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Surviving a Grizzly Attack and Still Loving the Great Bear
By Jim Cole, Tim Vandehey
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Jim Cole
All rights reserved.
My First Attack
With fear as the fabric woven in mystery
Generations pass down sensational folklore
Now hikers are yelling with cow bells and air horns
And leaving their common sense parked at the door.
— "Bearanoia," music and lyrics by James R. Cole
I never saw the young grizzly that tore a hole in my head until he was a few feet from attacking me. All I knew was that I faced a ten-and-a-half-mile hike to save my own life. It was good training for what was to happen in 2007.
September 29, 1993, was a gorgeous Indian summer day in Glacier National Park, my favorite place in the world. I had been living in the area since 1991 after turning my back on my real estate career. The change had given me everything I had hoped it would: the complete freedom to study animals in their natural habitats, a release from what had become a high-stress lifestyle, and most important, the opportunity to experience grizzly bears in one of the most stunningly beautiful places on earth. I was like a kid in a candy store.
Just a few years earlier, when real estate had been my bread and butter, I was always tethered to business. Even when taking vacation time to hike the backcountry, I would regularly check in with my office out of that ridiculous idea people have that if they're not handling every tiny detail the world will stop turning. Now Glacier was my home, and I had no obligations other than to pursue my passion, the business of the grizzly bear. I could take backpacking and hiking trips whenever I wanted. After spending the summer in Alaska, I couldn't wait to get back to the park and keep my finger on the pulse of this ecosystem. To do that, I had to pound out the backcountry miles; Glacier makes you work for your bear sightings.
The season was winding down as the early winter that descends on the Big Sky backcountry was nearly upon us, but that day was stunning: flawless blue sky, the last of the fall color rustling in the trees, and temperatures in the seventies. My buddy Tim Rubbert and I wore shorts and T-shirts during the entire hike, normally unthinkable this late in the season. My sister and brother-in-law, along with our friend Molly, were arriving the next day, so I was looking forward to making one last major trek into grizzly country before the snow started to fly. I knew this was the day to get in a monster hike, the kind we both liked to do to test our fitness and also to see country that would become inaccessible to us when the winter descended. This was also an important time for the grizzly bears, because once snow begins to pile up on frozen ground, digging is not as easy. We expected at the very least to see signs of energetic foraging as the bruins tried to pack on weight for the cold, dark months ahead.
We had planned a twenty-five-mile round-trip hike to Fifty Mountain, the kind of grueling trip that most hikers would only tackle in multiple days. But years of carrying heavy gear deep into the wilderness to observe and photograph the majestic and awesome grizzly bear had gotten me in great shape; humping a forty-pound backpack and camera up and down relentless switchbacks for hours was a good workout but not a big deal. Fortuitously, I was wearing a shirt that said "Camp Menominee," the name of the camp where I had my first bear encounter. I'd stayed in touch with the camp over the years and they had sent me an updated version of what I wore when I was a camper there.
Tim and I were headed for the heart of one of the most majestic locations on the planet. Glacier National Park became a national park in 1910 after president William Howard Taft signed it into existence. It covers more than one million acres of pristine ecosystem and is home to two mountain ranges (the Lewis and the Livingston), a shrinking collection of glaciers, the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road, which crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, and a dazzling array of wildlife including bighorn sheep, mountain goats, elk, moose, mountain lion, bald and golden eagles, black bear, wolf, the rare lynx and wolverine ... and of course, the grizzly bear. The park is also simply one of the most breathtaking examples of what the natural world can look like when humans resist their call to "progress" and live lightly and respectfully on the land. Just being there is always a shot of adrenaline for me.
Aside from my joy at being back in the park, I was delighted at the prospect of spending the day with Tim, the closest thing I have to a kindred bear spirit. Tim is slim and fit, about six feet tall and bearded. His path was similar to mine: he left the insurance business to come up to northwestern Montana, live in grizzly country, and enjoy the freedom to hike, study, and explore. In the summer of 1991, my first summer of freedom, the annual Grizzly/Wolf Workshop was held along the north fork of the Flathead River near the northwest corner of Glacier National Park. People who were interested in the subject matter could come to this area, set up camp, and attend informal presentations by professional naturalists and biologists. Mike Fairchild, one of the wolf researchers I had lived with the previous winter, was leading a wolf field trip up near the Canadian border.
On the car ride to that trip, Mike was in the front seat and I was in the back, along with a character about my age. I noticed that not only did we have similar gear, he carried the identical camera holster, always keeping his camera in the ready position. We started to talk and discovered common interests, so we decided to get together and do some hiking. Things snowballed from there, and two years later we were ready to close out the 1993 Glacier season in fine style. Tim's a very animated, natural guy, and I've always found him to be funny by just being himself. He's blunt and direct; he doesn't put on airs or facades, and doesn't pull any punches. He lets you know what he thinks about things and where he stands. We understand each other well.
