By Joan Larsen
My lone standoff with an extremely large grizzly bear in Alaska’s Denali Park has gone down in the annals of park history. The tale has been used as a strong warning to visitors to our national parks that we should never – EVER – hike alone. My park guide – who I had assured that I would be just lounging on the mountainside overlooking Mt. McKinley — had hiked to the mountain top above, looked over the edge, and saw the golden grizzly heading toward me and tried to warn me. He took a photo of the bear approaching but thought I had gotten away before the bear saw me. I hadn’t. It was a three-hour standoff as I backed down the mountain backwards, baby step by baby step, hoping another grizzly had not come up behind me.
The sun shone on me that day and I survived. But because I am attracted to wild places that few get to, this was not to be my last close call. Far from it. I am a living encyclopedia in what to do if attacked. But I have also learned that I am not going to be on a trail – ever – in Glacier National Park, Waterton Lakes or in Yellowstone unless I am with a good size group who will keep the bears at bay.
I think I have run out of “free passes”.
I also know that climate change has caused a decline in the whitebark pine nuts that provide the best food source for bears in late summer and fall. They are then more dependent on “people food”, and the rangers are putting out heavy warnings that the 600 grizzlies are now vying for good sources. I am no longer hiking at the most beautiful Glacier National Park as the bears are everywhere.
And so it was that in August, 2014, I just happened to be touring the park by car – a wonderful way to see the gorgeous sights – when we were stopped by a cluster of people with binoculars looking upward near famed Logan Pass.
Sure enough, a hiker was walking on the famed Highline Trail that I too had hiked. He was high up at the most precarious spot, where rock walls shoot dizzyingly above on one side, and then FALL almost straight down for about a quarter of a mile or so.
The bear had been no fool. To be safe, he was using the hiker’s path, moving quite friskily. I am sure he felt he was having his early evening amble. So did the hiker, rounding the bend coming the other way. You could see the bear jump. The guy must have wet his pants. Each stared at the other. The hiker had no choice. He could die in the attempt – but he had to now scramble down a sheer rockslide to the only small boulder in view. . . and make it. Even then, it was hide-and-seek but the poor guy was bigger than the boulder, even crouching, as you will see.
The bear fortunately sprinted past the spot. Several groups of eight people hiking together took off and hid behind the trees and boulders together for safety. Their thoughts had to be: let the bear pass. That bear is the one whose home was there. We, the humans, are really the trespassers on his home grounds.
The lone hiker? He couldn’t believe this really happened, the park ranger said. He was in shock. And why not when there had been no place to get away but essentially over the side of a cliff?
Funny. I knew the feeling well. I know that making a lot of noise – in a group – gives the bear warning to move away – especially if she has a cub along. Never (!) look at grizzly in the eye or pretend that you are larger than the bear by putting your hands above your head. The bear will stand up to his full 7 feet or more, showing you who would be the victor in a show of strength. (Mine did!) Just like humans, their behavior cannot be predicted. We all have bad days — and this could be one for him as well.
The lone hiker’s story tells its own tale. . . and the photos, grainy as they are, make it come to life in a way words cannot. Bears — well, I have found out close up and personal how large they are, how unpredictable they are, and how dangerous they can be. I survived – more than once – in situations I still do not understand. I am smarter and wiser now.
“If the human race is to survive, then we must respect the right of other species to survive. Sharing bedroom space with a grizzly bear is not practical but sharing wilderness space is. We must therefore, restrict human activity to spaces where threatened or endangered species live. We must stay out of their bedroom. Set aside some wild spaces while they still exist. Closing the wild spaces after all of the wild things are gone will not work.”
Bob McMeans,Virginia Outdoor Writers Association
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”