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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My First, And Hopefully Only, Bear Encounter of the Cross-Continent Tour of 2011

It’s a hot topic for those who hike or bike tour through the rural regions of the West (and now even the East)*: What to do about bears. When my friend Isy from the UK visited me in 2008 with the intent of doing some backcountry hiking in the Northwest, she asked me “Will I get eaten by a bear?” If you dig on Bikeforums long enough, you’ll find threads about people asking if they need to carry bear spray through the mountains.
Glacier National Park, like many of the forested areas we’ve passed through east of the Cascades, is Bear Country. There is a healthy population of black bears. Not only that, but it is one of the few places in the Lower 48 where there are still Grizzly Bears as well. Because of this, the park does its best to prepare its visitors about bears. Leaflets and signs tell what to do if a bear is encountered. Placards at picnic tables warn people to not leave food and odorous items out. The trash cans are bearproof and bear lockers are available for campers for food storage.

With all this emphasis bears were always in the back of my mind when we were in the park. At the campstore we pondered purchasing bear bells, but figured talking loudly and making noise while hiking were better bear deterrents. (Which they are.) We used this strategy on our hikes in Glacier. Before we turned a corner on a trail, I always wondered if a bear would be there, and if so, would I handle the situation correctly?

But bear encounters are infrequent, so I’ve been told. 95% of the parks visitors never see a bear. While bear encounters can lead to a bear attack, they aren’t always deadly. (Of course, just in the same week a Grizzly killed a woman in Yellowstone, leading the park to kill the bear, the first time since 1986. That wasn’t heartening news to hear, but it was still a rare occasion.) I was hoping that I wouldn’t have any bear encounters in Glacier or on this trip at all. If I was going to see a bear in the wild, I would much like to see it off in the distance.

Saturday morning, July 9th. Day 44 of tour. We were still at Two Medicine Campground, getting ready to ride north. It was after 11am and we were still putzing around our campsite. April went off to the bathroom for a while, and I was slowly packing things into bags and then onto my bike. I turned on the weather band for the forecast. When I gleaned enough information, I turned it off. And then something caught the corner of my eye at the adjoining campsite, the one occupied overnight but whose occupants had already taken off.

A bear.

It looked like a black bear, small to medium sized. I thought bears wouldn’t enter areas if they knew humans were around. But here it was. I froze for a second, watching. Hoping that it would go back off into the woods.

It was heading towards my campsite.

I watched in horror. It trampled through the brush behind my campsite, first looking like it was going to head off into the woods. Then it stopped. It was maybe twenty feet away from me.

Shit. What the fuck was I supposed to do in this situation again? Be quiet, back off, look small? No. That’s what you do if you surprise a bear in the wild. I always expected to encounter a bear on a trail somewhere, not in a developed campground with people around. (Of course, not around when I need them.) But I wasn’t stumbling across a bear doing something. The bear wasn’t surprised by me. It knew I was here. In fact, all of its actions and demeanor spoke nonchalance to me, not surprise. (Yeah, I know how to read bears.)

So what? What am I supposed to do?

Then I remembered: when a bear enters your campground, you should make your presence known. Loudly. Stand ground. So that’s what I did. I got out the pots and pans and started to bang them together. I would shoo the bear away.

So the bear came a little closer. Now it was maybe fifteen feet away. And looking at me.

Shit. Is this bear going to charge me now? Am I doing the wrong thing?

I thought about what to do. Since the bear was so close, I briefly thought about taking a photo. But I didn’t want the last thing I ever did to be photographing this bear. (I didn’t want one of those situations with the local paper running a photo of the bear charging me, with the caption, “Moments before this bear mauled camper Shawn Granton to death, he took this one last frightening photo.”) Nor did I want the last thing April and I ever talked about being the Congressional Porn Rock Hearings.** I also wondered about the size of the bear. Seemed small. Is this a cub? If so, is momma bear behind it?

So should I retreat to the bathrooms, not more than 100 feet away? Tempting under the circumstances. But you are not supposed to run from a bear. And if I left my campsite, the bear would get what it wants: my food. And if a bear gets a taste for human food, the policy is for it to get killed by the park before it starts causing more trouble. I didn’t want that to happen either.

