Chapter 1

Learning Curve


The Brittany spaniel burst over the hill. That the mutt was in unaccustomed flight didn't register until the angered grizzly bear exploded into sight, hind feet spinning past ears in hot pursuit.

Hunter had, for eight years and thousands of wilderness trail miles, traveled as my companion. Over those miles and during those years, I'd seen him put the run on several bears met in surprise encounters. And I know the wide-ranging dog had confronted others beyond my ken without so much as a speck of unpleasantness. But this bruin was different; this one appeared to have no clear grasp of either canine or ursine custom. Prudence dictated the dog's options.

The spaniel was, of course, more fleet than his pursuer. But each time he gained ground, the dog, disbelieving a bear like this existed, slowed to hurl another intended-to-be-intimidating bark over his shoulder.

To the grizzly, the dog's pauses served as teasers and the barks insults. I might have thought the scene hilarious had not the runaway caboose and its trailing locomotive been headed for my station. The dog gained a few steps and again lost ground by slowing to curse his ursine pursuer, then wheeling and racing toward his master. If the stupid mutt expected me to get us out of this brouhaha, he would've been comforted to know my thoughts were coursing along the same lines.

It all began with the high-pitched, excited bark. I'd heard it dozens of times, and with our spaniel it always meant "Bear!" Then Hunter settled into his clamor-bark, intended to intimidate everything from titmouse to tyrannosaur.

I paused to lean against a whitebark pine, slipping off the daypack and rummaging for my water bottle. The clamor was still going on--out of sight, beyond where the trail disappeared over the hilltop, perhaps three hundred yards away. I stared at the bottle, shook it, then swallowed the last of its water, wondering how much farther to the slumbering ski lift.

The clamor settled into a deeper pitch. Had the fool dog stirred up and treed a brood of blue grouse? I cocked my head. No, his barking was spaced out, more routine, and seemed to be coming nearer. I dropped the empty water bottle into the daypack and took out the last of my lunch, a candy bar. Now all that remained was a camera, a block of "fat wood" for fire starter, and the empty water bottle. I stripped the wrapper.

He barked again; still out of sight, but definitely closer.

I hiked here in mid-July to see if this particular portion of the Whitefish Range might lend itself to "hut-to-hut" crosscountry ski touring. By developing a winter recreational venture, my wife and I hoped to expand our seasonal wilderness outfitting business into one viable year-round. The lay of the land would have taxed a San Francisco streetcar, but the hill was rounded and the forest scattered--easy enough to negotiate on touring skis. This might be it.

Hunter barked again. I munched on the Snickers bar and eyed the hill's crest....

Though memory continues to play back the affair in slow motion, it all happened rapid-time. From the moment bear and Brittany burst over the hill until they'd covered the distance to where I stood between twin pines took but fifteen seconds. I remember glancing up. Both pines were as big around as steel barrels and just as smooth for twenty feet to their lowest limbs--no chance to climb. Nor was there a suitable tree to scramble into within sprinting range.

The bear's big, dish-faced head swung low to the ground, ears flattened, teeth clacking so loudly they could be heard at fifty paces. No growling or roaring here. No posturing. Just single-minded purpose--to catch and pulverize. I needed no mathematics to calculate there was little chance for a knobby-kneed, flatfooted, overweight outfitter to outdistance the runaway freight. What I needed was a rapid transit to a distant siding.

It's odd details were so clear: the bear was unusually dark, like polished cordovan shoes, shading almost to tan on the hump and just behind the front legs.

It seems now, from a decade-and-a-half distance, as though it happened on a giant panoramic screen and I was merely a detached observer. But when the dog raced to within thirty feet I felt a cold wind on the back of my neck and heard a distant voice whispering, Boy, you better do something! So I pointed to the left and shouted with all the authority I could muster, "Hunter--go!"

Darned if the dog didn't do it.

The bear, however, was not nearly so well trained, altering its original course to hone in on a new target. And I hadn't even barked! With an angry grizzly bearing down at express-train speed from thirty feet, I remember thinking, ' I wonder how this is going to come out.' The bear was small for a grizzly, perhaps a hundred and eighty pounds. I probably would have outweighed it. But, shod as I was in a pair of leather hiking boots and clad in tennis shorts and a T-shirt--none of which seemed formidable enough to deter a bruin bent on brigandage--there was no way I'd come out ahead in a kicking match. Neither was I armed, not even with so much as a pocket knife. And my opponent's clacking teeth (now deafening) and long claws (still churning) might as well have been sweat-seeking missiles honing in on the drippingest thing on that ridge.

When the bear abandoned pursuit of the spaniel to bore in on the dog's master, I began waving my arms and shouting at the top of my lungs. Except for the I-wonder-how-this-is-going-to-come-out question, the only thought occurring to me was when the bruin closed to eight feet, I would swing my camera-laden daypack at its face and step behind the left pine tree. Beyond that, there was no plan, no escape. Not even untidy, shorts-wetting fear.

Still madly shouting, I raised the daypack. At twelve feet, the bear slowed. At ten, it stopped, turned, and began pacing away.

