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  • Will Sanders

my first grizzly encounter: too close for comfort

In the summer of 2017, I took my third cross-country trip. At the time, this two month road trip was going to be the longest amount of time I had spent traveling. My converted Volvo XC-90 was all packed up, with the queen bed in the back made and ready for a couple months of offering comfort and solace after long days of hiking, biking, fishing, and climbing. However, while I felt I was more than prepared, my car felt otherwise. The day before I left, I was driving to my last day of work when suddenly the ol’ Volvo broke down. At this point, being 5 years ago, I can’t remember what the issue was. But, I do remember it being very significant and my mechanic deemed it unprepared for a road trip within any reasonable amount of time or money. I was stressed and wondering what I should do; should I hang tight for a few weeks and blow most of my money to fix everything that had randomly gone wrong? Should I just put off my trip until later? Maybe I should say, “fuck it” and hope that it makes it…

None of those options were satisfying, and as I expressed my situation to my mother - she blessed me with an alternative remedy to our problems that I will be forever grateful for. If I put a few hundred dollars into my Volvo, my mechanic said it would be fine as a daily driver within a few days. If I did that, my mom decided that she didn’t have a problem trading cars for the duration of my trip, and she offered her car as my mode of transportation across the country. This meant I was going from having a fully converted SUV with a bed and a built-in kitchen, to packing everything into a small Kia sedan and sleeping in a tent for two months. My friend and I saw no problem in that. That is, until a very interesting night where we were sleeping in our tent in South Eastern Montana under a full moon.

Passionate about wildlife, two solid weeks of wandering around in Big Sky country had us excited and prepared for an encounter with a Grizzly Bear. We hiked countless miles everyday, with the expectation of eventually crossing paths and experiencing the beauty of seeing our first Griz. After week two, we were getting antsy, as we still hadn’t encountered a grizzly, and we were planning on moving out of their territory within the following few days. We decided not seeing a Grizzly just wasn’t an option - we started waking up before sunrise and driving aimlessly around backroads, as we thought increasing the miles traveled would also increase our chances of seeing one. We continued to be unsuccessful in our attempts and it was getting to be frustrating. Randomly, throughout our days, we would take turns expressing something along the lines of, “I just want to see a fucking Griz already”.

Well, I’ve always believed that if you put your mind to something, anything is possible. And man, oh man… did we put our minds to seeing a Grizzly Bear.

We pulled into camp fairly late. Sometime shortly after 10 pm, or so. The Montana moon beamed down on us, making the use of our headlamps completely unnecessary. We cooked pasta and veggies by the car and listened to the Coyotes yelp endlessly around us. It was interesting how close they seemed to be. To the point where their decibel range made it a little too distracting for fulfilling conversation. So we sat, looking out over Lake Hebgen, listening to the dozens of Coyotes surrounding us as we indulged in our cheap, but delicious meal. We had hiked and fly fished deep in the Yellowstone backcountry that day - leaving us completely exhausted and making us a little more lax when it came to abiding by proper bear etiquette - especially when it came to doing the dishes and cleaning up. That, right there, is apparently all we needed to do to fulfill our goal of seeing a Grizzly Bear.

Without a cloud in sight and another typical, dry Montana night ahead of us - the only use for a rainfly would have been to block out the intense moonlight that was beaming into our tent. But being completely drained, having a night light above us was no problem.

As we cuddled up into our sleeping bags and began to fall asleep, the Coyotes were still screeching. It was oddly comforting and acted as white noise. However, just as I really began to drift off, I was immediately ripped back out of my sleep as a wall of silence set in. The Coyotes were gone. It’s hard to explain how shocking the silence felt, especially as it seemed like a switch had just been flipped. Well over an hour straight of yelping and screeching… was suddenly, just, over? I remember immediately noticing my tinnitus. Normally, the slight ringing in my ears that I deal with occasionally never moves into my consciousness - it remains something that I can completely overlook. But being prompted with such a drastic auditory change made me recognize the power of silence and what my brain will do with it.

A few moments go by, and I was no longer as exhausted and prepared to pass out as I was before. It was as if the silence brought forth an unsettling feeling that was keeping me from letting my guard down. So, I just laid there, basking in the sensation of being deprived of any auditory sensory - on my back, eyes open, and looking at the moon above us. Without being confronted with any stress, worries, or fear; I felt like I had moved into a state of hyperawareness. Because just beyond our campsite, I was able to pick up on the sound of something walking. Normally, a similar sound would have been immediately written off and rationalized as a squirrel, or something of that magnitude of cuteness, lacking any danger. But even with the faint sound that I was picking up on, I knew it was much bigger. Bison, elk, and moose were the first things to come to mind. I was still free of any fear, and I just laid there listening and wondering what it could be, with the assumption that it was just following scents and going to move on like critters normally do. But this animal’s curiosity really started to confuse me. I could hear this thing basically making circles around our camp. That isn’t the type of behavior a buffalo, elk, or moose would demonstrate. But still, my confusion wasn’t met with any fear. I was still optimistic that if I continued to lay low, whatever this thing was would eventually hit the road.

The circles this animal was slowly making seemed to be closing in on our tent. Eventually, it’s movement against the sagebrush was loud enough that my curiosity could no longer be disregarded. This thing was too close for me not to look. I sat up, and peaked my head out of the mesh lining; and to my surprise, one of the largest bears I had ever seen stood under the moonlight about 10 feet out from the head of our tent. The large hump above it’s shoulders stuck out as a clear indication that we were dealing with a grizzly bear. It was at this point that I was absolutely terrified. This wasn’t the mellow, Virginia black bear we were dealing with. This was the infamous grizzly bear standing outside of my tent.

I laid down, and my friend whispered, “what is it?”. I responded, and she was immediately shook. As in, she was literally, physically shaking. I had never in my life seen someone have a physical response to fear like that.

We laid still, without speaking another word. I thought about my options, but before any decisions could be made - the situation became vastly worse. I heard it walking directly toward us, and I watched as it casted a shadow against the left corner of our tent. The bear proceeded to smell our heads, and it’s breathing was unbelievably loud and powerful. Every breath it took moved the nylon wall of our tent that separated our heads from the bear. I was considering unleashing the bear spray through the mesh, but that seemed like a risky move. Instead, I clenched my fists together, closed my eyes and started to hum. My humming turned to soft singing, and the bear seemed to respond. It backed away, I opened my eyes, and the shadow that I was fixated on before had been lifted. My singing got louder as the bear moved further away, and eventually, I grabbed my mother’s keys and set the car alarm off, which was sitting about 50 feet above us. After turning the alarm off, I scanned the perimeter of our campsite with my headlamp. With no bear in sight, we decided to head up to the car, and drink a beer in safety to decompress. Needless to say, we never made it back to the tent that evening. The front seats of that Kia Spectra had never felt more comfortable.

The next morning, upon coming back to cell signal; my mother called me to warn me that a kid my age (19), had been drug out of his tent by his head by a black bear in Colorado the same night. She scolded me and begged me to be careful, and I reassured her that she had nothing to worry about. I had already learned my lesson, but she didn’t need to know that.

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