It's man vs. bear vs. myth in Montana's wilderness

A sighting, then a scramble, and then . . .

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / August 9, 2003

REAT BEAR WILDERNESS, Montana -- It is not the smartest thing to do, really, to run toward a grizzly when a man says, "We got maybe 20 minutes before that bear moves out of there."

But that's what happened, up on that sunburnt horseshoe ridge, set above a steep valley swathed in green and gray, soft brush and hard rock, a few miles into wilderness and smack dab in the middle of the biggest concentration of grizzlies in the lower 48.

This bear story starts up on that ridge, on a gentle crest 7,100 feet high, because that's where, after a couple of miles of horseback riding and five hours of waiting, three guys plunged down a steep slope thick with thin-leaf alder, then into a wide bowl and across a stream, all in hopes of getting close enough to watch a big old silver-tip griz.

Safer than some, tamer than most, this story begins in truth and potential and ends in apparent disappointment, but with a telling that gets closer than many to the risks, rewards, and routines of bear country.

And boy, it gets going with a bang, a scrambling, scratching, out-of-control tumble into a bear's backyard.

"Pretty much jumping off a cliff to get after a bear. You can't make a story like that up," said Shawn Little, 42, a champion rodeo roper, veteran hunting guide, and during a mid-July week, cagey grizzly spotter.

After listening to enough bear stories, a person begins to wonder what's real and what's myth in this fabled relationship between human and beast.

There are the gruesome stories, true, that involve claws and jaws and a word, "maul," that is oddly concise and clean considering the incident it describes.

And so many others, some of which start in mischief, like the tale told by Little about the time he came across a grizzly back near Scott Lake, deeper into the Great Bear Wilderness.

He was riding his big sorrel, Bo, a favorite roping horse.

"I thought, I'm just gonna run my horse up on 'im and get a picture," Little, who sports a mustache that hangs long on the sides, recounted as morning coals cooled in a backwoods camp. "Only problem was, that bear didn't hear me and my horse wasn't as scared as I thought he was. I can remember that bear's face. He just looked at me and, `poof!' The picture was a cloud of dust."

Little's story gets at one important reality about grizzlies: that they most often avoid conflict, preferring to live quietly and alone, roaming and foraging from slope to ridge to river bank. They eat huckleberries and cow parsnip, dig for roots and, occasionally, chase down a feeble-footed fawn.

To see this and feel this, a person's got to go away from the campgrounds and roadsides, into the grizzly's summer terrain, the river drainages and high mountain slopes where the brown bears live, wild. But this takes luck, because the grizzly, more adept at maneuvering nature's highways and intersections, will most often clear out long before the arrival of humans and the danger they have too often brought.

It used to be that grizzlies and people ran into each other all over the place, with tens of thousands of the big bears roaming from the Great Plains to the Pacific. But a couple of centuries of pressure, with massive development of grizzly habitat and hunting them on land left untouched, has left roughly 1,000 grizzlies in the lower 48. Most of them, now protected from hunters, live in a narrow band in the Rockies, some in Yellowstone National Park to the south, more in northwest Montana. Here, wildlife biologists track their movements by satellite and try to count their numbers by sampling DNA taken from fur snagged on traps.

There are other places, in Canada, Alaska, and Russia, where more grizzlies roam. But this part of Montana is the wildest country in the lower 48, thanks to the network of three contiguous wilderness areas -- the Scapegoat, the Bob Marshall, and the Great Bear -- and Glacier National Park. Here, a human visitor, moving carefully, respectfully, can gather another story, rewarding if not spectacular, about the great ursos arctos horibilis.

On a chilled Tuesday morning, Little and his wife, Capri, saddled horses at a corral next to US Route 2, the highway that weaves between Glacier Park and the wilderness complex. It did not take long, only a mile or two after cutting on a narrow trail into the Great Bear, and the scene was set. A thick rain weighed down branches and splattered mud. Clouds set a lid upon the valley as it rose toward an open swale where small pines stood starkly against a strong wind.

Capri Little led a line of riders up and over that saddle in the mountains, toward a protected stand of pines that would serve for three nights as backcountry camp. As she approached a crashing creek early in the ride, she talked of a musty odor in the air.

"I think I smell a bear," she said.

There are easier ways to find a grizzly. The best bet, perhaps, is to head north, past the entrance gates to Glacier, up the Going-to-the-Sun Road, to the meadows around Logan Pass, or farther, to the open slopes around Many Glacier. With good timing, visitors can watch a mother and her cubs linger, munching on tall grass, sitting, standing, looking. But the authenticity is somehow lost, as the bears surely know the people are on the trail below, and the people are crowded by a stream of chatting passersby.

In the Great Bear, there were no other people, save a lone backpacker, a bandana on his head, who quietly passed camp before descending the trail into thicker trees, higher brush.

"He's the kind of guy who gets in trouble," Little said, heaving a load from a mule's back.

When people do have run-ins with grizzlies in the wild, it often happens that way, a solo hiker rounding a corner or clearing a rise to surprise a sow and her cubs. That can mean trouble, as a grizzly will attack to protect its young, or its food. So even a few steps alone into grizzly country can make a veteran of the outdoors start crooning old jingles, even the "Brady Bunch" theme song, anything that might let a nearby grizzly know that traffic is on the way.

That first afternoon, after sawing a dead tree trunk and pitching a tent, Shawn Little sat atop Hollywood, a strong, golden quarterhorse, and led a group of riders up the Vinegar Mountain trail into the Moose Creek drainage. The riders kept silent. The other horses, named Stetson, Schmoozie, and Mike, labored as the trail climbed above 6,500 feet. Atop a horse, fear dissolved. The land opened. Lungs rested. Eyes scanned the surroundings.

