Armed with my Lost in Montana photography book, my wife and I decided to take a short hike up near Red Lodge.
We thought we could get some exercise, breathe in some of that spirit-healing mountain air, and scope out some good spots for camping, fishing, and of course, photography. What we planned for was a nice afternoon in the woods…what happened was something entirely different.
What follows is my best recollection of the events of the summer of 2017, that fateful afternoon when my perceptions and prejudices were shaken – and then crumbled. If you’re not into terrible and heart-wrenching story-telling – move on now.
We had just reached the top of a hilltop during our hike, my wife swiveling her camera left and right searching through the viewfinder, and myself panting, straining, and secretly praying that my heart doesn’t choose to explode on the spot and ruin our nice afternoon. Over the top of the hill, both of us stopped short at the sound of a large branch snapping in the distance to our left. For most, when a large branch snaps in the middle of the woods out of the corner of the eye, the human mind has a tendency to go right for the worst case scenario. Most times it’s a deer, often another adventurer enjoying the wilderness, or maybe just gravity finally getting the best of a dead-but-still-standing tree limb. Ask any person in that exact situation however, and they’ll tell you it is most definitely a 600 pound bear who hasn’t had the luxury of a meal in three days, and is desperately seeking any kind of fresh red meat in the near vicinity.
Unfortunately for us that day, our terrible expectations and reality were one and the same. The snapping twig was immediately followed by a low and throaty sigh, and my wife and I turned in unison toward the source of the sound.
It was immense. Sure, everyone knows grizzly bears are big – but somehow the reality of their size is not fully appreciated until they’re standing 100 feet from you in the middle of nowhere, a mile from the safety of civilization. Its front paws were soaking wet up to the elbows, washed clean in preparation of its next meal. The rest of the fur was a dense, deep brown, matted and coarse, peppered with tiny sticks and leaves as if it had just spent part of the afternoon rolling around in the forest floor to scratch an itch – or to look deceivingly cute and cuddly. Its nose was twisting and contorting like only a bear’s nose can, pinpointing the source of the delicious smells that had invariably brought it this close. I blamed my summer sausage.
The grizzly’s finely-tuned nose turned the rest of its massive head in our direction, and for a short, terrible moment, our eyes met across the Montana forest. We froze, hoping that somehow by not moving we would be mistaken for oddly shaped trees or rock formations. It must not have worked, because the giant animal stood up on its thick rear legs, never losing eye contact, and gave us a deep, rumbling growl that I swear I felt in my feet. Then it started to charge.
Many might not know this, but a lot of things go through a person’s mind when a 600+ pound predator is running toward them. A flurry of thoughts and plans run through one after the other – sourced from a lifetime of being outdoors and planning for situations such as these. When charged by a grizzly, have your bear spray ready. If knocked down, curl into a ball to protect your vital organs while it just chews and tears at the exposed flesh. Don’t run, the bear is faster. Don’t fight, you’ll just die faster. Of course, no one knows in the heat of the moment if your particular human conscious mind will be capable of rational thought – and mine let me down that afternoon. I stood there, frozen and helpless, as the bear closed the distance between us with unbelievable speed. It made no deafening battle roar, no snarled and gaping jaws, only the sound of heavy and weathered pads crunching leaves and twigs on the forest floor.
Don’t run, the bear is faster. Don’t fight, you’ll just die faster.
Lucky for me, my wife is more brave than I am. While I stood there a drooling and petrified statue, she was in action – and had her bear spray in hand, safety removed, ready to spray. The bear was within 40 feet when I realized I could feel the ground shake from its monstrous gallop, and I planned for the worst. Closed casket, sorry for your loss, my brother can have my truck. At least no one would have to know that in a time of crisis, I froze when it mattered most.
Suddenly, the rumble stopped. At this point I would have bet money that meant there was series of razor sharp teeth around my neck, and I was about to lose the ability to feel anything below my collarbone (I should be so lucky). I slowly opened my eyes – which had somehow inexplicably shut tight sometime in the last 3.5 seconds – to see my wife standing alert with her bear spray pointed in the direction of the animal, and the bear sitting on it’s haunches 20 feet away like it had decided to take a quick rest before lunch. My wife, wild eyed and high on adrenaline, looked at me with a questioning look, and I returned it. Then we realized what had pulled the bear’s attention away from us.
It was a butterfly. The bloodthirsty grizzly had gotten distracted by a small butterfly. In a moment almost absurd in its sudden and violent change of circumstances, we watched as the monumental animal played with, watched, and followed the fluttering insect like an awestruck toddler. I relaxed slightly, not because I didn’t still assume we were going to die, but because I thought I might live for a few minutes longer. Once the butterfly distraction had passed, the grizzly sat down and turned its attention back to us. Immediately my heart tightened again – and I wondered why we hadn’t spent the last 30 seconds backing away slowly then running for our lives. Looking at us lazily, the bear leaned forward, gripped its rear feet with its front paws, then rolled backward in a slow and graceful arc that could have easily been playfulness. We had no idea what to do next. What was happening?
My wife lowered her spray, then – as most insane women are prone to do – picked up her camera instead. While she watched through her viewfinder, the grizzly rolled onto its feet, walked toward me, and proceeded to sniff my hair, face, and clothes. Having never introduced myself to a bear, I stood perfectly still – my hope of walking back to the truck with my limbs intact tentatively growing. After my inspection, the bear turned to my wife and did the same, taking special attention to the camera lens.
What followed next was like something out of a dream. There were points where I could have swore that my wife and I were already dead, and this was some sort of aftershock dream concocted from the diminishing electrical currents traveling through my brain. We spent the entire rest of the afternoon with what we thought was going to be our savage murderer. As we came to learn, he was a gentle and kind creature, and what we thought was his attack charge was actually just youthful excitement.
We walked the forest together, we saw the sights together, simply enjoying each other’s company. It was like having an expert tourist guide of the forest – with inch-long claws. My wife was kind enough to snap some pictures of us during the day so we could remember this terrifying-turned-enlightening experience. While I’ll never strut up to a strange bear, hand outstretched in a similar greeting, I do have a new understanding and respect for the massive creatures. What we planned for was a nice afternoon in the woods… what happened was truly something entirely different.
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