Wow, where do I start. I was just charged by a big grizzly bear.
I just got back to my camper in the National Forest just outside of Grand Teton National Park. I went hiking with my dog in the National Forest and was charged by a grizzly bear - twice - !!
The adrenaline was pumping during the attack. So much goes through your mind when a 500-pound grizzly comes charging at you.
As most of you know, I didn't grow up in an area with wildlife but I do visit grizzly country regularly. I hope someone else can benefit from my experience. Knowing how to avoid such an encounter and how to act if it does occur may save your life but ultimately it may save the life of a bear.
Don't run. Make yourself look tall. Talk to the bear. Back away slowly. Have your can of bear pepper spray ready to discharge on the charging bear.
It worked. I'm glad to be alive to be typing this.
It started out as another ordinary afternoon. Living full-time in our RV and staying busy as a wildlife photographer, I'm out almost daily searching for interesting things to photograph. When hiking in one of America's National Parks, I hike alone. When I'm in a National Forest, you're allowed to take a dog with you. Having returned from a morning in the National Park, I thought I'd go for a relaxing walk not far from the campsites, so off I went with my dog in tow.
About a mile into the hike, I spotted grizzly bear foot prints in the snow along a dirt road. Cool! Having camped in and around National Parks on many occasions in the past, this didn't trigger any alarm bells as I have found many bear prints in the past; after all, this is where they live and walk around. As I was taking some pictures of the prints, the dog barked at crows flying about 50 yards (or meters) away. Usually when she barks, the birds fly away. This time however, they stayed put. Again, nothing that made me think twice as crows and ravens can be pretty pigheaded, plus they are used to dealing with canines (dogs, coyotes, foxes, wolves.)
Let's go check it out, I said to the dog, making what I thought was plenty of noise. I left the forest road and walked into a field covered in sage brush: low plants about waist height. Not a thought was going through my mind that anything bigger than my dog could hide in the sage brush. I could see well into the distance and, after all, we were only about one hundred yards away from the nearest campsite (as the crow flies), barely a few yards from a National Forest dirt road and it was early afternoon. I wasn't expecting any big wildlife in the area considering the noise my dog made and heavy machinery noises coming from the nearby gravel pit.
The sagebrush field sloped down gradually and the crows were only about 30 yards away at this point. For some reason, the dog was hesitant to walk next to me. Usually the dog leads the way; now she stayed behind me.
I thought I could see well ahead of me but between the sagebrush was a hidden indentation in the terrain. As I walked through the sagebrush and saw the depression in the field right in front of me, I was in for a shock! Fifteen yards away lay a dead animal carcass (moose) in between the sage brush and in the dip in the terrain. A grizzly bear sow and her lone cub were eating. The rest happened in a dream.
In a split second, the grizzly bear stood up in a panic, huffed and charged me. My heart went in overdrive and I knew I was in a world of trouble. I had stumbled upon a grizzly bear at very close range feeding on a carcass. With a young cub. And I was alone, far away from any safe shelter. And never mind having my dog with me which is generally also considered a bad idea as dogs can annoy the bear.
Everything went through my mind in an instant. This is bad. Don't run. Get the bear spray can out and remove the safety. Get the hell out of here.
The bear charged through the bushes onto the ledge. I yelled at the top of my lungs, trying to sound dominant (which is actually a mistake when faced with a grizzly, I later learned). Hey bear, stop, get out of here, hey bear, STOP.
It worked. The bear turned and ran back to the carcass where her cub was looking at me, all agitated.
I backed away as fast as I could through the sage brush trying not to fall and keeping my eyes in the direction of the bear. She was 30 yards away again, just out of sight.
A loud cracking noise. She charged again. Loudly huffing and puffing, she stormed my way like a tank through the sage brush. This is it I thought: what the hell have I gotten myself into!?
She sprinted my way, all agitated with her cub safely behind her. My dog is usually not impressed when we see a wild animal while hiking. Perhaps she doesn't instinctively know that even an elk or moose presents a dangerous situation for her since they see her as a predator. But, she knew better than to mess with a grizzly bear.
Note: while hiking in nature, it is always recommended (and usually required) to keep your dog on a leash. Ignoring this rule can spell trouble and even disaster for the wildlife and your dog. I was hiking in the Bridger-Teton National Forest where a dog does not have to be on a leash but it does need to be under voice control.
The charging bear was loud. Destroying bushes and loudly huffing. This is it I thought. She can be on me in a few seconds. I yelled STOP, HEY BEAR, STOP and had my finger ready on the bear spray can.
15 yards left.. She kept coming.
10 yards... I have to discharge the bear spray if I have any chance of surviving this I thought.
But suddenly, she veered off to my right. It was a bluff charge.
I backed away with my heart going as fast as humanly possible. She was running away from me through the sage brush with her cub. I walked as fast as I could (don't run!), expecting her to charge again at any moment. I kept going always looking over my shoulder, listening for any sound.
She didn't return. I arrived back at the camper after what seemed like an eternity. My throat hurts from shouting. I'm still on edge. But I made it.
