Everyone in Montana has a bear story.

I heard one about a discriminating black bear that crawled through a living room window and was attempting to escape with a bottle of 30-year-old single malt Scotch when frightened by the home owner.

There was one about a happenstance Yellowstone drama, viewed through the window of a parked Winnebago, several grizzlies within a stone’s throw, gnawing at a fresh bison carcass, the wolves that made the kill circling to get their share.

And one about a bear pulling an occupied sleeping bag from a tent, and the woman occupant’s narrow escape, slipping from the bag like a hot dog from a bun, while the bear was dragging his takeout meal to a private picnic spot.

Great, exciting bear stories.

I went to Montana to get one of my own.

Encouraged by a friend who was going, I signed up with the Yellowstone Institute to hike into Pelican Valley. It’s a big place, more than 10,000 acres of grass, summer lupine in Caribbean blue hues, yellow Glacier lilies, blankets of white phlox, and a meandering Pelican Creek. It is gorgeous, unspoiled wilderness.

It is also one of the best places in Yellowstone to see grizzlies doing what they were meant to do.

Educated by Discovery Channel

Having done a lot of diligent preparatory research via the Discovery Channel, I assumed that primarily meant catching salmon on the fly in their teeth (more of a Kodiak bear thing, actually) or chasing down mighty antlered elk (some truth here, though elk calves are apparently far easier to catch).


I was set straight on all things bear by Kerry Gunther. He is the bear management biologist for Yellowstone National Park. Back in the day, between 1931 and 1969, Yellowstone was averaging 48 adverse bear-human interactions (aka maulings) a year. This was when Yellowstone had open garbage dumps, and tourists would settle their backsides into bleachers set up around the trash to watch bears bicker over hotel leftovers. For some reason, many folks then didn’t see how bears might make the association between hotel leftovers, humans and food source.

I can only assume that if the folks in the bleachers got to see photos of deep, oozing wounds from a bear mauling, like they showed in my bear safety classes, enthusiasm for the hand-feeding of 600-pound grizzlies would have diminished much faster.

After they began closing the dumps in 1970 (it took about a decade to close them all) and bear-proofing garbage cans and such, maulings plunged to less than one a year, an improvement Gunther’s crew is justifiably proud of. Bears began reverting to a more traditional, omnivorous lifestyle. More of a meat and three thing, except the “three” is a blend of white bark pine nuts, roughage like thistles and tubers, and, of course, Army cutworm moths.

The last was kind of an interesting discovery. Gunther said he and his fellow bear observers would see bears move up above the tree line in the summer to these shale rock areas at 11,000 feet and hang out for days. They wondered why, since there was no vegetation and no game there. Turns out, though, that under the rocks is where the moths hang out, by the thousands. Bears would pick up a rock and lick the underside like the creamy filling of an Oreo, except there is a lot more fat and protein in cutworm moths.

In a postscript on the topic, Gunther notes that despite their remarkable food value, the wings on the moths are a culinary buzz kill for most non-bear consumers … like a dust chaser. I’m just saying … in case you thought about it.

Know what to do when a bear catches you peeing?

Each summer, Gunther leads a three-day bear-watching trip into Pelican Valley. He has studied the bears in Yellowstone for most of the past 30 years. He once spent a summer and then some in a fire tower cabin on top of a mountain overlooking Pelican Valley, tracking bear behavior with a spotting scope. It was, he says, a contemplative time. He once went 63 days without talking to another human. At this point, I should point out there is no cell service in Yellowstone, so no texting or Twittering, either.

But there are storms, and Gunther says lightning can be an issue when your home is at the highest point on a mountain, even if you aren’t worried about the phone going out. His cabin came with a stool with glass legs like those telephone pole insulators. He was advised to place the stool in the middle of the cabin and stand on it when a thunderstorm approached. Initially, he threw it out in the yard. During the first storm, after the lightning rod cables running from the roof began to glow and hum, he ran and fetched it back and stood on it. Seemed like a wise idea. 

When you go on a Yellowstone Institute trip into bear country, they like to scare you to death with videos about what to do and what not to do should you startle a large grizzly when you step off the trail to take a pee.