So I stood my ground. I banged on those pots and pans harder, now shouting: “GO AWAY BEAR.”

And finally it turned around. It ambled on, towards thicker woods.


I waited a few minutes until I was sure the bear was out of range. Then I ran to the women’s room, banged on the door shouting, “APRIL! THERE WAS A BEAR IN OUR CAMPSITE!”
She came back to our campsite and calmed me down. I then walked in the direction the bear came from, to see if other campers saw it.

The campsite after the one I first spotted the bear had a couple in it. “Did you happen to see a bear?” I stammered.
“Oh yeah. It was cool.” They were of course in their car when the bear wandered through. Bears must look cool in that circumstance, not when you are alone in your campsite sans car.
“Well, I had to make a bunch of noise to get it out from my site.”
“You’re not supposed to do that.”
Remind me never to camp with these people. They probably leave their food out, too.

Eventually I found the campground host, so I reported the sighting to him. I asked him if making noise was right or wrong, and he confirmed what I did was the right thing in the situation.

So now I’ve had a bear encounter. I’m glad it was minor in the grand scheme of things. It was still a frightening couple minutes of my life, something I don’t want to repeat any time soon. Somehow I don’t think it will be the last time I see a bear in the wild, especially since April and I want to do some backcountry hiking in the near future.

*Black bears are on the rise, especially in New England. Connecticut pretty much eliminated all of its bear population by 1850, but it returned around 1980. The extirpation was due to most of the forests of the Constitution State being cleared for farming and industrial use, and the return due to the increase of forested land after the abandonment of wide-scale farming. Since 1980 the bear population has been on the rise. Over the past year there have been over 1,000 bear sightings in every part of the state, even in very urban cities like Hartford. (As far as I know there are no bears in Portland, even though we have prime habitat in Forest Park.) I did many a hike in Connecticut over the years, and not once did anyone tell me to worry about bears.

**If you must know how we got on this subject: April mentions how we are in the Rocky Mountains and didn’t John Denver sing “Rocky Mountain High?” I said yes and recounted how he was involved in the Porn Rock Hearings.


  1. I've never had an encounter with a bear. But I've done enough hiking and camping to have been told by people in the know that one should do exactly what you did.

  2. I went on three day hikes last week in Alaska. On one hike I saw a woman with bear spray and bells on. On another hike, we encountered a guy with a handgun strapped to his chest (scary!)

    I read about a recent study that showed that most black bear attacks are by male bears (not mamas with cubs) during August (while fattening up for hibernation) so, really you shouldn't worry too much about bears.

  3. Shawn, I think you might be confusing your bear attacks in Yellowstone. The attack last week killed a 57-year old man. His wife was unharmed. Apparently he didn't follow all the proper "bear-aware behaviors". Officials decided not to kill the sow, since there were cubs present and she was acting defensively. There was also an attack last year in July, where the bear *was* killed, but that was outside the park in West Yellowstone, not in the park boundary. There was also a fatal attack just east of Yellowstone in June 2010 - both the bears in those attacks were killed.

    I'm about to enter Yellowstone in a few days, so as you might imagine, I've been keeping really up to date on bear attacks and Yellowstone. I did pick up bear spray yesterday - hopefully I won't have cause to use it. Glad to hear your encounter ended well, and that you and April are both ok!

  4. Hi, it's been great reading reports of your progress.

    A few weeks ago we rode from Vancouver-Edmonton and saw quite a few black bears along the way...sitting on their rumps in the ditches, watching us flail by on our puny cycles all panicky and whatnot. We knew they are relatively harmless (compared to grizzlies which praise Xenu we did not encounter) but still...they are wild, and they have sharp teeth! We thought that next time we toured through brushy areas we'd each strap an airhorn onto the bars. Super lightweight and surely THAT would budge the most stubborn wildlife from one's path? You could even bring it into the tent at night. Hilarious imagery, but better than bear breath snuffling in your face.

    We did encounter a woman cycling from Alaska-Vancouver who had a simple klaxton-type horn on her bars, for general scaring purposes. She said it worked great.


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