What would you do if you came face to face with a grizzly bear in the wild? I am not talking about seeing one at a distance; I am talking about looking eyeball to eyeball with one less than fifteen feet away! It happened to me, my wife, Tricia, and our traveling companions, Dottie and Mike, Glacier National Park, Montana. If not for the level head of National Park Ranger Rebecca Merritt, the four of us may have become another chapter in Death in Glacier National Park by Randi Minetor. I am not joking; at approximately 5:10 p.m., Tuesday, August 1, 2017, we came face to face with a grizzly bear, and the only reason I am here to chronicle this event is due to the quick actions of Ranger Merritt.
Our close encounter of the grizzly kind began Monday evening, July 31. Tricia and I were sitting outside our camper talking about our drive that day over the mountains on Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park. The drive was exceptionally beautiful, but it also fit nicely into the “white knuckle driving” category. The road built in the 1920s, climbs over the Montana Rockies to the Continental Divide at Logan Pass and down to Apgar Visitor Center at beautiful Lake McDonald. The views are extraordinary for everyone but the driver who must keep his attention riveted to the narrow twisting road. Drivers cannot afford to sight-see on Going to the Sun Road unless they are looking for a quick pass to the hereafter.
The road hugs the side of the mountains at altitudes of 6,600 plus feet and meanders around hair-pin turns, switch backs, and roadways so narrow truck side mirrors must be folded in against the doors. Failure to fold the mirrors could easily result in tearing the driver side mirror off against oncoming traffic or tearing the passenger side mirror off on rock outcroppings. There was just enough room for two vehicles to pass. Although very doable, the Going to the Sun Road has its challenges, and according to a very nice lady ranger at the St Mary Visitor Center, being a little apprehensive the first time you drive the road is normal. We were exceptionally normal – it scared us to death. Therefore, that evening, we were pumped after completing the drive without incident. After driving the Going to the Sun Road, we were certain we could handle anything Glacier National Park threw our way. Boy, were we in for a surprise!
That evening, Bill and Jane, our camp neighbors, came to visit us from their motorhome – no, condo on wheels – parked across the street from our travel trailer. Bill was curious about a bucket light I had made from a five-gallon bucket. He was amazed at the amount of light such a contraption could produce, so I proudly showed it to him and told him how to make one. From there, the conversation turned to the events of the day. We talked of our trip to the Going to the Sun Road, and they talked of taking a short hike to a lake to watch moose. Up to that point, we had seen elk, buffalo, and a grizzly bear in our travels, but not a single moose, so they had our attention. They told us how to find the lake and the best time to see moose there. After they left, we told Dottie and Mike about the conversation, and the four of us made plans to go moose watching the next afternoon.
Tuesday, August 1, at around 3:30 p.m. we headed for Many Glacier to watch moose. The trail was about a ten-minute hike west of Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in an area of multiple trail heads. We took the trail to Red Rock Falls, but left the trail a few minutes later and walked down to Fishercap Lake where Bill and Jane said they watched moose drink from the lake three afternoons in a row. As they instructed, we brought our chairs, cameras, and binoculars, and because we thought it made us look the part of real trailblazers we also carried our walking sticks. We arrived at the lake around 4:10 p.m., and Tricia and I set our chairs about three feet from the water’s edge under some overhanging pine branches. Dottie and Mike set their chairs two or three feet behind and to the right of us. We settled into our chairs and readied our camera and binoculars for the moose we were certain we would see. We were careful to be as still and quiet as possible to avoid scaring the wildlife, especially moose. Little did we know that “still and quiet” would get us into serious trouble within the hour.