That morning, Tim and I set off before dawn so we could get on the trail at first light. Driving well into the interior of the park in the dark, we turned onto a dirt road to access the Packer's Roost trailhead. After a gear check, off we went. The trail up Flattop Mountain begins in the woods and switches back up the mountain through heavy underbrush. As you approach the summit, the trail rises beyond the timberline and into open country where a backpacker can see great distances. You can take out your binoculars and "glass" for miles, 360 degrees around. It is awesome.
The landscape opens up into a beautiful series of cascading meadows, surrounded by the great peaks and landmarks of the park: Heaven's Peak, Cathedral Peak, The Garden Wall, Iceberg Peak, Swiftcurrent Lookout, Longfellow Peak, and Vulture Peak. The view gives an incredible sense of the grandeur of the place. I remember that I felt lucky to be getting in one last challenging hike in such a gorgeous setting. I was planning to go hiking with my sister and family, but those hikes would be moderate. Few people had the stamina to keep up with me and Tim.
We were headed for Fifty Mountain campground, twelve miles in. The campground was closed for camping but the trail was open for day use, probably because the Park Service assumed that nobody in their right mind was going to try a twenty-five-mile round-trip day hike. As always, we had emergency gear and warm clothing in case we got stranded and were forced to spend the night, but the plan was to hike in, have lunch, and hike out.
Rangers had closed the campground because grizzlies had been frequenting the area and they didn't want people there overnight. Only after we climbed to a big open meadow about a half-mile above the campground and stopped for lunch did it become clear what the big omnivores had been up to. The meadows looked as though an army of oversized gophers from Caddyshack had gone ballistic on them. Grizzlies love a bright yellow native flower called the glacier lily, which blooms in the spring and which, by the way, is great in salads. In the fall, the bears are trying to pack on body weight for the winter hibernation period, and one of their favorite delicacies in this ecosystem is the energy-rich bulb, or corm, of the glacier lily. Grizzlies are incredible diggers, using their massive claws and that famous hump of muscle on their shoulders, and their prospecting for delicious corm was what made the landscape look like a fairway after an attack by a swarm of incompetent golfers. However, after thoroughly glassing in every direction for over a half hour, we didn't spot a single bruin.
Tim and I ate lunch in this rototilled meadow and remarked that not only had we not seen any bears on our hike in, we hadn't even seen any fresh bear sign — no scat, no tracks, no diggings, no urine trails. It was reasonable to assume that the unseasonably warm weather caused the bears to lay low during the heat of the day to conserve energy.
At any rate, the trail leading into this part of Glacier National Park seemed to be bear-free, which may have made us a little complacent on our hike out. Never assume that if you see nothing on the hike in, you're not going to see something on the hike out.
When you're in bear country, it's advisable to make plenty of noise so the animals know you're coming. Bear attacks on humans are extremely rare, and most of them involve a hiker or camper catching a bear by surprise, often a mother with her cubs. That's why you'll see trekkers in bear territory wearing bells, carrying air horns, shaking a can full of rocks, yelling, or simply talking or singing loudly. Unless they are human-habituated or lured in by temptations like food left out at a campsite, bears will usually do anything to avoid confrontations with humans, so it's smart to give them as much advance warning as possible so they can give you a wide berth as you pass. Tim and I weren't doing enough of that, an error that would prove costly.
We finished our lunch and looked at the time: a little after 2 p.m. We knew if we wanted to reach the Packer's Roost trailhead before dark around 7 p.m., we needed to head out. So we shouldered our packs and headed back toward Flattop Mountain. We were walking on an open hillside dotted with subalpine fir trees, Tim continually scanning our surroundings with his binoculars all the way over to Highline Trail. I'm from Chicago and he's from Minneapolis, so we were riding each other about the White Sox, Twins, Bears, and Vikings, but as Tim hung back to get a better look at the prime grizzly habitat, I walked ten or fifteen yards ahead.
It was about 3:00 p.m. As I said, I never saw the bear in advance. I only heard a huffing, blowing sound (Tim said it was more like hissing) to my left, and saw the beautiful face of a sub-adult grizzly coming at me from only about ten feet away. The only logical scenario we could figure later was that after we had passed earlier that day, the bear had moved into the area and made itself a daybed in the small grove of trees beside the trail. If the bear had been up and about, we likely would have spotted it. Almost certainly, I had startled the bruin from its nap at close range and it instinctively attacked me in self-defense. It was a classic surprise encounter, not predation or an attempt to get our food.
I literally had no time to think about anything; all I did was instinctively react by dropping to the ground to protect my face and head. The attack was so quick that I didn't have time to even consider reaching for my bear spray. I certainly didn't have the time to feel fear.