Here’s what I remember:

  • Announce in a loud voice that you are going into the woods to take a pee, so that people will miss you if you don’t come back, and so that bears will hear you and feel obliged to give you a little privacy. 
  • If the bear is still out there and you surprise it, don’t turn and run. “You can’t outrun a bear,” says Gunther. In fact, everyone in Montana offers that bit of wisdom. Rather, you should back away slowly and talk to the bear in a calm, conversational voice, "so sorry, my bad, sorry to interrupt … Have a nice day.” 
  • If the bear still feels violated and decides to charge, lay down cover fire from your can of bear spray (which you always keep with you). You wait until the bear is within 25 feet and then spray in broad sweeping strokes (good to read the instructions beforehand). You also hope to god the wind is at your back. If not, then just before the bear bites down on your skull, chances are you will also get a face full of pepper gas. This likely will make the whole mauling experience just that much more unpleasant.

If nothing stops the bear, then when he raises up on two legs to get a better angle on your neck (and not a moment sooner), you fall face first to the ground and try to bury your head in the dirt. The hope is that the bear will give a couple of swats to your backpack to make sure you are no threat and then wander off. Of course, if you do not happen to have a backpack on at the time, this swatting is likely to be somewhat painful and permanently disfiguring. 

After they tell you all this, then they tell you that cars, raiding Indian parties and bison have been much more deadly to Yellowstone visitors than bears ever have. So not to worry.

Chain-smoking ex-cons

There were eight in our group, plus Gunther and our guide Patty Walton. They were all great folks. I was part of the 38 percent of the group where the household had felt the effects of the Great Recession in the form of lost employment. Commercial real estate, computer software, newspapers. I felt very welcome. We had both an EMT and a licensed pharmacist in our group. I felt very safe, plus I was able to learn about the limits of therapeutic ibuprofen and Celebrex consumption, always handy after bushwhacking 13 miles with a backpack.

It seemed like everyone was in better shape than I was, but I did okay. The Institute is more careful about making sure people are up for long walks now than when they started these trips. Gunther tells stories of one gentleman upgraded to one of his first bear hikes from a beginner’s hike that had been canceled. Apparently, the guy got all of his hiking equipment by saving coupons that came with the cartons of cigarettes he bought.

In a cleansing moment he later regretted, he decided to quit smoking the day the hike started.

Soon after that, on the trail, he disclosed to the group he had only recently been released from a multi-year stretch in prison for felony assault.

Although a bit quirky, he apparently turned out to be a very hospitable sort, with lots of interesting stories and semi-endearing habits. 

We did a lot of walking in three days, about 37 miles, through the valley, over mountain passes, across streams. All of it was beautiful, except for the mosquitoes. When sitting down on a log for a tasty meal of freeze-dried noodles alfredo, the quality of a great outdoor backcountry wilderness moment can be diminished if you have to thread your spork through a headdress of mosquito to get the almost-pasta to your mouth.

(Note to self: Avoid mid-summer camping in a bog whenever possible.)

What did I see? The tally

So anyway, did I see bears? Yes, two. Do I have pictures of them? No. I saw them in the valley through a spotting scope. The distance was such that you did not feel the need to reach protectively for your bear spray.

Nevertheless, it was an excellent adventure. We saw lots of bison, a wolf, elk and various other creatures wandering around.

Our group set two records for the Institute trips, according to Gunther: fewest bears seen and most mosquitoes encountered. But I would still highly recommend the trip. With the grizzly population now up above 600 and growing, chances are the next group will have a major Animal Planet moment. 

As it turned out, we actually missed ours by less than 24 hours. Gunther sent this e-mail to my friend and hiking partner the morning after we walked out of the woods:

“This morning a swan researcher hiked into Pelican Valley. The wolves had killed a bison by that old broken-down foot bridge where we stopped for lunch on the way out, 3 miles from the trailhead. There were 6 wolves and 4 grizzly bears on the carcass which was just 70 yards from the trail. One day later and we would have had some great bear/wolf viewing.”

Aaargh. So close you have to try again.

Photos: Hyde Post, from top: An older bison has a roll in the dust; our guide, Kerry Gunther; Montana lupine; monarch butterfly on phlox; after bears, wolves, buzzards and bugs, little is left of this carcass; horns in water indicate it's not the best spot to get a drink; some of Pelican Valley's 10,000 acres. MNN homepage photo: NathanHobbs/iStockphoto