Meanwhile, the Brittany had circled and, unnoticed, he came up from my rear. With the insufferable bear at last in retreat, Hunter saw a chance to rescue his master. With hackles raised, he darted between my legs to hurl a torrent of canine epithets. The bear spun and rushed back, ears flush to skull, head swinging, teeth clattering. My camera-laden daypack flattened ... the dog.

The grizzly again turned, this time at twelve feet, and stalked off up the trail as a mute spaniel and his quivering master watched.

I collapsed against the pine, hand gripping my canine buddy's fur, taking great gulps of air, gradually calming. Amid the adrenaline high, wheels spun: "Holy cow! I stood my ground! I stood up to a grizzly charge and wasn't even scared!" A more important realization, however, was the fact that my brain functioned throughout, as if one part had been detached from the other: analysis opposed to emotion. Minutes passed. The dog lifted his head from my lap, leaped to his feet, and began a low growl. Little more than a hundred yards away, the cordovan bear with the tan hump stalked back and forth atop a fallen tree. It seemed almost as if the animal was pulling sentry duty.

Then beyond, I saw what Hunter heard--a cub no more than porcupine-size backed its hesitant way down a tall spruce. Indeed, the mother was patrolling between her cub and the threat we posed.

I learned a lot about bears that July day. And lessons learned are still to be plumbed to the utmost. Simply writing about it a dozen years later, recalling the sequence that occurred and re-interpreting those recollections, brings fresh perspectives. Having never been charged by a bear until then, my experience was limited. Until then, my encounters with bears had largely occurred while armed with a high-powered rifle. I wondered if a certain arrogance goes with dominating power? Would the sow have died had my fingers stroked my old standby, the familiar 30-06? Perhaps. But perhaps not, for by the time of that summer incident near the idle ski resort, a personal metamorphosis relative to bears had begun--was in fact, already in an advanced stage.

At the approach of danger, the sow had sent her cub up the dead spruce tree, then retreated over the hill to avoid our approach. But when the free-ranging dog, incessantly in search of grouse, came upon her, she at first held her ground, then with Hunter's aggressive behavior, launched a charge. In retrospect I'm convinced the sow would have been content to let the dog speed out of her life; she did, in fact, several times slow her charge to allow it. But when the obstinate canine also slowed, half-turning to make himself a noisy threat, the sow shifted back to full attack mode.

It's probable the sow knew of my presence all along, but the transfer of her charge from dog to human occurred only after I constituted the geatest threat to her cub by pointing and shouting to dominate the dog and, to her mind, threatening her. There was no change in expression with the change in targets; only the beady eyes, flattened ears, low-swinging head, ominously clacking teeth, and raised hackles along her hump.

Was the analytical side of her brain also plugged in? Did she, too, wonder how this was going to come out? She had almost certainly never tussled with a human, so perhaps all she saw was a sort of super bear towering over her, roaring at the top of his lungs and waving his front legs in the most frightful manner. Could she have known about my inferior musculature and useless fat? That my teeth are false instead of sharp? That my begrimed nails had been trimmed just hours before and were at best unsuited for slashing and clawing in the first place?

Somewhere between thirty and ten feet, did prudence become the better part of valor? She surely knew she would serve her cub no purpose by fighting even a winning battle if she risked becoming disabled in the process. But to flee precipitously might invite counterattack. So she chose to turn and pace away--a veiled threat.

To fight or to flee must still have been in the sow's mind when the dog pushed between my legs to begin his clamor once again. In an instant, fight overcame flight and she spun into another charge. What went on in her head during that second charge I cannot guess. But the fact that she broke off at twelve feet instead of ten might indicate waning anger or burgeoning doubt. Or it may have been influenced by prompt removal of the dog-threat by that scary super bear.

Whatever the reason, I was impressed by her measured retreat. It was already clear to me that grizzly bears are endowed with what might seem prideful arrogance to us humans. But I had not thus far experienced that disdain at close quarters.

Grizzlies, I knew by this stage in a life of outdoor adventure, function under an operating paradigm or system different from that of black bears. Even a shy grizzly, low in their social hierarchy, can turn frightful if pushed or cornered. And the tools of a grizzly are awesome compared to either mine or those of the average black bear. But I also knew most grizzlies to be retiring creatures, largely nocturnal, given to avoiding humans under most circumstances.

But not all grizzlies.

There are, I already recognized, aggressive animals who are neither shy nor retiring, who tend to view as their own the territory surrounding them as they move. I knew by mid-July, 1982, that such territory can vary in size from the site of a discovered elk carcass in an avalanche fan to a hillside covered with huckleberries. Depending on the time of year and on circumstances varying from spring mating to fall food gathering (or when they feel their offspring threatened), such bears can become violent in an instant. Very few bears of any kind, I was certain, had turned to humans as a viable protein source.

What I did not then know--and what the cordovan sow had just conclusively proved--is that gradations exist from one extreme of bear behavior to the other. This book is about my sometimes fumbling efforts to learn about bears, particularly Ursus arctos horribilis--the grizzly bear. That my interest in the species pre-dated a surge of national awareness of America's premier undaunted-by-civilization indicator of God-given wildness was my good fortune.



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