That was small consolation as the 200-pound bear took a few clumsy roundhouse swings at me, missing as I fell to the ground and looking like, Tim said later, a drunken boxer. It did manage to tear open my scalp with its teeth, bite into my left wrist as I tried to shield my face, tear off the camera holster I keep at my left side, and then press me to the ground with its weight. I did the only thing I could do, which was to cover up as Tim came to my aid.
Looking back, I don't think the animal even realized there was another person on the trail, so intent was he on me. But as he had me pinned to the ground and I was trying not to move, Tim took out his bear spray and fired a quick, loud burst that instantly got the grizzly's attention. I can't think of too many moments more worthy of the epithet, "Oh shit," than to see the great head of an angry grizzly bear suddenly swivel to find you standing thirty feet away with a can of bear spray in your hand. The bear bolted toward Tim, who unloaded virtually every bit of his spray directly into its face at close range. Finally, when the grizzly had closed to within about five feet of him, it caught the full force of the caustic spray and took a sharp detour down the slope, leaving us in shocked silence.
As I rose to my feet, I remember Tim asking me, "Jim, are you okay?" I don't recall any pain at that point; I was so charged with adrenaline that my perception of pain was completely fogged. The whole event couldn't have taken more than ten seconds from start to finish. I do know that when I stood up, I had complete presence of mind while lines of blood streamed down my face. I had no idea how badly I had been hurt, but I knew the one thing that mattered most: my legs worked. That meant I had a shot to hike out. Tim and I immediately moved to a shaded spot about fifty yards up the trail from the attack site and he began to do triage on my injuries. Tim feared the bear would return, but I knew that was unlikely. The encounter with two humans that resulted in a snootful of bear spray had been as traumatic for the grizzly as it was for us. That bear was long gone.
Training in first aid is an absolute must if you're going to venture into the backcountry, so I dumped the contents of my first aid kit on the ground and instructed Tim on what to do. The greatest immediate concern seemed to be my head; now he could see that the young bruin had torn a gaping, four-inch-long, inch-wide wound in my scalp from the back of my head to the front. As Tim poured hydrogen peroxide on my head to prevent infection, my mind slipped into survival mode. I experienced perfect clarity and speed of thought. I knew exactly where I was, exactly the hike that lay ahead, the difficulty of the terrain, everything. Most of all, I knew I didn't want to be left in the backcountry. I was bound and determined to get my ass out of there on my own if I could.
Tim used gauze and a torn T-shirt to create a sort of turban on my head, bandaged my wounded left wrist with gauze, then went back for my camera and snapped a few pictures of the scene for documentation. In the back of my mind, I was concerned about the welfare of the bear. I knew that due to the public's fascination with animal attacks (and particularly with grizzly bears), if word got out, the media would be all over us at the hospital. I was certain this had been a spontaneous, surprise-driven attack, and I didn't want the bear to pay the price because of public alarm that could create a witch-hunt atmosphere. Because I was familiar with Park Service policy — they would not take action if a bear attack was considered a surprise, defensive encounter — I was confident that under these circumstances the bear would not be pursued.
After rendering first aid, Tim took the heaviest items from my pack, including the camera gear, and put them in his own, easily shouldering more than fifty pounds. It was 3:30 p.m. We were ten-and-a-half miles from the car. It was a long way to go with serious injuries, even for someone in my kind of shape. But spending the night was not an option. My adrenaline was pumping hard and I knew what I had to do. I knew my legs were unscathed, but I couldn't possibly know the extent of my other injuries, and did not focus on them. I knew it was important that I take advantage of my initial surge of energy to put as many miles behind me as possible. We left some of our trash out so rangers could find the spot for their investigation, and prepared to head back up Flattop Mountain.
Tim hung behind to get organized, but I aggressively set out and was chewing up the trail as fast as I could go. Of course, it helped that I had a light pack; Tim was the one who would be trying to keep up while lugging a big load. After a while I was three or four miles up the trail, charged up and eager to get to safety. I felt wired after my encounter with the great bear, not only in the "I've just survived a brush with death" way, but also in a primal way.
It was a stroke of luck that we were at the steepest uphill portion of the trail, because that was when I had the most energy from my adrenaline rush. I knew I needed to get that uphill stretch behind me while I could still handle it. If I had been forced to hike that steep section at the end, it would have been far more formidable, and I don't know what would have happened.
As I was barreling downhill through the meadows, I reached back to wipe what I assumed was sweat off the back of my neck and my hand came back bright red. I momentarily thought, "This is serious," but didn't break my stride. The odds of running into someone on the trail this time of year were remote, so Tim and I had to assume we were on our own.
Excerpted from Blindsided by Jim Cole, Tim Vandehey. Copyright © 2010 Jim Cole. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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