Stomp, Scratch, and Snack, or, The McIntyre Sisters Encounter a Bear

Stomp, Scratch, and Snack,
The McIntyre Sisters Encounter a Bear

By Vonda N. McIntyre

A Bear in Glacier National Park; Photo by Carolyn McIntyre

Photo by Carolyn McIntyre

When you go to a national park, you’re likely to get a lot of information about staying out of the way of the wildlife. This is generally a good idea; humans are in the critters’ territory and we ought to respect it. All too often, we don’t, and while the result may sometimes be unfortunate for a human, if a person gets hurt the result is fatal for the critter.

Rangers despair of people who believe they have a mystical connection with animals and can safely pet the bear cubs while mama bear looks on in flattered contentment. While it may be true that some people have a mystical connection with wildlife (I doubt it, but anything is possible in our quantum mechanical world), that isn’t the point. The point is that a wild animal who becomes acclimated to human beings is likely to become involved in a situation in which the human being gets hurt.

At which point the critter will be caught and killed.

The mystical person who persuades the wild critter that humans are safe to approach, far from communing with nature, is putting the critter in serious danger.

So you see a lot of serious warnings about keeping out of the way of the wildlife, particularly the larger carnivores.

Wolves have recently been re-introduced to Yellowstone; they’re making a significant and positive difference in the ecosystem. They prefer elk, and have thinned and improved the Yellowstone elk herds. One of the results of wolf kills of elk is that the smaller predators have a lot more leftovers to scavenge. In particular, when wolves are around, predation on pronghorn fawns by coyotes decreases. According to the naturalist I talked to, adult pronghorn have no predators because nothing is fast enough to catch them. The fawns are more vulnerable. But the coyotes would much rather scavenge off the wolf kills.

You might see a coyote at not too great a distance. They’re bold and curious and they’re called Trickster for good reason. To see a wolf, you have to work and you have to get up a 0-dawn-thirty. Wolves are even better at bears at disappearing when they hear you coming. If you see them at all, it’s likely to be from a couple of miles away through a spotting scope, and thanks to the advice of someone who spends a lot of time studying wolves.

Bears are the critters you get warned about the most. And it’s surely dangerous to startle a bear. My sister Carolyn sings her Bear Chant when she’s hiking in the woods, and so far it’s worked.

If letting the bear hear you doesn’t work, one of the recommendations is to not run. If you end up knocked to the ground, lie still.

I’m sure this is excellent advice, but… yeah right.

I’ve crossed paths with a number of bears – in Yellowstone, in Glacier, and near the Brothers Wilderness. Fortunately the bear has always been at a distance (I’ve had some excellent views of vanishing bear butts), or I’ve been in the car.

The most memorable, and unexpected, bear encounter was at Glacier National Park.

Glacier National Park WaterfallGlacier’s landscape is much more vertical than Yellowstone’s, with fewer meadows and open spots, so the wildlife is less accessible. Oftentimes in Glacier you’re driving along a road that rises in a sheer face upward on one side, downward on the other. Many fewer glades to drive past – and the glades, the water meadows, the borders and boundaries between trees and open space, are the productive habitats.

A bison on the road

Yellowstone and Grand Teton have more of these open spaces. Drive along for a little while, and you’re likely to see deer, or a bison strolling up the road, or a braided river with a moose swimming across it. Sometimes even a bear. Usually a black bear; once in a while a grizzly. I’ve never seen a grizzly in the wild; when I was in Yellowstone, it was August. All the grizzlies were in the mountains at 12,000 feet, eating moth larvae. I’m not making this up.

A Moose in Glacier National Park -- Photo by Carolyn McIntyre

Moose in picture much farther away than it appears.

Telephoto by Carolyn McIntyre

Because of all the lakes in Glacier, you do occasionally see moose. They like to browse along the lake edge, and if a moose went to your school, it would make the swim team. I found out, to my surprise, that more people get hurt by moose than by bears. You don’t see many moose warnings. But if there’s a bear on the trail and it hears you coming, ninety-nine times out of a hundred you’ll never see it.

A moose on the trail, though, will tromple right over you if it feels like it. Apparently moose aren’t known for their gentle temperaments, especially around mating season.

At Two Medicine, we encountered two people motating up the trail from the lake. They were wearing kayak gear, so we wondered why they were headed away from the water, not to mention why they looked panicky and winded.

“We were going to launch our kayak,” they said. “But there’s a moose on the shore. We figure, it has the right-of-way.”

Sensible people.

You do expect to see bears in Yellowstone. In Glacier you mostly see amazing geology. So it was a bit of a surprise when, heading out after the Two Medicine boat tour and the hike to Twin Falls, my sister and I saw a medium-sized black bear stroll onto the road in front of our car.

Needless to say, we stopped.

The bear ambled along the road, crossed it, then settled down for a good scratch and a snack. I have no idea what it was eating (I wasn’t about to get out of the car and go closer), but if I had to guess I’d say it was another bear. The fur was too dark to be a mountain goat, it was awfully hairy for moose or deer, and it was apparently too big for the bear to drag away.

My sister, who’s an excellent photographer, caught the video of the critter.

Notice the car whipping past between us and the bear without even slowing down. If you see a car stopped by the side of the road in Yellowstone, you stop too. It takes about half a minute for a dozen cars to collect to find out what you’re looking at. In Glacier, not so much. But the result was that we got to watch the bear in peace, until finally another car did stop.

The people got out, noisily.

The bear disappeared silently, leaving its snack behind.

Vonda N. McIntyre


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