Grizzly Night in Montana
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
So there I was, in Glacier National Park, when I woke up next to the fire and saw a full-grown grizzly bear just a few yards away...
First, let me explain how I got into this sticky situation. When I was younger, one of my friend’s uncle worked for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out of Bozeman, MT. He was a fish biologist and worked on a fish counting survey in the summer focused on bull trout (an endangered species of fish native to Montana). I worked as a volunteer for the fish counts several years in a row during August. Every time, we stayed at the KOA campground in St. Mary, Montana, just outside the national park's east boundary. This is relevant because I was later employed at said KOA where I became better friends with the owner’s son. Anyway, in the summer of 2016, I called up my friend (the owner's son) at the KAO and told him I’d be coming to Glacier with a friend and was wondering if we could stay with him at his cabin. My buddy told me that he wouldn’t be in Glacier that weekend, but that it was fine if my friend and I crashed in his cabin.
So, my friend from wildland firefighting and I drove up from Missoula, where I was living at the time, to Glacier National Park. It’s absolutely breathtaking there by the way. We spent the day hiking in the dramatic mountains along the Going to the Sun Highway. We saw some high elevation animals like mountain goats and big horned sheep. When the day was coming to an end, we headed down the east side of the pass, just outside of the park's boundary to the very small town of St. Mary, MT. We ate, drank, and made a fire at our vacant KOA cabin in the campground where I used to work.
At around eleven o'clock we decided to call it a night and hit the hay. The cabin was small and had only one small bed. Since it was such clear and beautiful August night, I told my buddy to take the cabin for himself. I was more than content to sleep outside by the fire; something I've done countless time in my life. This was my first mistake.
Usually when I sleep outside in bear country, I have a can of bear-spray at my side. Since I was in a popular campground with over two-hundred people sleeping there that night and I was too lazy to go retrieve the mace from my car, I just spread my sleeping bag out next to fire and called it good. Well, that’s not entirely true, I did take the two camp chairs we had and set them up alongside my right side so that I was laying between them and the fire. I thought, "this way if a bear comes it will hit the chairs first and I’ll have time to escape." Great idea Andy, such a good plan.
I don’t know if you’ve slept under the stars in a place where there's so little light pollution that you feel like you can see each and every star in the entire Milky Way Galaxy, but if you have, you'll know exactly how awesome and truly magnificent it is; way better than any photo I've ever seen. I went to bed that night tired from hiking and happy with my choice to bed down under the beautiful starry sky.
I woke up in the middle of the night to what sounded like something grazing. It was just like the sound a cow or horse makes when its eating grass. I opened my eyes and saw the two camp chairs near my face. The grazing was coming from behind me, on the other side of the fire. I closed my eyes, half asleep still and thinking to myself, "oh I bet it’s just some mountain goats or something eating the grass near the fire."
I lay still for a few seconds with my eyes closed, trying to decide if I should roll over and look; to make sure it really was just some mountain goats. I mean I was sleeping in Glacier, where there are a crap ton of grizzly bears. I decided it was worth my while to roll my lazy ass over and to at least see the damn goats before I went back to sleep. Opening my eyes again and shifting in my sleeping bag, I flipped around to face the fire. That’s when my heart about stopped. Standing about fifteen feet away from where I was lying, a full grown griz, with its muzzle to the ground, was walking directly toward me. If you have ever seen a grizzly bear up close, then you’ll know that they are large animals and very intimidating; especially when there’s nothing between you and where they’re standing but a few smoldering logs.
The wind was blowing strong, right into my face, and I instantly knew that the bear wouldn't be able to catch my scent until it was way way too close. This wasn’t the first encounter with a griz that I’ve had and with my sister being a grizzly bear biologist at the time, I knew a few things about them. For example, that a grizzly's night vision isn’t any better than a humans. I also knew their first instinct when they are surprised is to attack whatever spooked them. After a brief and potentially deadly mauling, they run away. So, with the wind at it's back, unable to smell or see me, if I didn't do anything the bear was going to walk right into me. That would be bad, really bad.
I lay there frozen in fear with my heart sinking into my stomach and frantically trying to think about what the hell I should do next.
