only with a spork and battling a rabid grizz on a rickety rope bridge above a river of lava. (I’m pretty sure that one’s actually true.)
Every grizz story must contain a few key pieces of information to ensure verisimilitude; attempting to recount a grizz encounter without addressing all these details will expose you to suspicion of fraud. Your handy guide to grizz story-telling:
Size of Bear
- Less than 300 pounds: meh.
- 300-500 pounds: getting respectable.
- More than 500 pounds: awe-inspiring.
- More than 2,000 pounds: you encountered bear in an altered state, adding new element of excitement to story. Give yourself a pat on the back.
Distance from Bear (always stated in yards, for some reason)
- More than 100 yards: yawn.
- 25-50 yards: getting interesting.
- Less than 20 yards: pretty damn dangerous/awesome.
- Inside tent: totally creepy.
Circumstances of encounter (in ascending order of danger):
- Bear sleeping, eating berries, scratching itself.
- Bear standing over carcass, caught by surprise, mother with cubs.
- Bear liquored up and throwing rocks from the Berenstein treehouse.
Don't let the smile fool you: Papa Bear is a mean drunk.
How bear was repelled
- Shouting, waving arms: lame.
- The art of Rhetoric: not flashy, but points for ingenuity.
- Pepper spray: standard.
- Gun: congratulations, our sympathies are now with the bear.
Whenever these bear-measuring contests arose during my first few weeks in the park, I remained conspicuously silent. My closest animal-related, near-death experience occurred last summer when a squirrel ran in front of my bike, inflicting scrapes, bruises, etc. So I couldn’t really contribute much to the conversation without making a fool of myself.
I’m proud to say, though, that I recently had my first grizzly encounter. It’s pretty tame by Yellowstone standards, and not likely to win any Bear-Offs, but I won’t forget it in this lifetime.
I’m hiking alone down the Washburn Spur Trail, an eight-mile track leading from the top of Mt. Washburn to the Glacial Boulder parking lot, in late afternoon. It’s a cold day – snow flurries at the top of the mountain, hail on the way down – and already darkness has begun to leach into the gray sky. I haven’t seen another person in four miles.
View from the top of Mt. Washburn... my bear is down there somewhere.
The trail plunges below the tree line into thick forest. I’m walking fast, trying to beat the snow and the dark, and I’m silent; breath is a precious commodity. I approach an aspen thicket, about twenty yards ahead and to the right of the path, and the trees rattle, too forcefully to be the wind. I can’t see the animal shaking the trees from within the thicket, but some portion of my brain that operates below conscious thought, a relict from a time when humans were prey, flashes bear. There is no doubt.
I have time to take a single step backward – I’m fifty, maybe sixty feet away – before the bear plows out of the thicket. It’s a huge, tawny, hunchbacked grizz, probably 400 pounds, and it’s in no particular rush – it ambles across the path, its massive head swinging and haunches rolling with the insouciance that comes with being its ecosystem's top predator. I don’t think the bear sees me. With one hand I fumble for my pepper spray, with the other I reach for a camera. I’m not panicked, not even particularly worried: there are no cubs, no carcass, and I didn’t startle the bear. I have nothing to fear.
The bear has nearly crossed the trail when it suddenly rumbles to a halt, sniffs the air, and - ponderously, terrifyingly, inevitably - pivots in my direction. Now, well, I have something to fear. I shuffle backward, fingers fluttering to disengage the safety on my pepper spray. The myriad, and often conflicting, advice about dealing with bears passes through my mind; and yet all of it, from making myself appear as large as possible to shouting, seems risky and antagonistic, more likely to provoke the bear than drive it away. The only thing I can think to do is back away slowly and silently - even though the bear obviously sees me, and could close the twenty meters between us in literally two seconds.
The grizz hesitates and then, to get a better look at me (its rival, its quarry, a curio?) stands up on its hind legs. And, holy #%$!, this is a big bear, eight feet tall if it's an inch. Rationally I understand that it's only reared up to satisfy its curiosity, but with a grizzly, "curiosity mode" looks an awful lot like "attack mode," and for only the, say, fourth or fifth time in my 22 years I genuinely fear for my life. In retrospect this sounds melodramatic: Yellowstone tourists suffer only one grizzly-related injury per year, and without any of the classic risk factors present, I'm not in much actual danger. In retrospect.
I didn't take this picture but I can definitely sympathize with the photographer.
At the time, of course, I'm pretty damn frightened. What makes the situation so alarming isn't the relatively slim danger, but my helplessness should the grizz choose to attack. Bears can run over thirty miles an hour, making flight pointless, and my little cartridge of pepper spray seems insufficient to slow the creature down. I realize that if the grizz elects to attack me, I will be, in essence, completely and totally helpless. Such utter powerlessness is rare in a technologically connected, climate-controlled, highly mobile society; perhaps the foreignness of incapability is what makes the feeling so unnerving.
After a period that feels like half an hour but is probably closer to six seconds, the grizz drops to all fours and thunders into the underbrush from whence it came. My camera, alas, is still in my pocket, but my pepper spray is unholstered and armed - a fact that makes for poor Facebook albums but bodes well for my survival instincts. I wait five minutes, allowing my anxiety to drain and be supplanted by awe at my good fortune: few humans will ever interact with such a spectacular animal at such close quarters.
I proceed cautiously down the trail, fracturing the chill air with an improvised incantation intended to ward off any lurking grizzlies:
I know you're out there
But I dare
Walk toward your lair
That may impair
My future ability to receive health care
And without coverage I'd despair
So please don't maul me.
Etc. (For lines 11-168, see Appendix H.)
An ominous rustle down the trail turns out to be two hikers, both in hysterics over my panicky poem. "Seen a grizz, have we?" asks one of the hikers, with a smirk. I tell my story, and they listen respectfully, oohing appreciatively at the appropriate moments.
A 400-pound grizz encountered alone on the trail, at just sixty feet, on its hind legs. I may not win any story-telling contests with this one, but at least I'm qualified to sit at the campfire.
You can see a slideshow of Ben's Yellowstone photos on SCA's blog.