I hung my head, counting the dusty, dry steps up the slight incline. Then, finally, I settled into my stride for the day, having just left the”Parting of The Waters” on the Divide.
I was entering southern Yellowstone and singing loudly to myself, in beat with my pace. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” was the choice song that kept the bears at bay on this hike.
I heard the soft grunts before I started over the small hill. No memory registered to associate the odd sound with anything familiar, so I kept walking. Reaching the top of the small hill, I stopped to examine the pile of shag carpet twisting and turning on the trail ahead – dust and debris flying.
“Crap,” I said, taking a step back! Grunts, dust, carpet – the light bulb flickered. A large grizzly was taking a dust bath in the middle of the trail, rubbing itself on a stump beside the path.
I couldn’t go back. Long-distance hikers DID NOT backtrack, just like runners did not run the extra mile or chefs used Crisco. I could not go around, with a drop-off to the river on my left and a cliff about 40 yards to my right – so I waited.
The twisting stopped, and small, beady brown eyes turned my way, followed by a massive square, flat head. He had seen me. I was about to be eaten. The head lowered, and the dust bath resumed – legs pinwheeling and dirt flying. The bear was indifferent to my presence, and I offered zero threat. So, I waited.
About five minutes passed before I began singing my “Devil Went Down to Georgia” tune again with no response but much faster pinwheeling of the bear’s massive legs. Sighing, I lightly clacked my poles together, and after not even a glance in my direction, I knocked them together harder.
The louder noise made the Grizzly pause in his rolling and sat up to study me. I felt my heart stop for a moment as our eyes met. He looked utterly unconcerned with me as he rolled to his feet, turned away, and began walking down the trail.
I looked down at my watch and settled back to wait. Ten minutes later, I began hiking again. I was not more than 20 yards up the trail when the Grizzly stood ahead. As he rose into view, I stopped dead in my tracks, holding my breath!
It was so big.
The Grizzly had not moved far ahead, and I had not seen him over the rise. He tilted his head back, smelling the air before dropping out of sight. This time I stood and waited for at least 15 minutes.
Moving forward cautiously, I studied the trail ahead, along with the brush and undergrowth to my right. The bear appeared to have moved on, I thought. Then, suddenly, I heard wood cracking and turned to see the bear up in the brush to my right, following slowly beside me as he rubbed against bushes and trees along the way.
To say I was terrified was an understatement. Continuing to move slowly with my bear spray in one hand and hiking poles in the other, I spoke to the bear in low, calm tones. I had already made a big mistake by not backtracking, so hopefully, I could get out of this situation by staying quiet.
Sweat trickled into my eyes, burning them and causing my vision to blur. I blinked hard to clear them and watched as the bear followed me. We were both moving slowly, and I tried to appear deliberate and casual while speaking calmly.
Suddenly the bear stood up and began rubbing his back against a small tree trunk. Then, stopping abruptly, he dropped to all fours and charged! It happened so fast! I pointed my Bear Spray at him and froze as he charged. It sounds so cliché, but time did seem to slow down.
I watched him charging, making his bear noises as he approached – huffing and barking with his ears tilted forward. I was about to be destroyed but could not pull the trigger on my Bear Spray. I had heard so much conflicting information.
“You will just piss them off if you spray them.” Well, that was the last thing I wanted to do.
“Any wind at all will make it ineffective.” It was pretty breezy. That would irritate him if he just got a whiff. Either that or blowback and blind me!
“The Bear Spray goes bad after a while.” How long had I had this can now?
Ultimately, I had never practiced with Bear Spray and had zero confidence in its effectiveness. This was mistake number two.
Looking back, I was amazed at how much information I processed in the few seconds it took the Grizzly to reach me. Then, having lost any time I had to react with the spray, I did the only other thing that came to mind – yell.
I had grown up around large animals and knew not to show fear, so I stood my ground and screamed “NO” with as much anger and authority as I could muster! I watched as the bear’s eyes widened, and he veered away to my right. He circled behind me and stopped on the trail.
He had to have been five feet from me when he sharply turned away. I could feel dirt and debris hit me from his slide. As adrenaline coursed through my body, I followed his movements with my outstretched Bear Spray. The Grizzly trotted down the trail about 15 yards and stared at me before sitting down like a big dog and cocking its head.
Was that normal Grizzly behavior? At this point, I did not care and was fighting not to start crying. I knew I needed to maintain my composure and leave as calmly as possible. I began to move slowly up the trail walking sideways; Bear Spray still aimed at the Grizzly.
I watched as the bear stood and began following me. “Oh my god!” I said out loud. What the hell was he doing now?! He watched me, looking very calm as he strolled along behind me. This was nuts!
The bear followed about 15 – 20 yards behind me until I reached the new-growth forest edge and entered a wild meadow. Then, moving out into the field, I watched as he stopped at the edge of the tall grass, watching me. Now he was going to charge. I was sure of it!
The Grizzly continued watching me until I was out of sight. He never moved but just stood watching. It was eerie.
Over the next few hours, I ran to Hart Lake, continually looking behind me for the bear. I reached the lake by late afternoon. The Ranger I met said the bear was probably a young male establishing his territory, and either I startled him when I yelled, or it was a Bluff charge.
I did not intend to stay at Hart Lake, but I needed to be near people, so I camped next to the lake that night in their designated campsites. Every single noise that night was a bear walking around my tent. I don’t think I slept a wink that night!
I made mistakes in that encounter 11 years ago, but I also learned how important it was to educate myself on how to hike safely with bears. I have encountered other Grizzly and Black Bears since that hike, but I now have a much healthier respect for them.