Within fifteen minutes, we saw a buck across the lake (maybe a hundred yards) walk from a thicket to drink at the water’s edge. I watched through my binoculars while Tricia snapped pictures. I remember thinking this is heaven. Life does not get any more peaceful and enchanting than this! After a few minutes, the deer returned to the thicket and disappeared. Maybe, five minutes passed, and I heard Tricia say, “Look,” and start snapping pictures. Across the lake in the same area the buck had appeared, a huge grizzly bear moved from the shadows into the lake clearing. By now there were several other people at the lake pointing and talking loudly, but the bear either could not hear them across the lake or didn’t care. I suspect he didn’t care. He remained in the light of the clearing for a minute before disappearing into the shadows only to reappear minutes later a few feet down the shoreline. From there, the bear slipped into the lake for a swim. After a brief swim, the grizzly slowly climbed back to the shore and ambled back into the shadows and vanished.
Soon afterwards, a second young buck stepped from the edge of the pine forest into the light. The deer appeared to be nervous, which I attributed to a talkative group of people about ten yards east of us pointing across the lake to where the bear had been and the young deer now stood. At that time, I noticed Ranger Merritt at the edge of the lake to my left. She said she had been watching the bear and us from the trees behind us. Her job was to make sure the bear was not a threat to people and people did not do anything stupid like approach a bear. We assured her we had no intention of getting anywhere near a bear. She commended us for staying put, and said she had been showing her uncle around, nodding to a gentleman with a walking stick at her side, when she spotted the bear across the lake at about the same time we did. She spoke to some other people at the lake edge, and satisfied everything was in good order and people and wildlife were both safe, she and her uncle headed back up the trail toward the trail head.
Approximately, four minutes later, I heard a commotion on the main trail to my left and behind us. At first, it sounded like a bunch of kids yelling and making noise, and I remember wondering why parents would allow their children to ruin such a peaceful setting. The young buck across the lake suddenly looked up and momentarily froze before darting into the shadowed undergrowth. Instantly, the noise on the trail was on top of us, and we realized it was Ranger Merritt yelling. None of us could make sense of what she was saying until Mike said, “Bear! She said bear on the trail!” The four of us wheeled around, and the first thing we saw caused the hair to stand on our necks – not one, but two bears were running straight for us. I yelled, “There they are!” Dottie and Mike bolted from their chairs. The grizzlies stopped, apparently surprised by the sudden movement of people in their path. Tricia and I stood and stepped back to the water edge face to face with grizzlies not more than fifteen feet from where we stood. I grabbed my hiking stick (Not that it would have done much good). However, Tricia, being Miss Cool to the Bone, Nothing Bothers Me, stooped below the pine limbs we had been sitting under and took the most fabulous grizzly bear photo of the century. I pulled her toward me to the edge of the water, but by that time she had her picture, and needed no coaxing, guidance, extra weight to tie her down, or anyone in her way to prevent her from getting the hell up the bank and away from the bears. As she would say later, at that point, it was every man for himself.
At that moment, a strange set of events occurred. Ranger Merritt yelled at me not to leave my backpack, so I started back to the chairs we had just vacated. The grizzlies were still on the rise a few feet above us. Tricia yelled at me to leave the backpack, but the ranger yelled again for me to grab my backpack. Ranger Merritt later told us that if a bear even sniffs a backpack, the trail is closed to everyone for at least a week. The closure is a precaution to keep bears from associating backpacks with “easy food” when it sees someone with a backpack on the trail. I did not know that at the time, so the significance of retrieving the bag escaped me. Caught in a crossfire between two strong willed women yelling orders at me – I am very accustomed to one, but two was simply too much to handle – I did something I still do not understand. With my backpack leaning against my chair not three feet away, I took off my favorite hat in the world, my genuine Stetson Royal Flush, and set it in my chair. It seemed like the logical thing to do at the time. I left the hat in the chair and backed away keeping an eye on the bears. Maybe, I thought I was leaving the bears a peace offering; I honestly don’t know. Both women went speechless until Ranger Merritt who by that time was back at the water’s edge looked at me strangely, and said, “Well, alright, leave the backpack.”
