Tony Vagneur: Bear run-ins not anything to take lightly

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It was a great campsite, they said, far inland in Glacier National Park, with campground amenities such as a table, fire ring and logs to sit on. These women were from the Bois Forte, used to traveling in wolf country and no strangers to spending nights in the woods, even when forced to rely upon prearranged accommodations. They built a great fire, drank some wine while they cooked dinner, had great conversation as firelight is wont to encourage and eventually decided to turn in.

The forest around them looked black from where they lay, under the bright stars above, the flickering reflection from the fire limiting how far they could see into the blackness. Their food and the clothes they had cooked in were stored in bear-resistant containers, hung high in a tree. They were tired. Grizzly bears. Who knows? People get killed sleeping in campgrounds. It’s just talk, right? Being unfamiliar with grizzly country, they picked up their sleeping bags and slept in their vehicle that night.

Their apprehension is understandable. On a Heli-ski trip in the Revelstoke area (the largest concentration of grizzly bears in North America), skiing to the left of everyone’s tracks and all alone, I misjudged what looked like a great cliff jump and ended up landing on an uphill slope at the bottom of it. Poles unreachable, skis above my head, my body on a steep incline toward total darkness in the abyss below, every movement on my part caused the snow to slide further under the overhanging ledge, carrying me with it. The more I slid, the steeper it got, and I imagined a hibernating grizzly sow with cubs down in there somewhere, already stirring at my clumsy attempts to free myself.

Good fortune was with me – another member of our group had been following my tracks and being somewhat wiser, had given the cliff a wide berth, but noticing my tracks didn’t come out the other side, stopped to take a look. Very fortunate for me – she helped me get free of the disaster I had created for myself. Thank you, Terri.

The scientific name for the grizzly bear, Ursus arctos horribilis, gives a clue to its dangerous reputation. The silver-tipped devils kill and maim people, livestock and small game, but it’s possible their repute is based as much on storytelling as actual reality. How one reacts to a grizzly confrontation likely is totally related to the eventual outcome.

The first rule of thumb — leave them alone and keep at least 100 yards between you and them. If you surprise a grizz, especially one with cubs, be prepared for the fight of your life. If attacked, be brave enough to play dead — that may make the difference. Bear spray and high-powered firearms are recommended, but keep in mind that if your protection, such as bear spray or a firearm, is more than an arm’s length away, you probably won’t have time to reach or use it to fend off a surprise attack. And most attacks are surprises. Even if you’re lousy at it, sing a little as you go down the trail in grizzly country, or occasionally clap your hands, giving the bear a chance to avoid you. Bear bells don’t seem particularly effective. If all else fails, fight back as hard as you can.

There aren’t any grizzly bears in this neighborhood, so the authorities say. My horse, my dog and I had a run-in with a bear a few years ago that I swear could have been a grizzly. He was huge, dark blond, much larger than the black bears I’ve seen around here, and the tell-tale hump above the shoulders was quite evident. As were the beady little eyes and rounded ears.

We saw each other at almost the same time, about 20 yards apart, and we both stopped. Calmly looking my direction, he (it was a male) remained stationary, while my dog, a border collie, found refuge in an indentation in the ground and screwed himself down tight to avoid detection. While I was trying to digest and enjoy the scene, my horse began to take exception to the scenario, clearly nervous, and was becoming unruly. I didn’t necessarily want to be on the ground if the bear attacked, and the decision was made to move on before we had a wreck. The bear took that as his cue, as well, and moved off into the brush that surrounded the small clearing we occupied. It should be noted that the three of us have seen more than our share of black bears, without nearly so much trepidation.

Over that same summer, I found three cattle carcasses that seemed to be killed and devoured in what could clearly be described as classic grizzly bear fashion. It gives one pause to think about it, anyway.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at