Things Not to Do With Bears

Yeah, and this too

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Yellowstone circa 1950. Photo: Sarah Howe, Howe family archives.

Well, there’s not much out there in the way of instructive backcountry accidents, other than lots of lost hikers, several drowned kayakers and canoeists, and mountaineering tragedies on Denali and Minya Gongga in China that illustrate how mountains are bigger and badder than any human being, no matter how gnarly and experienced we are. Noted alpinist/ice climber/paraglider Will Gadd has an excellent post on the often-understated risks of high-adventure sport. It’s well worth a read.

What has been notable, however, is a trio of bear versus human smackdowns, none of which proved fatal for either species, fortunately.

Trail runner mauled in Glacier

On Sunday, June 7th, Thomas Nerison, 60, was trail running northeast along the track that parallels Going-to-the-Sun Road between Lake McDonald and Avalanche Creek Campground when two grizzly bears, apparently spooked by a horse party, ran up the trail from behind and overtook him. One stopped near Nerison, who kicked the bear, then fell down. The bear then mauled Nerison lightly while he continued kicking and poking it with sticks (not advisable). Then the bear split. Nerison walked XC westward to the nearby road with punctures on his legs. Nerison normally carries bear spray, but didn’t have it on him at the time.

[] Hey, I love trail running, but trail running in grizz hot spots is not smart, even in frontcountry areas where people may be lulled into thinking bears aren’t around. If you’re looking for aerobic challenge in thriving grizzly habitat, get it by hiking steep uphills – and making lots of noise while you’re at it. Wait until hibernation season to get your running in, or move out of bear country. It’s that simple.

[] While you should fight a black bear that gets you down (these are, very rarely, predatory attacks), fighting a grizzly, especially in a surprise encounter where the bears are just trying to remove a perceived threat, is not advisable. It usually prolongs the attack. In this case, the bears clearly weren’t interested in predation, and quickly blew off Nerison despite the struggle. The attacker was probably an adult female with a yearling cub. Once the perceived threat was removed, they were both outta there. For more on when to fight or play dead, see this video featuring Ted (Alvarez) the Bear. Warning: Do not feed or taunt Ted Alvarez, regardless of what he’s wearing!

Hiker near West Yellowstone Nailed by Grizzly

Two days later, on Tuesday, June 9th, hiker Pete Sellers, 34, of Boise was attacked while walking along a Forest Service road near the confluence of the South Fork of the Madison River, and the Madison Arm of Hebgen Lake, near West Yellowstone, Montana. Sellers later told wildlife authorities that he walked around a bend in the trail and the bear was on him. Sellers was carrying both pepper spray and a pistol, but had no time to deploy either.

The bear bit Sellers “four or five” times on his upper arm, shoulder, neck, head and torso, and then quickly abandoned him to run off. Sellers was able to walk three to four miles back to trailhead and call for help. Wildlife authorities later determined that at least one cub was nearby, and the bear had cached an elk carcass only 10 feet from the track. The area around Gallatin Forest Trail #217 and West Denny Creek Road has been closed until further notice.

[] This illustrates one of the problems of going armed in grizz country: You better be faster than Doc Holladay to draw and fire. That’s a tough call when totally surprised, and lotsa luck killing the bear outright. As an added downside, a wounded bear may get seriously aggro about you. Unfortunately, many people (though not necessarily Sellers) substitute a gun for noise and caution. That’s a false sense of security, as many hunters in Montana, Alaska and Canada can readily attest.

[] When bears grab people, they often go for the leg, arms, shoulder, neck or head area…things that fit in their mouth. While mauling deaths are rare (you’re far more likely to be killed by domestic dogs, bees and wasps, or the horse you were riding, than any sort of bear) many survivors undergo years of skin grafts and permanent disfigurement. All people in today’s post were very fortunate.

[] Your best defense against bears is noise. Bells are less effective (and highly annoying on the tourist boardwalks of Glacier and Yellowstone). The human voice works better. Personally, I sing stupid songs, or holler smart-ass comments like “Snap to, Yogi!” about every 100 feet when the going gets bruin. Choose your own theme here, but make LOTS of noise, especially when you’re hiking into a headwind, through brush, or along a rushing stream where the water’s roar may hide your approach. Just don’t go singing Tony Orlando or Abba because bears hate that, and who can blame them?

Grizz Gets Ass-Whupped by 77-year-old

O.K. Bears 2; Humans 0. But revenge is sweet and at least one Canadian grizzly is taking flak from her ursine bros after getting whupped by a 78-year-old man. On Saturday, June 7th, James Wanyandie, 29, and his father Tom, now 78, were looking for shed moose antlers along an oil-field road near Prairie Creek, roughly 250 miles west of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

They were returning to their truck when they crested a hill and James spotted a bear cub up a tree (standard defensive behavior for small cubs, and NOT a good sign). Immediately a bear charged from beneath the tree. James had a .270-caliber rifle, and fired at the charging bear but missed. The grizzly sow passed him, spun around, grabbed his arm, and began working him over. Father Tom jumped the bear (breaking his hand in the process), whereby the bear worked on him briefly, then turned back to the son. Father Tom jumped the bear again, swearing at the top of his lungs in their native Cree language. The bear broke and ran, undoubtedly collecting the cub enroute. The Wanyandies were able to hike 500 yards back to their truck.

[] The Wynandie’s fight-back reactions probably prolonged the attack, but you gotta admire the elderly Tom’s moxie, even if it wasn’t a smart move.

So, big sigh of relief for the victims and bears in all this.

Oh, and here’s background on the picture. The photo is of my father, the late Dr. Gerald Howe, in Yellowstone, circa 1950, on one of those classic woody station wagon auto tours of the West that were so popular in post-WWII America. I found the original (a stereo photo where you look through a binocular rig for 3D effect), when looking with him through piles of his collected imagery. Since dad was always giving me flak for risky behavior, I showed him the pic and went “Day-ad! He seemed briefly embarrassed and then said “Awww, back then, everyone did that.”

Which is true, based on the background of other photos from the same location, which show other smiling families engaged in the exact same practice. But messing with bears is dangerous. And as proof, here’s another picture from the same episode.

Yikes! But that’s a photographer for you; keep on snapping right until the jaws connect.

Hike safe. And don’t feed the bears anything, whether it’s Doritos, your camp rations, or yourself. –Steve Howe

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