On Bears
by Jeff Lewis

Most bear-safety literature advises against scaring grizzlies.  When hiking in grizzly country, apparently, it is a good idea to wear a bear bell—a jangly bell that announces your presence to all bears within earshot.  Bears, like humans, do not like to be around people who wear bells.  If you do not have a bell, the literature instructs you to talk loudly to ensure that you do not turn a corner and frighten a bear.  Frightened bears tend to maul.

We went for a short hike in grizzly territory and took this advice to heart.  We had no bear bells, so we opted for the loud talk.  It was tough because we’d just spent hundreds of hours together in the car and looked forward to a quiet walk in the woods, instead of more questions along the lines of, “Ok.  So name your five favorite non-Russian ice dancers,” and “Who is a more viable recording artist, Neil Finn or Sinead O’Connor?”  These sorts of questions are best discussed in the privacy of one’s car.

Speaking of cars, the bear-safety literature is a little fuzzy when it comes to describing a sufficient cleaning regimen for your car.  It’s a bad idea to leave food in your car, even hidden under the seats, because bears have a powerful sense of smell.  According to several sources, though, the trunk can be an acceptable location, as long as your car isn’t in a remote spot and the food in your trunk isn’t raw salmon.

I needed specific information, however.  I needed to know whether spilled Peach Snapple on the armrest required a prompt auto detail.  Was the bear going to smell that artificial peach-scented corn syrup and tear into the upholstery?  Was wiping out the cup holder with a towel acceptable, or did I need to use a Handi-Wipe?  Moreover, is it bad to drop a fat-free fig bar in an impossible-to-reach crack between the seats?  Can bears smell the difference between a Fig Newton and a Nature’s Health Organic Non-Fat Fig Bar?  I knew I didn’t have to worry about bears wanting an organic fig bar, but the last thing I wanted to do was vacuum fur out of the passenger’s seat and wipe down ursine drool from the dash, just because a bear thought he was getting a real Fig Newton.

A park in northern Montana gives visitors a chance to test the bear-proofedness of their cars before entering grizzly country.  We came across a log fence enclosure that billed itself as a bear safari, allowing visitors to drive amongst the grizzlies that were locked in the compound. We came to Montana for its expansive wilderness.  This vision of ecotourism was not compatible with their tagline:  “Your car is your cage.”  Also, I didn’t feel that our Accord was up to the challenge.  Incidentally, some friends told us that the safari had to close due to problems with the bears escaping and hiding in the KOA campground that abutted the log fence.  This might be purely a rural legend but it was easy to imagine.

From an early age, I was fed stories of bears that rip off car doors with their bare claws so that they can get at your mango-flavored facial cream.  However, I still wanted to see a wild bear from a close, but safe, range.  Therefore, I planned to find a small gorge with a road on one side and a bear on the other, just a little bit more than a paw swipe away.

With this in mind, we drove at dusk along a remote dirt road in Yellowstone, hoping to see a grizzly.  The days of feeding bears at roadside or watching them sift through refuse at the dump are over—those bears sometimes ate people—but the guide books and rangers implied that we could possibly see a bear if we passed through their habitat at twilight.  I wasn’t sure if I should hope to see a bear at a safe—but probably distant—range or snap close-up photos as one sniffed our picnic dinner.

Halfway along our route, we suspected that we were not in bear habitat after all.  We drove over rolling hills and a quaint narrow valley—which I half expected (and feared) would funnel bears directly into our path—but saw nothing more than a bird or two.

Disappointed at the dearth of bears, we stopped at the crest of a hill so I could scan the valley with binoculars.  The twilight enhanced the contrast between colors, making the landscape look cinematic.  As I stepped from the car, I was a wavy-haired Luke Skywalker, leaving my land speeder to check for Tuscan Raiders.  Scanning the horizon with my scope, I anticipated danger.  Thankfully, the attack from below never came.  I returned to the car for a defiant draught of Peach Snapple and continued on the bear-less road.

The next evening we spent a couple of hours on another unsuccessful grizzly stakeout.  On our drive back home, we did see a black bear snuffling at some wild flowers, eyeing either a grizzly or large brown-furred black bear on the opposing riverbank.  We spent a good half an hour staring at them through binoculars, trying to figure out if the brown bear was a grizzly or just a big tease.  A few more miles down the road, a mother black bear and her cub hung out with about 30 people, who tried to get a close-up of the cub.

Our next stop after Yellowstone was Grand Teton National Park, directly to the south.  Prompted by a recent bear attack, the park’s rangers were pushing the catchphrase, “A fed bear is a dead bear.”  A grizzled craving for Cliff Bars, animal cookies and other snackables is a gateway to future antisocial activities, such as mauling.  Today’s “fed bear” is tomorrow’s delinquent panhandler.  Soon the bear moves on to auto break-ins, then armed robbery, so to speak.  Down the line, the bear becomes Krazee-Eyez Killah.

The park was filled with pictures of a bear staring at the camera with the caption, “This bear was destroyed because it ate human food.”  The one-two combination of catchy slogan and pre-execution photos yields much better results than the “Please do not feed the bears” signs of the past.  Judging by the buzz around the park, kids love the Fed/Dead mascot.  Still, a couple of weeks after we left Grand Teton, a grizzly attacked a mountain biker.  The biker escaped without serious injuries because a fellow traveler emptied a can of mace into the bear’s face.  (How about, “A maced bear is a safe bear”?)  It’s unknown at this point whether this grizzly was a “fed bear,” but it was a surprised bear.  The man was not wearing a bell.

Our friend Margôt had her own bear encounter not long before we visited her in Evergreen, Colorado.  A 300+ pound black bear climbed ten feet up onto her balcony to get at the peanut butter left out for the squirrels.  With just a sliding glass door between her and the bear, Margôt had a nasty shock and a splendid view.  She showed us the claw marks on the wall below, caused by repeated attempts to scale the porch.  Paw prints on the unhinged door that the bear had used as a ramp mapped out the successful route.  This clearly was a “fed bear.”  And a bear that risks a nasty fall for a little gob of peanut butter is a bear that warrants a thorough cleaning-out of all Snapple residue and fig bars, Newton or otherwise.

Copyright Jeff Lewis, 2004