I’ve had a few grizzly bear experiences over the years, mostly in Alaska, but one of my most memorable grizzly bear experiences took place near Yellowstone Park in 1986.
If you’ve been to Yellowstone Park and taken any hikes into the woods, you may recall that the area is littered with grizzly bear warnings. And, if you hang around the locals for a while, you’ll be told all the latest about human and grizzly conflicts including at least a couple stories about people who were killed and eaten.
While shopping, a store clerk reminded that during the previous summer a lone woman camper had been killed and eaten by a grizzly, but of course it was an isolated case.
I don’t remember exactly what other stories I was told in 1986, but there were others.
As I prepared to take an overnight hike to a destination called Avalanche Lake, I stopped in at a USFS office and it was suggested to me by one of the ranger types that I put bells on my shoes, aptly called bear bells. I also recall another Montana native telling me about finding little bells in the piles of bear scat he found near his home.
I couldn’t imagine hiking around in the hills listening to the constant jingling of little bells, so I elected to hike silent.
Prior to this hike, I had made many hikes with friends and camped out many times, but almost always in the company of other hikers. There’s something about having company that gives one a sense of security. Hearing so much about grizzlies was giving me a case of the willies, but I was determined to go it alone on this very simple six-mile hike and overnight stay.
Having property worried about bears, I loaded my pack and arranged for a nearby group of campers to watch over my excess gear, and headed for Avalanche Lake. In addition to the six miles of hiking would be about 2,000 feet of climbing. I left the trailhead at approximately noon so there would be plenty of time to complete the first leg of the trip before dark.
I was into nature and stopped to sketch a yellow-rumped warbler and also some glacier lilies. The lilies were quite beautiful with their yellow flowers. Seeing them was an invitation to test my sketching skills, which were limited.
A man and a woman came hiking down the trail in my direction. They stopped to chat and informed me that the bulbs of the glacier lilies could be eaten. Naturally I pulled out my knife and tried one. It wasn’t bad.
Eventually I realized that it was getting late, and the trail was getting steeper as I approached the lake. A rapid cloud buildup soon produced large rain drops and I realized that I’d better set up my tarp, or get wet.
I was fairly close to my destination, but the rain was making a decision for me. I’d be spending the night by the side of the trail.
As lightning flashed and thunder echoed off the nearby mountains, I spread my tarp and tied it between several trees to provide shelter from the heavy rain. With my gear safely stashed under the tarp, I found a dry spot under a large pine. I built a small fire and cooked some brown rice for dinner. Nearly paranoid about bears, I made sure that I didn’t get food on my clothes and hung my small bag of food out of reach. I climbed into my sleeping bag, laid down under the tarp and listened to the lively storm.
The heavy cloud cover eliminated all light sources except for the bright flashes of lightning. It was not peaceful and all the grizzly bear stories I’d heard over the past couple days were replayed in my mind. Music from my harmonica soothed me and finally I drifted off to sleep as the storm continued to pound the mountains around me.
Once I finally slept, it was a deep and satisfying sleep, reflecting the workout I’d had the day before.
I don’t know how long I was out before it happened, but it must have been at least a couple hours before I huge crash from my right brought me suddenly to the sitting position while I screamed in bloody terror.
I was sure that I had met the badest grizzly on the mountain. Fortunately it was not the grizzly at all, but a large fir tree that had lost it’s footing in the saturated soil and landed on the ground only a few yards from where I slept. Fortunately, it had not landed directly on top of me and ended my life right there underneath my tarp.
Having survived the “grizzly” attach, I pulled out my harmonica and serenaded myself back to sleep one more time.