Usually if I were to see one grizzly bear in a whole season, that would be a lot. But this season bears were hungry. A cold wet spring had ruined the berry crop coupled with poor fall crops of pine nuts, while the moths in the high talus slopes were sparse as well. Today we were hiking to Stockade Lake in the Beartooth Mountains just outside of Yellowstone Park. In spite of the mountain’s name, I had never seen any grizzlies in the area.
The hikes around the Beartooths were the best because there were thousands of lakes to swim in. The day started out perfect. I went into every tarn and lake along the trail. It was a usual routine—swim, a few treats, swim, run after sticks.
We approached a large lake called Losekamp when I smelled an unusual scent—something nasty and musty. The pungent odor came from behind a car-sized boulder bordering the trail. I sniffed cautiously, following the scent around to the back of the rock. Without warning, a very large, brown animal rose up and growled. That sure scared the wits out of me and I growled back. Nose to nose. I could see the grizzly bear was just as startled as I was. He had been taking a nap, and because he was a youngster, just around two and a half years old, newly kicked out from his mom, he had not a clue what to do. I expected him to either charge or—more in keeping with what most bears do—run away. But what we didn’t know at the time was that the bear had already had contact with people, so instead of his hightailing it out of there, he just began chomping on the grass by the rock. I had learned long ago not to chase bears. This happened after I pursued what I thought was a deer out of a brushy stream, only to find, once I was out in the open, that I was chasing an animal with an enormous butt! So this bear I gave a wide berth and Leslie and I continued on our way.
That bear had a twin sister. She was sleeping somewhere nearby. Some weeks later we went returned to the Beartooth Mountains. We were going backpacking, starting at a trailhead by the Beartooth Lake campground. That’s when we heard this story from the ranger.
“Those two bears, siblings, got into food left by campers. They’ve been cruising around the campground ever since looking for food rewards. We might have to move them somewhere else.”
A truck at the trailhead had a ticket on its windshield with a note that read:
“You left some food in the back of your truck which we had to confiscate. This is grizzly bear territory and special rules apply. Thank you. The Forest Service.”
During our backpack trip, I saw two more grizzlies, a mom and her young cub. I stopped on the trail, stayed very quiet, and pointed my nose in the direction of the bears. That alerted Leslie and her friends to be cautious. The bears just kept their distance and we went on our way.
On our return from our backpack trip, we heard more stories about the young twins. People had been feeding them from their vehicles. And like all grizzlies—and certain dogs, once they are able to get human food, they continued to bother people. They had even been trying to climb into cars. Food-sensitized bears, Leslie explained, usually are killed. Hopefully these young bears would stay safe. As the ranger had predicted the bears were moved into the backcountry, far away.
In late September we were back in the Beartooths again, walking several miles on a beat-up road at the timberline to Sawtooth Lake.
Near the lake, not far from the road’s end, a car was parked. Beyond the car, the remaining portion of the road was really rough. Large rocks and deep ruts peppered the road. As we got close to the lake, I heard gunshots. That always scares me. I hate those loud noises. I then saw several men on the far side of the lake, target shooting at trees. Lucky for me, Leslie was headed around the lake in the opposite direction to a small feeder lake downstream. When we returned, the shooters were still there but seemed to be packing up. As they were across the lake, they were easy to ignore. We passed their vehicle and continued along the road, which now bordered a small wet marsh. The hillside beyond was thickly wooded. I stopped and sniffed the air. A strange deep huffing noise boomed out from the trees. Leslie stopped too and we both listened. These were plaintive sounds, communicative cries of distress that went on for several minutes, rhythmically. What were they? I’d never heard these sounds before. Huff, huff, huff like a very large animal with a cold. We stared into the trees across the meadow. Suddenly we saw a large grizzly bear. She appeared to be running towards the lake. One little cub, then another tiny cub were running after her. And a few minutes later, picking up the rear, was a third. The huff, huff, huff probably belonged to the third cub trailing way behind, calling for mom to ‘wait up’. Maybe mom had smelled us on the far side of the meadow. Just like most grizzlies, she picked up and ran off, not wanting a confrontation.
“Koda, she’s headed right for the lake where those guys are. Should we go and warn them?”
In a split second I think Leslie had already figured it out she’d never make it in time.
“Well, we’ll just have to leave those Montana fellows to their own good senses. That grizzly shouldn’t be a problem for them; it seems she’s leading her cubs away from us. Plus, there seems to be three of them, and there’s only one of me.”
Several days later we heard the full story from the Forest Service bear biologist.
“I got a call from some guys. They said there was a big grizzly bear with two cubs at Sawtooth Lake.”
“Did they have a Toyota 4 Runner with Montana plates?” Leslie was smiling when she asked. “By the way, there were three cubs.”
“Why yes. So you saw them?”
“I saw the guys’ truck and I saw the bears, but I was already up the road. The mama was heading towards the lake when I left.”
“Well, they were carrying their coolers and backpacks to the car, and when they saw the bear they dropped all their gear and made a run for the car. Those bears got a big food reward.”
“Why did they run? That’s the worst thing one can do, didn’t they know that? And drop all their food? That mama bear was running from us and we were hundreds of yards away.”
“One of the guys said the bear was over 1000 pounds!”
Leslie and the biologist laughed. Our bears don’t get that big. Even I could see this mama grizzly was only about 300 pounds.
“Well, those men jumped in their car and drove all the way back to Billings as fast as they could. They broke their car axle on the way back they were so scared. They didn’t call the Forest Service to report this for two days.”
“Why did it take them so long? I mean, they left a cooler full of food. Something they need to report.”
“After a few days, they thought to themselves ‘we left all that stuff there, our backpacks and everything. What if someone finds it and thinks the bear ate us.’”
Leslie and the Forest Service biologist laughed again that I felt like joining in, barking.
“After I got their call I had to go clean up their mess. The bears had eaten everything in their cooler. But didn’t touch their backpacks which just had some fishing equipment. Those fellows told me they had a thousand dollars worth of equipment. I’d say more like $50. Anyways, those cubs got a lesson in human food rewards that they will never forget now. Bad stuff. Bears never forgot and I hope those cubs don’t grow up to be problem bears.”
“I’m thinking that Mama Griz is the same bear that kicked out those troublesome 2 ½ year old cubs earlier this year because she had three new cubs to tend to. They are all in the same territory.” Leslie told the biologist.
“You’re probably right. Those guys told me they want to come retrieve their backpacks from our office, but, they said, it will be a while because they need to get their truck fixed first.”