The bear walked forward slowly and continued directly toward me and the fire. The light of the moon shone, highlighting the silver hairs along its back. The massive animal grazed the ground like a cow, eating the manicured green campground grass with intense hunger. It took several bites at a time and I could hear the blades ripping out of the ground as it bit down on them and pulled. Once it had collected enough for a mouthful it chewed at them like a hungry teenager with the munchies. After chewing with short and powerful bites, the bear exhaled with an enormous, WHOOMPH. The noise of its breath so forcefully exhaled through its nostrils almost made me piss myself. I was thinking, "if that bear’s exhale is that strong, I don't ever want to find out how strong it’s bite or swat could be." In that moment as I lay motionless on the ground next to the fire, I thought, "holy shit I’m going to die." But at the same time, I couldn’t help but be in awe at how amazing this creature was. Seeing it so close with the moon lighting its back and the crunch-crunch whoomph cadence of its breathing was so freaking cool.
I knew if I just laid there that I was going to get mauled, so I did the only thing I had planned on doing if a bear woke me up that night; use the flimsy camp chairs. As fast as I could, I slipped out of my sleeping bag and rolled behind the chair closest to my head and crouched. My movement caught the bear’s attention. It stopped eating and stood on its hind legs. With just a very thin piece of canvas as my shield, I looked up at the griz, fully anticipating it to drop down on all fours and charge. Instead, the bear stood for a few seconds, moving its head back and forth, trying to get a good look at me. It was tall, about six or seven feet; no bull shit. I knew from my limited knowledge about bears that when they stand up on two feet, they’re being curious, not aggressive, but that could quickly change if they’re frightened by a half-naked man crouching behind a foldable chair.
The griz moved back down on all fours and started walking towards me. It wasn’t charging. I began to think, "oh thank god, I might just make it through this if I can stay out of sight." The bear started walking to my left around the fire, so I moved to the right and crouched behind the second chair. The grizzly was very close to me know, right on the other side of the campfire; within ten feet. My new plan was to hold the camp chair and slowly move it while I used it like a shield. I might be able to stay on the opposite side of the campfire as the bear while not startling it too much, as long as I stayed hidden. If I did it right, I could put myself in a position to make it to the nearby cabin. The only reason I hadn’t bolted to the cabin already, was my fear that if it chased me, I would be stuck in a small cabin with a freaked-out bear. The griz moved closer and when it was about five feet away, I knew I had to move. Just before I moved the chair, I saw another bear moving into view right where I initially saw the first bear. I freaked out even more when I saw that it was slightly larger in size than the first bear. I abandoned all plans of trying to remain hidden and did exactly what everyone tells you not to do and ran. I sprang out from behind the camp chair and ran for dear life toward the cabin. I opened the door as fast as I could. Slamming it shut behind me, I prepared to feel the full weight of a charging bear’s impact blow the wooden door back open. When that didn't happen, I spun around, secured the latch and locked the door. I made it.
The sudden noise of me rushing into the cabin and slamming the door behind me woke my friend. He sat straight up and cursed, probably having a similar reaction to the way I felt when I first saw the bear. Having already locked the door I peered out of the cabin window and said, “There’s f***in bears out there!” In a start, he joined me at the window, but they were gone. The two bears were probably just as scared as I was when I jumped up from behind that camp chair and ran in the opposite direction.
I didn’t go back outside for about a half hour. In that time, I heard gunshots and dogs barking. They sounded distant and all I could figure was that the two grizzlies ran into one of the few neighbor’s yards and they shot into the air to scare them away. There were no reports of a bear shooting in the following days. A young woman did get mauled about a week later in a nearby meadow, but there's no way of knowing if it was one of the same bears. Considering how many there are in that area, it likely wasn't.
After I felt it was safe, I went outside and picked up my sleeping bag. I slept on the floor in the cabin after that. When I woke up, we informed the campground staff and the wildlife biologists about what happened. With that, we headed back to Missoula.
That experience was one of many bear encounters that I’ve had. This one though, was by far the scariest and the one where I was most convinced that I would be mauled. I have worked some of this experience into my writing by trying to describe a similar situation when Anders first meets Zahara on the Bareback Plains in Bond of a Dragon’s first book. I’m not sure what life lessons this is applicable to, but I know that I’ll never sleep outside without my bear-spray again. And yes, I would’ve used it and I probably would’ve ended up spraying myself in the face because the wind was blowing so hard directly at me. But, it all worked out okay in the end and now I get to remember how awesome and intense that whole scenario was.