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Trip of a Lifetime:  Face to Face with a Grizzly Bear

Grizzly

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.

JL

©Jack Linton, August 2, 2017

©Photography – Patricia Linton, August 1, 2017

The Trip of a Lifetime:  Wall Drug and Badlands National Park

Our second stop on Our Trip of a Lifetime was Wall, South Dakota where we planned to visit Wall Drug Store, Badlands National Park, and The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.  Although we enjoyed the travel and camping up to this point, we were excited to finally be getting into the meat of our destinations.  Prior to the trip, everyone we talked to about places to visit along Interstate 90 in South Dakota recommended Wall Drug Store and Badlands National Park as neat places to visit although a few people voiced some reservations about the Badlands.  To my surprise, very few people had heard of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, so it became of special interest to our group.

The first of the three we visited was Wall Drug Store.  When we were within about a hundred miles of Wall, South Dakota, we began to see billboards marketing the drug store with such phrases as “As seen on the Today Show,” “As featured in the New York Times,” and “Get your free ice water at Wall Drugs.”  Our anticipation grew!  The drug store began in 1931, and over the years, it expanded to seventy-six thousand square feet of shopping area.  Picturing a traditional old-time drug store setting with a soda fountain counter and a plethora of novelty items to explore, I couldn’t wait to see the place.  Boy was I in for a surprise!

There may have been a time when Wall Drug Store was a traditional old-time drug store complete with sassafras root beer, penny candy, and homemade ice cream, but those days were long gone by the time of my visit.  Basically, I found a string of shops filled with overpriced clothing and trinkets made in China.  The place was what we call a strip mall back home.  The one redeeming factor was the walls and corners of the shops were decorated with unique displays and antiques ranging from a stuffed grizzly bear to a cowboy fortune telling machine.  The wives loved the place, but other than getting free ice water, I say stop at this mini shopping mall disguised as a drug store if you must, but if you really want to see the good stuff, drive out to The Badlands National Park and the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.  If you like nature and history that is so real it will awe you and maybe even scare you, these two places should not be missed.

I am probably being too hard on Wall Drug, but it was simply too commercial for me.  It reminded me of Disney without the Disney magic (again maybe too harsh) – little more than a highly marketed tourist trap.  However, our visit to The Badlands National Park made everything good once again.  I found the Badlands simply breathtaking!  One thing I have discovered about national parks is that each is unique, and unique certainly describes The Badlands National Park.

Located in Interior, South Dakota, a short drive south of the town of Wall, The Badlands National Park is not to be missed.  Rugged, dry, desolate – its striped layers of brown, pink, yellow, and red rock tell stories of millions of years.  Once a prehistoric seabed, the wind worn spires allow you to look back in time when brontotheres (a rhinoceros type animal) and sabretooth tigers roamed the earth.  Set in direct contrast to the South Dakota plains surrounding it, the area may be called the Badlands, but its beauty speaks otherwise.  The Badlands of South Dakota are a tribute to the forces of nature and its resulting beauty.  The Park is a MUST SEE!  Walk the trails, many of them boarded and easy to walk, climb the towering rock formations (be careful), and take time to simply look and imagine this place a million years ago.  There is no “made in China” here.  This is pure America!

From the Badlands, we journeyed a couple of miles up the road to the Minuteman Missile Historic Site.  What we found there was one of the most fascinating adventures anyone in our group has ever experienced.  The tour of the once top secret underground command center, the center from which the fate of the world sometimes lay in the hands of twenty-year-old kids (trained young men, but kids nevertheless), was eye opening, frightening, and one of the most remarkable tours I have seen.

 

Next Blog:  The Trip of a Lifetime:  The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

JL

 

©Jack Linton, July 20, 2017

The Trip of a Lifetime

After six months of planning and preparation, the time has finally arrived.  My wife and I are taking a long awaited get-a-way; she calls it The Trip of a Lifetime.  Our travel trailer and truck are serviced and packed, the house sitters are in place, people to take care of the pool and lawn have been secured, and the bank account has been depleted.  Our kids think we are too old and feeble to completely comprehend the magnitude of the trip we are undertaking, and the grandkids cannot understand why we are not taking them.  Although we have assured our children repeatedly we are not too decrepit to take a two-month camping excursion, they roll their eyes and say, “Dad, have you thought this through?  Sometimes people your age do crazy things;” “Mom, ya’ll don’t have a clue how to use an ATM;” or “We’re sure the two of you will have a great time, but where’s the will just in case?”

They are right; we may be a dime short of crazy and clueless about an ATM, but I am confident the great explorers Lewis and Clark also did not have a clue about an ATM and were called crazy when they set out to explore the northwest.  Like those trailblazers, this will be our first trip to the northwest United States, and like them, every turn will represent a new adventure for us.  If all goes well, our trip will take us north to the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Big Sky country of Montana, to Calgary, Canada, northwest to Banff National Park, back south to Glacier National Park, and Yellowstone National Park.  That is just the first 3,500 miles.  Where we go beyond Yellowstone, we haven’t a clue.  We may head southeast through Colorado and Kansas, or we may chase rainbows and UFOs to Roswell, New Mexico and beyond.  The only thing we are sure about is, the good Lord willing, we will come home eventually.  As for a will, the kids are being a little presumptuous in my opinion, besides we sank everything we own into this trip.