The dog had disappeared before the first charge but came back to me - acting like nothing had happened - shortly after. Had she smelled the bears since she didn't want to walk with me? Had she smelled the carcass and known something bigger than her was on it? I wish I had had her instincts and smell.
I did a lot of things wrong today. Never hike alone. Always make noise to let animals know you're coming. Don't try to assert dominance over a grizzly by yelling and shouting at it. Here I was, walking through the forest but ending up not just surprising a grizzly bear at close range, but a mom grizzly with cub AND who was protecting a carcass for their food!
The bear obviously didn't do anything wrong. Accidentally surprising them like I did at close range is about the worst you can do. When we saw each other at close range, I activated the bear's fight or flight response. Being with a small cub on a food source (with hibernation fast approaching, bears are fattening up now and eating whatever they can), I gave her no choice. Was it a bluff charge or did my behavior during the charge make her reconsider physical contact, I'll never know.
I'm to blame for the situation I found myself in. I'm just lucky I made it out alive.
Some have asked if I recognized the bears. I did not. I'm familiar with the "celebrity bears" in the area (like Felicia, 399, 610, 793, etc.) but 'my bear' was not one of them. Jason from the US Forest Service mentioned to me that; especially this time of year (hunting season); there are many grizzly bears active in that area.
- When hiking in bear country, be bear aware.
- Avoid hiking alone. Make noise. Carry bear spray.
- If a bear charges, don't run. Stand your ground. Talk to the bear and try to bring down the energy of the situation (screaming in fear may have the opposite affect). Back away slowly without losing sight of the bear.
- If a black bear makes contact, fight back. If it's a grizzly, play dead and take the injuries. Having lived through an actual charge by a mama grizzly, I doubt I would have been able to play dead ... But then again, you never know how you'll react until it actually happens!
My story is somewhat similar to the hunting guide who was killed in this area in 2018. A grizzly sow, a cub, a carcass, the guide who stood up and yelled at the charging bear but in that case, the bear kept coming. Or the woman who was attacked by a grizzly in 2017 near Yellowstone; even though the woman had two other people with her and a dog. This is the bear's home and we are merely visiting. For the bears, defending their food can be a matter of life and death so they are fully in their right to act as needed. It's up to us to keep the wildlife wild, which includes acting responsibly in their home and accepting anything the animals may choose to do; at least, that's my opinion.
Carcasses are dangerous, especially this time of year when grizzlies are in a feeding frenzy. I spoke to a National Forest ranger at the campground where I was staying who said that they had to give a fine to a hunting outfitter last year. The outfitter had left a carcass too close to the campground - where I've been staying - and it brought a mama grizzly and two cubs to the carcass and campground. Sounds eerily familiar to the carcass that I stumbled on which is about one mile from my camping spot ... but only 100 yards from one of the other campsites.
Shortly after my encounter, I was contacted by the US Forest Service to discuss my bear encounter. I had the opportunity to speak with Wildlife Biologist Jason Wilmet about Best Practices when you find yourself in grizzly bear country. Reading this could actually save the bear's and your life.
--- Follow-Up ---
As my blog post has gone viral and has been read by thousands of people, of course I have received the gamut of reactions. Reactions range from "glad that ended well for you and the bears" to some basically saying that I acted like a dumb tourist.
I strongly understand that no one wants to draw bad attention to the bears. Neither do I. Why did I write this post? I felt this was a good teaching opportunity. In no shape or form did the bears act inappropriately. I take full responsibility for this encounter and am attempting to prevent others from finding themselves in a similar situation. In my opinion however, it is shortsighted to assume that my blog post endangers the bears. Before I agreed to provide any details to the National Forest Service, I made sure that we were all on the same page that no bears were to blame for this. During the follow-up to my story, many have asked where this happened. At the time, I didn't want to disclose the exact location in order to prevent 'dumb tourists' from hiking into the forest to go look for the carcass. One of the newspaper articles that picked up my blog story however gave away the location which did cause a few people to arrive at the gravel pit the very next day, looking for the carcass. Luckily, by then, it had been enough time for the carcass to be consumed, but it illustrated perfectly why I didn't advertise the location!
A few days after being charged, I re-visited the place but this time from the safety of my car and by not being alone. Since everything happened in a daze on the day of the charge, I wanted to return and see if I could have done things differently. The carcass had been dragged off to the side, near the National Forest dirt road. Surprisingly, the carcass hadn't been fully consumed yet: I've been told by the National Forest Service that most carcasses are gone within 2-3 days (bears, wolves, coyotes, etc.). Curious about the wildlife that visits a carcass, I attached a game camera (motion-triggered) on a nearby tree facing the carcass. About another week later, I again drove my car to the location and picked up the camera. By then, the carcass was gone.
As we all know: when humans and wildlife have a conflict, the wildlife usually loses. I hope my work can help to protect bears and humans in future encounters.
P.S. News about my scary experience has been reported by several news outlets ...
Destination:Wildlife article: Click here to read the article
Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws article: Click here to read the article
Belgian TV station VRT article: Click here
Jackson Hole News and Guide article: weekly newspaper published on Oct 23, 2019 (print + online): Click here to read the article
Belgian radio station article and interview on the radio program "Start Je Dag" (Oct 15, 2019): Click here to read the article