A Chilling Encounter: Trapped in a Gorge with a Grizzly
An idyllic picnic at Glacier National Park nearly turns tragic when a grizzly creeps up and crashes the party. This is a cautionary tale about ignoring signs.
A Picnic Cut Short
“A bear is coming,” she announced. She said it with the deep voice she reserves for when shit is getting real.
I had just slathered peanut butter on my sandwich bread after serving one to each of our three kids.
We were visiting Glacier National Park in Western Montana. After a frustrating morning of passing up great trails for lack of parking spaces we finally squeezed our car into a spot at a less popular trail.
A short way into our hike there was a bridge where we could climb down into a small gorge. The boys and I laughed as we hopped rock to rock trying not to fall into the shallow creek. We were all having some good family fun, finally.
I had the idea to picnic there since it was unlikely we would easily find another spot.
Liuan was doubtful. A year ago, we visited the Smokey Mountains. A small black bear had approached her and the boys. I wasn’t there because I was working remotely that day. They were eating stir fried eggplant at a picnic spot they had chosen a little way off the trail. They left the open backpack on the ground and retreated as they realized the bear was walking toward them and not just passing through. It finished off the eggplant, then grabbed the backpack in its mouth and walked off.
I, on the other hand, argued that a bear encounter was unlikely. Fifteen years ago I had camped for two weeks with four college buddies at Glacier. We never once saw a bear. This despite having camped remotely for several days. We ate regular meals: sandwiches, pancakes with syrup, lots of canned beans. We were cavalier (i.e. stupid) young twenty-somethings, so we actually prayed to Jesus that we would see a bear. And yet we never saw the slightest hint of a bear. Mine was the more relevant experience, no?
So we made our way downstream where there was a low curved ledge of rock. The bridge (and the other tourists) were obscured by a large boulder. It was like private booth seating that nature had carved out just for this occasion.
Glacier Then and Now
Some things have changed since that trip in 2005 with my friends.
There are many ways into Glacier National Park, but the most famous is the Going-to-the-Sun Road that traverses the entire park through the center. At its peak elevation you get the sensation that your car is soaring beside the majestic blue mountains over a yawning abyss. You are either driving a few feet from a bottomless expanse or barely avoiding getting scraped on the jagged rock wall that hugs the other side. I personally found the rock wall to be the most terrifying.
As of 2021, the Going-to-the-Sun Road now requires a reservation to enter. Even with this restriction the road is extremely congested. In 2005, we didn’t give a thought to parking. We drove wherever we wanted and saw whatever we pleased.
This time around, parking at the trailheads was impossible. The parking lots were not only full but fifty other cars were in queue to take the next available spot. Some parking lots were such a lost cause that park rangers simply barricaded them.
Another noticeable difference was the thick haze that transformed the crystal clear skies to a light gray blur. This, we found out, was not a matter of bad weather but a result of numerous large forest fires near and far.
Plan of Action
Just before spotting the bear, I had reasoned that it was unlikely the bear would come from the sides because of the steep slopes. It probably wouldn’t come from the bridge because of all the tourists passing through. Therefore there was only one way it could approach us, from downstream. In other words, I argued, our enclosure made us safer. I notably ignored the corollary: if a bear did find us, we were trapped.
The kids were digging into their sandwiches, and I had just taken a bite out of mine. Liuan mounted the boulder to get some candid shots of the scene. She took one last look over her shoulder just in case…
And there it was. Her worst nightmare come true.
A furry brown head and shoulders steadily trudging downstream. It advanced toward us like a slow moving freight train. It was as if we were stuck deep in a long narrow tunnel, only realizing too late that the railroad was active.
“It’s coming!” she repeated.
While I swallowed my second bite of sandwich, Liuan hopped off the boulder and sprang into action. She had already visualized what she would do, looking back at the first bear experience last year. She quickly gathered everything, threw it in the backpack, and handed it to me. Then she swung Miles, our two year old, into the baby carrier on her back.