In the meantime, by far the scariest part of the whole ordeal was taking place. Our friends who were to our right and slightly above us when everything started unraveling, were in a dilemma. When the four of us first turned to see the two grizzlies literally breathing down our necks, Dottie and Mike were closer to the bears by two or three feet than we were. Somehow, in the commotion they became separated from each other. Tricia, Mike, and I reacted to the bears by moving to our right away from the bears angle of travel, but Dottie was confused and ran to our left directly into the path of the bears. Thankfully, she had the presence of mind to jump behind a tree, which the ranger later said was a good thing. However, her mistake focused the bears attention on her, which placed her in grave danger, but by the grace of God the grizzlies did not go after her.
The bears continued to look around as if disoriented by the flight of humans in their path. The sight of humans on either side of their path temporarily paralyzed them. With coaxing from Mike and Tricia, Dottie retreated from behind the tree to the water’s edge where she quickly made her way to Mike’s side. The moment she left the tree to her husband, the grizzlies broke for the water as if after her. However, they had no interest in her or anyone else in our party. They hit the water and immediately started playing like two playful puppies. The grizzlies swam to the other side of the lake stopping to play two or three times while crossing. Once on the other side they disappeared in the lengthening shadows most likely unaware they had left four rattled and badly shaken humans on the other side of the lake.
The whole ordeal lasted maybe thirty seconds. Ranger Merritt explained to us afterwards the pair of grizzlies were two-year-old siblings the mother had forced out on their own about three months prior to our encounter. Although only two years old, the bears probably weighed between three and four hundred pounds each; they were not small by any stretch of the imagination! According to Ranger Merritt, the bears were never aggressive on the trail where she first encountered them, or even after they stumbled upon our group. They were as surprised and confused as we were! Tricia later read grizzlies have a keen sense of hearing and smell, but poor eye sight, which explained the behavior of the bears that day. Due to a strong westward wind putting us downwind from the bears, they did not smell us. That coupled with our being quietly hidden beneath the pines prevented them from hearing us as well. They did not detect us until they almost ran us over. Personally, I believe they were amused by the frantic humans scrambling for their lives, and did not feel threatened in the least. Seriously, I do not think the bears ever intended to harm us. We just happened to get in the way of their play.
However, that does not make the incident any less serious. Thanks to Ranger Merritt’s warning, we moved just in time to prevent a tragedy or tragedies. Without the warning, the bears would have run directly over the four of us resulting in possible serious injuries due to the size of the bears alone. If a collision had taken place, the bears would have done what any wild animal would have done – become aggressive and defensive, which would have been deadly for one or more of us. The bears were in their home environment; we were the visitors who unknowingly became intruders in their domain. It was our responsibility to watch out for them, not the other way around.
Fortunately, thanks to Ranger Rebecca Merritt, we survived and in the process learned some valuable lessons. First, there is a reason, hiking literature says make a lot of noise when hiking. We went to the lake to see moose, so we thought by being quiet and still, we would increase our chances of seeing one. We forgot moose use the same trails and habitats as bears, so being quiet was not smart. Second, we learned we were visitors to the world of the animals; therefore, it was our responsibility to stay alert to everything around us. We were so transfixed on the animals on the opposite side of the lake that we forgot animals lived on our side of the lake as well. Third, short trails should be treated with the same awareness, preparation, and respect afforded much longer trails. All trails can be potentially dangerous if the proper precautions are not taken. Fourth, never hike in bear habitat areas without bear spray at your side or if possible a ranger, and fifth, never hike any trail, especially in National Parks without first taking part in a ranger led hike or sitting in on a trail wise safety class conducted by a ranger. Failure, to do any of these could possibly put your life and the life of wildlife in danger.
We were lucky and fortunate our guardian angels as well as a well-trained National Park Ranger, Rebecca Merritt, was there to watch over us. THANK YOU Ranger Rebecca Merritt for being there for us Tuesday, August 1, 2017. THANK YOU and all rangers for all you do daily to keep wildlife and foolish humans safe. Your alertness, professional knowledge, and quick thinking most likely prevented a terrible tragedy! THANK YOU for giving us a second chance. You are greatly appreciated, and you will always be a hero in our eyes.
Forever humbled believers, Tricia, Dottie, Mike, and Jack.
©Jack Linton, August 2, 2017
©Photography – Patricia Linton, August 1, 2017