Something I hadn’t thought about when scheming a bike trip through Montana to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons National Parks: bringing bear spray. Do you know bear spray? It’s basically pepper spray on crack, meant to be your last line of defense against a charging (and probably grizzly) bear.
I brought it with me when I went to Alaska a bunch of years ago, and when I went to Glacier National Park for a few weeks, but for whatever reason, I hadn’t thought about it for this trip — until a bunch of people asked me about it. Then I started to think about the fact that I’d be camping in the middle of nowhere in grizzly-land, and hiking by myself in the middle of nowhere in grizzly-land too, and it started to seem like a good idea.
I bought some bear spray — a hefty investment! — and made sure to have it on me at all times. In my front bag while I was biking. In my tent while I was sleeping. Close at hand when I was hiking.
And then on a little bitty hike around Jenny Lake in the Grand Tetons, I heard a funky noise: a thump and a phfffffffft. I turned around just in time to see a geyser of pepper spray shooting out of my bear spray cannister, which had fallen out of my backpack and burst open on the ground.
Eep! I could feel the pepper in my nose and eyes already, so I ran away and waited for it to spray itself out before sheepishly collecting the empty can (pack it out, yo). I was glad, so far as I know, that no one on this rather heavily-used trail saw the whole ridiculous fiasco. Instead of saving myself from a charging grizzly, I successfully pepper sprayed myself. Sometimes, apparently, I am my own worst enemy.
* * *
At this point, I had 8 days left of my trip: one more day I planned to spend hiking in the Grand Tetons, and 7 days to bike back to Whitefish, Montana to catch my train back to Portland. The hike, I figured, I’d just have to do without bear spray, since I couldn’t easily replace it from where I was. And the bike ride — which I’d dubbed the “pragmatic route” since it was the unscenic-looking, unlovely-seeming, most direct way back to Whitefish I could come up with since I’d hung out in Wyoming longer than I’d anticipated — that ride seemed to be taking me more through “urban corridor” (for Idaho and Montana, anyway) than grizzly habitat. It didn’t seem like a big deal.
Fast forward to the last night before I got back to Whitefish. I camped in a super awesome spot on the east side of Flathead Lake, Yellow Bay State Park. There were only five tent sites (no RVs or trailers allowed:), and they were walk-in sites, where you actually have to walk to your campsite instead of parking right in it, and the water to the campground had already been turned off for the season. Add that to the fact it was a Thursday night at the end of September, and it meant that I had a whole state park to myself. Awesome:) I spent the evening lounging on the lake shore, writing in my journal, eating a lot of food, watching the sunset turn the lake pink, and even talking to my brother since I amazingly had cell reception right in my tent. It was getting dark by about 8, so by 9ish I was cozy in my sleeping bag, fast asleep.
And then around 10:15, I woke up, suddenly, to a crunching noise. Crunch, crunch, crunch. I opened my eyes to the five inches or so of space between the ground and the vestibule of my tent, and — woah. Four big paws. Interesting. I was still fighting my way out of sleep and halfway processing those paws when I looked up to the wall of my tent, which was lit up from the almost-full moon. And there, silhouetted perfectly against the fabric, was a bear head.
Yikes!! I panicked for about half a millisecond as I realized that there was a bear literally three feet from my head and holy shit I had no bear spray. And then as fast as that I reigned it in. C’mon, I told myself. You’ve only read about twenty million signs and articles about bears over the last years. You’ve been around bears. You know what to do here. Suck it up.
So I sucked it up. I talked to the bear, calmly, establishing myself as a nonthreatening but nonetheless present human. And then I heard more crunching. My bag was gone. Keep talking. A bag that only had my rain pants and two empty waterbottles in it, but a bag that I’d stashed under the vestibule on the other side of my tent, and it was gone. Crunch, crunch. Hey bear! No worries, just me in here, don’t want to hurt you but would love it if you wanted to go somewhere else for the night. Holy shmoly, the bear had been on the other side of my tent, took my bag, and circled back. Keep talking. Keep talking. Crunch.
As I blathered on with the unthinking part of my brain, the rational part of me decided that the best thing to do would be to get out of my tent slowly and back off. Give the bear some room, wait it out, maybe make my way slowly toward the vault toilet — so far away! — that had four solid, protective walls. I unzipped my tent, slowly, talking the whole time, and poked my head out.
The bear was now on its way up the tree at the foot of my tent. Crunch, crunch: that noise was its claws on the bark, not my water bottles being decimated. In fact, wait a minute! There was my bag after all. I forgot I’d moved it to the other vestibule before I went to bed, and there it was, right where I left it; the bear hadn’t been stalking both sides of my tent. So far as I knew. Hi, bear! Nice tree climbing! I’m glad you’re not eating my rain pants right now!
I started to stand up so I could back away, and the bear hastily climbed back down the tree. And stood on the ground. And then got up on its hind legs.
By this point, once I’d actually woken up and stuck my head out of my tent and could see the bear against the moon for real, I’d determined I was dealing with a black bear. Not a grizzly. It didn’t have the grizzly hump; it had pointy ears; its face was black-bear shaped. Good deal. Though still a bear, and still potentially dangerous, most black bears don’t really want to engage with people. Nevertheless, the hind legs thing freaked me out a little. It wasn’t a huge bear, but it was still about as tall as me when it stood up like that.
I kept talking. Firmly, but calmly. It would be really, really awesome if you wanted to spend the night somewhere else, little bear! I hear the other side of this state park is really nice! I hope you’re having a great night, but geez, you scared the shit out of me!
Eventually, it dropped back down to all fours and shuffled off across the creek, crashing through the underbrush in that decidedly bear-y way. Phew! I got back in my tent, and only then started to shake. Holy shit. That was the closest I’ve been to a bear, ever, and the fact that I woke up to it like that made it scary in a way that I don’t think it would have been had I been awake the whole time — things that surprise you (me, anyway) out of sleep are always tinged with a layer of irrational fear. And a bear, especially a bear that that may or may not be a grizzly, is kind of big and scary anyway when it’s towering above your startled-awake body.
The bear was gone. But I still didn’t know if it was a bear who simply happened to chance upon my campsite — in which case things would probably be fine now that it knew I was here — or if it was a bear who had learned that campers meant easy access to food. In which case it would probably come back and I probably shouldn’t be camping there. I’d have to wait it out to decide what I was dealing with.
I started by taking everything that wasn’t my sleeping bag or sleeping pad and stuffing it into the bear box. I mean, I’d already put anything that had an obvious odor in there, but no sense in leaving anything out, especially if the bear came back and I needed to hightail it out of there.
Then, I called James. Might as well keep establishing myself as a human presence, and what better way to do that than to have an obnoxiously loud, one-sided phone conversation? (Poor James. Hi love! Guess what! I’m calling you to avoid being eaten by a bear! Oh yeah, my bear spray? I don’t have that anymore, but no worries! Sorry, James:)
We talked for a while, and I didn’t hear any more bear activity, and eventually I fell back asleep. And actually slept really well, considering. I even managed to sleep in, something I always struggle with when I’m camping and it starts to get light. And when I got up, I looked all around my tent, since I’m always curious about tracks and signs and whatnot. And sure enough, big old bear prints:
So there you go, bike adventure bear encounters. Good times:)
P.S. Learn about staying safe around bears here. And learn how to tell the difference between grizzlies and black bears here. Always good to know what you’re dealing with:)