The upside to being trapped is you don’t have too many options consider. There were two bad options and two non-options. The non-options were walk upstream (toward the bear) or climb out of the gorge into the wilderness. So we only had to decide whether to flee downstream or try to climb up the side of the gorge leading to the trail.
We opted for the trail. No more wilderness for us.
Facing the Grizzly
When face to face with a grizzly bear, you can make one of two mistakes. The first is sticking around and being eaten. The second is running away and getting chased, and then being eaten. The official guidance is to stay facing the bear, stand your ground, speak calmly in low tones, and slowly edge away.
That of course assumes you are on flat ground. There was no playbook for this. We could either stand our ground or scramble out of the gorge.
I resolved to be the one to stand my ground while Liuan and the boys scrambled out.
I stood with my arm outstretched, bear spray aimed at the boulder, waiting for the inevitable.
Liuan and the boys had barely mounted the rock wall when I saw the brown head crest the boulder.
Then it appeared. Rounding the right side of the boulder, a beautiful, dreadful, enormous grizzly.
It had smooth copper brown fur. Not the mangy dull brown coat that I expected. It seemed neither surprised nor bothered by my presence. She slowly nosed her way closer. We were now a mere twenty feet apart.
My belly and chest boiled while my heart revved like an engine. I had a feeling modern humans only have in nightmares. Two contradictory thoughts flooded my consciousness. First, I will be dismembered in the next minute or so. Second, if I play my cards just right, I might still have a chance.
Liuan and the boys were now ten feet up the brambly incline. I started making plans for my own exit. But how? If I turned around and started climbing I would trigger the bear’s chase instinct and it would be over in a matter of seconds.
I wanted to increase my odds, so I did something you’re not supposed to do. I unzipped my bag. I fished out the peanut butter jar. I unscrewed the cap.
The bear was warily edging closer to where I stood. I gently tossed the jar a few feet in front of the bear. It smacked the dry river bed and splattered onto the rocks. The bear recoiled and backed up a few steps as if I had thrown a grenade. It was wary and off balance; I took that as my cue to leave. I turned my back to the bear and faced the rock wall. I focused on making making calm and efficient moves up the mountainside.
The vegetation was so thick I immediately lost sight of the bear. I occasionally looked over my shoulder, bear spray at the ready. It didn’t follow.
You may wonder why I didn’t use the bear spray in the first place. I think part of me was afraid to enrage the beast. Another part of me felt bad hurting the bear, strange as that might sound. It wasn’t the bear’s fault I was eating a fragrant meal in her backyard. Then again, maybe I was reluctant to use up my last defense, finding more comfort in keeping it as an option than using it up.
I wish I could say we discovered a brilliant new tactic for handling a bear when trapped in a gorge. But I’m afraid we were just lucky.
We were lucky the bear wasn’t in the mood for meat that day. Maybe it had already just eaten. Or maybe it was just feeling lazy that day. We were lucky we didn’t surprise the bear and it didn’t surprise us. Liuan was in the right place at the right time giving us thirty or forty seconds to react.
As uncomfortable as it is contemplate, the situation could have ended tragically no matter what we did. Some friends of ours who visited Glacier on their honeymoon and also heard a bear-related a story of a park ranger surprising a bear while mountain biking. He did not escape.
The best thing for us to do would have been to avoid that situation. At the beginning of the trail there had been a warning not to bring “odiferous” foods (looking at you, peanut butter). We ignored it and it could have cost us.
In the days since, I’ve been thinking about the way group decisions are made. Why does the least cautious opinion often prevail? Or, in other words, why does peer pressure favor the stupidest behaviors?
I put some of the blame on a culture that tries to eliminate all risk. In the United States, even the most rare or hypothetical risks merit an advisory sign or outright prohibition. As I write this, I’m staying at an AirBnB rental where children under 15 years old are prohibited from using the hot tub. When we were kids, my siblings and I enjoyed the hot tub without incident at the tender age of four.