I have waited for this trip for fifty-three years.  When I was ten years old, I remember a school friend, Rocky, telling the class about his summer camping trip to Yellowstone National Park.   He talked to us about boiling water that shot hundreds of feet into the air, a grizzly bear studying him from the trees bordering his campsite, buffalo that stopped traffic for an hour, and mountains capped by snow in mid-summer.  Hooked, I told my parents, being careful to leave out the boiling water and grizzly bear, about this fantastic place Rocky had visited.  I did my best to sell them on friendly buffalo and mountains with snow cone peaks, and I believe my father was hooked and ready to go, but my mother said, “No!  We cannot afford it.”  Desperate, I blurted, “Tents don’t cost much.  We could camp like Rocky and his family.”  That was maybe the greatest blunder of my youth.  My mother was a beautiful lady – prim and proper – and although she worked hard, she had never dropped a bead of sweat in her life, and she was not about to do so camping in a tent.  “Over my dead body,” she said, and that was the end of the camping discussion and as it turned out the Yellowstone discussion as well.  I have often wondered if things may have been different if I had kept my mouth shut about camping.  The closest I got to Yellowstone after that was National Geographic and pictures of grizzly bears and buffalo my teacher gave us to color in class.  At the time, I despised her; I felt she was intentionally trying to rub salt in my wounds.

This trip is my wife’s dream as well.  I don’t know if there was a Rocky in her life to inspire her, but regardless, I have never seen her more energized and excited.  She has taken on the persona of a “town crier” excitedly sharing with anyone who will listen every detail of the trip.  By now, all our children, grandkids, and friends know the color of every outfit she plans to bring and wear, know the menu by heart for each meal, know the locations by city, state, latitude and longitude of every picture she plans to take, and know how many times per week she plans to do laundry.  As for me, one pair of shorts and jeans as well as a couple of t-shirts and pairs of underwear are all I need; you waste less time if you wash a t-shirt and a pair of underwear in the sink and dry them on the back of the camper as you travel.  Fortunately for me, stately and dignified was not high on the compatibility list when we married.

For years, we talked about this trip, but always found an excuse to put it off to next year.  Of course, life has a funny way of pushing by several “next years” before you know it.  Finally, we woke up one morning, not as young as we once were, and realized the possibility of running out of “next years” was too close to home for comfort.  We had some decisions to make.  We could hang around the house and help our kids plan how to make our home of thirty years more elderly friendly and accessible when we were no longer capable of climbing the stairs, we could practice for the retirement home, or we could thumb our nose at age, get off our butts, and take the flipping trip we should have taken years ago.  We decided to take the trip!

Once we decided the trip was a go, my wife started planning, packing, and talking.  She told everyone where we were going, until one day, she mentioned it to some good friends who decided to join us.  They had recently bought a new travel trailer and truck and were anxious to get on the road.  We were absolutely thrilled to have them join us on the trip.  Since our kids had stopped coming to see us for fear of having to listen to their mother talk about the latest trip menu or “ooh” and “aww” at the latest gadget I had purchased or built for the truck and camper, it was good to finally have some likeminded geriatric souls (seniors only in the eyes of our kids) to talk to about the trip.

The only downside was our planning became competitive.  In a very short time, the trip wardrobes for both wives doubled.  Heaven forbid they would ever be caught wearing the same color, style, or brand of shoes or clothing at the same time.  As a result, the bunk area of both campers had to be re-purposed to provide space for their wardrobes.  However, to be fair, I must admit my good friend and I became a little competitive ourselves.  When he bought a gadget for his truck, I one-upped him with a bigger gadget for my truck, and of course, he would counter with a fancier gadget for his truck, which in turn led me to reciprocate with another blockbuster gadget for my truck.  The dashboards of our trucks now look like the cockpit of the space shuttle.  There are monitors for the GPS, monitors for dashcams, monitors for rear view cameras, monitors for the monitors, and wires so thick it looks as if the dashboard is overgrown with black vines.

But, all is okay; all is better than good.  Before we leave, we may be forced to have a fire sale to lighten the camper and truck load, but if I must put a harness and blinders on my wife to help pull the camper, we are going on this trip.  Next year has finally come for our Trip of a Lifetime.  The family thinks we are crazy, but they are behind us one-hundred percent, and we are living and sharing the dream with good friends who we pray are still good friends by the end of the journey.  We are blessed with a family, friends, the means, and the health to make such a trip possible – life is good.  In a few days we will head north, so keep us in your prayers, we’ll see you somewhere along the six or seven-thousand-mile mark.

JL

©Jack Linton, July 5, 2017