On the southern slope of the drainage, trunks and shrubs and grass blurred. Two dark spots hovered near the bottom. Little stopped the horses.

"Two bull elk," he said.

Even from that distance, perhaps a quarter mile, binoculars showed that the elk were massive, with broad shoulders and wide racks of antlers.

Farther up, after a few tight switchbacks, Little dismounted and scrambled to a seat on a sharp outcropping of rock.

For nearly an hour, he silently kept watch. The clouds had lifted a bit, but kept a gray backdrop across the high mountain valley. As evening dwindled, the wind rose and fell, its sounds ranging across a gust of metaphors: the gentle rustling of sheets on a bed, the rattle of corrugated tin doors swinging shut, a freight train rumbling past a mountain town, surf crashing to a rocky coast.

Beneath, on the land, Little saw no bear.

The next morning, as high sun broke through the evergreen boughs, Little strode into camp leading Hollywood and Schmoozie from a nearby meadow.

"I spotted a griz," he said.

With that, the gentle chase was on, the horses again climbing the Vinegar Mountain trail.

All over this country, home to black bears and moose, elk and mountain lions, grizzlies had left their signs. Down along Moose Lake, the floor thick with the fresh shoots of thimbleberry, claws had ripped bark off pine trunks, leaving clean gouges.

Just above the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, near 25-Mile Creek, deep, round depressions in the soil marked a grizzly's repeated steps toward a thick trunk. There, the bear had stood and rubbed its back, leaving snagged tufts of fur.

Fresh, gleaming bear scat, piled in round, solid chunks, sat on trails, including one on the shores of Elk Lake.

But for the chase up the Vinegar Mountain trail, Little had seen more proof. When he was over feeding morning hay to the horses, he had taken a long look at the south slope of the Moose Creek drainage. There, at least a mile away, he had seen a brownish spot. He sat on the hay bales, where he could take his binoculars and "put some glass" on the slope.

That dark spot was motionless. But when it did move, sure enough, it was the rump of a grizzly.

"Huge," Little said, "with lots of white on it. A real grizzly kind of bear."

With riders following him, Little continued past the switchbacks, alongside a round, ice-blue lake, and across a ledge. The horses moved slowly to find their footing. Little dismounted on the ridgetop and tied his leader rope around a pine no more than 5 feet tall.

Here, he had a commanding view over the basin below, including the clearing where the grizzly had been, perhaps a half-mile to the southeast.

Now, a full hour later, the grizzly was gone. This time of year, midsummer, it was normal for the grizzly to be this high in the mountains, digging for roots, munching cow parsnip and other plants, waiting for the huckleberries that soon would ripen. But by late morning, with the sun high and hot, the grizzly would not graze for long before heading to the cover of the alders for a shady nap.

Little sat and spied the slope with naked eye and binoculars. One hour passed, then two. The horses shifted and swatted flies and bees with their tails. Little marched off alone, following the ridge as it sank then rose to a higher position, opening onto another drainage, and a dozen more beyond, stretching south for miles.

From afar, the composition of the south slope shifted. A tree trunk loomed as large as a building, then disappeared. Moving water froze, then came to life again. Dark spots hovered upon a green meadow, only to evaporate beneath the study of binoculars. A fourth hour passed, and a fifth.

Then Little, returning from his ridge walk, let out a long, low whistle. He pointed toward the distant clearing. A brown spot stood at the center.

Binoculars brought it into focus: a wide, tall grizzly. The bear's legs were cloaked in dark fur, its back splotched with white, or silver. Even with binoculars, the bear appeared more like a pudgy guinea pig. A round head sat like a pumpkin atop its shoulders. The head stayed down, munching grass, or roots. The dark legs idled.

And then Little, trying to get closer, was off. The others joined in a tumble down that rocky, bushy slope. A smaller, rocky ridge sat a few hundred yards from the clearing. It would make a perfect, hidden spot to sit and watch the grizzly living its life, peacefully. Little hoped the wind, swirling to the northwest, would not carry a scent the grizzly's way.

Branches clipped past eyes and ears. Feet skidded and slipped and bodies hit the ground. As the land leveled, a small stream ran through the middle of a bowl before the ridge of rocks. Little sank to his hands and knees, dipped his mouth into the stream, and drank deeply.

A bit of scrambling back uphill, and Little reached the smaller, rocky outcropping. The group had no water. The horses sat tied to a tree, a thousand feet and an hour's hike above. The sun moved low across the sky.

And the bear, again, was gone. Had it caught wind of the approach, and moved out of the basin? Had it ambled into the alder again, ready for another nap?

One hour passed. From this closer range, perhaps 300 yards away, mounds of ripped earth showed where the grizzly had dug for roots. Bushes alongside the clearing swayed in the wind. There was little to do but wait.

In a pine set atop the rocky outcropping where Little stood, tufts of bear fur blew, snagged on a branch.

Could the bear have moved closer, onto this ledge?

A second hour passed. The sun, lower now, cut more lightly on the skin.

Still no grizzly.

And there would be no bear. But that didn't matter.

Because in the end, and only in the end, it became clear that this journey, this story, was not about the grizzly, but about stepping into the wild, about sitting, hungry and thirsty, a mosquito buzzing against the neck. It was about watching the light slide toward night, hearing the wind rise and fall and the water crash cold and clean, about smelling the earth sweet and thick, while hoping and alone, a speck on a ridge, anonymous.

Tom Haines can be reached at

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