It is hard to distinguish between something that just “happened to someone once” – who probably got what they deserved through incompetence and carelessness – and a real and immediate danger. Even worse, it may be that someone is merely deflecting lawsuits by disclaiming every hypothetical risk. Consequently, the oversaturation of warning signage does the opposite of it’s intended effect. It lulls you into ignoring the stupid sign and leaves it up to you to evaluate and ultimately guess if there is really a risk.
Or maybe I’m just making excuses. In any case, I will forevermore heed any warning that involves large predators.
Another problem with making group decisions about risk is the fact that it’s hard to prove that precautions are warranted. For example, if we had followed Liuan’s intuition, I could have claimed all day that nothing would have happened and that we passed up a beautiful lunch experience. She would look like an overcautious buzz kill. I probably would have teased her about it. And how would she prove she was right and I was wrong?
If everyone in the world had followed health officials’ guidance and COVID-19 had not spread, wouldn’t the prevailing narrative be that it was all an overreaction?
So does that mean we should always heed the most cautious voice? I’m afraid it’s not that simple. After all, the arguments veteran travelers hear from those who would prefer we stay home cite the danger of other countries and other people. Those of us who experience those other countries and people know those fears to be unwarranted. In other words, you risk missing out by being overcautious.
I think the takeaway here is not some rigid rule about whose opinion should always win out. Rather, the wiser approach is to treat everyone’s opinion with respect and to engage with the concerns of those who urge caution, rather than unthinkingly blow them off. Even, and maybe especially, if that voice is the only one in the crowd.
Not Out of the Woods Yet
I took up the rear as we wrestled our way through the brush, praying that we would soon find the trail. Finley, our four-year-old boy, got caught in a thick stand of saplings where he ripped his shirt. He cried, no doubt feeling the full weight of his helplessness. I pulled him out and told him he was safe. I didn’t quite believe that myself, but I needed to get him moving again.
Oliver, our oldest son, seven, was in the lead. Liuan thought she saw something like a flat ledge above. Was it the trail?
Oliver bounded uphill. It was indeed the trail.
“There’s a bear up here!!!” He repeated himself three more times his voice growing more frantic with each repetition.
“Come back down!” I shouted.
Visibly upset, he trekked back down. We briefly considered walking through the brush between the trail and the river bed; between the two bears. But this was no solution. Ultimately, I made for the trail alone intending to convince it to leave with the bear spray. I emerged from the bushes onto the trail ready for whatever awaited me.
Nothing. There was no bear.
Could he have hallucinated it? More likely, it was just a young cub that scampered away once we started yelling and shouting. Oliver later told us it was the “size of Finley”.
Did it also smell the peanut butter? How many bears, exactly, where homing in on our family picnic?
We emerged at the trailhead shaken but relieved. Several tourists promptly turned around and went back to their cars when they saw the disheveled family and tattered little boy telling of bear encounters.
For the rest of the day my mind’s eye played the incident over and over on a loop. Except that some of the replays had different endings. In some I panic and stand frozen as the bear saunters up to me and takes me out with a paw swipe. In another I bolt down the rock studded riverbed, bear gaining on me, until I ultimately stumble to my demise. In another still, the bear rushes me as I climb up the mountainside, latches it’s teeth into my leg, and I cling desperately to a tree hoping to lose nothing more than a limb.
A week later it feels like nothing more than a juicy story. I still feel sheepish about putting my family in danger like that especially since I overrode Liuan’s concerns to do so. Going forward, this experience will be a factor when Liuan and I negotiate the tradeoffs between risk and reward.
But fortunately, the incident was too short and painless to ultimately leave a deep psychological imprint on any of us. That evening we ate an expensive dinner and rehashed our brush with tragedy, ordering the details of it in our collective memory.
If you want to learn more about the basics of bear safety, check out this interactive quiz.