Saturday, October 19, 2013

A ReturnTrip to Glacier Offers New Insights and Experiences

Apologies for my neglecting this blog of late. I've just returned from my second summer in Glacier National Park and even though there has been plenty of news to report, I've been so overwhelmed with things the last few months that I haven't been able to keep all of this info current.

First, some details. Where the Bear Walks has been selling very well, around 200 copies since May. Thanks to all of you who bought a copy and thanks also to Linda Jo Hunter, author of Lonesome For Bears, who wrote a very thoughtful review on Amazon. My retrospective on the 45th anniversary of the night of the grizzlies was published this past spring by The Inside Trail, publication of the Glacier Park Foundation. That actually led me into contact with the family of Michele Koons, which has been delightful; very genuine, real, down to earth people. For those interested, a short piece I wrote on Fortress of the Bear was also printed in the July/August issue of Alaska Magazine.

Now on to the bears, and there were plenty of them in Glacier this summer! I can hardly recall any hike I undertook the entire time that did not have one of those "Bear Frequenting Area" signs posted at the trailhead. A couple of encounters in particular have given me much to think about in relation to my earlier writing. A friend and I were hiking early on a steamy August day when we rounded a blind corner and came literally within feet of a very large grizzly coming straight towards us...a textbook mauling scenario. The bear was clearly as startled as we were, jumped away, retreated a few feet back, and then turned to assess the situation. He seemed to identify us as human (he fled so quickly that I can't be sure he knew what we were at first), relaxed a little, then ambled off into the woods. Some days later, on the Highline trail, we encountered another large grizzly foraging at close range on the hillside just above the trail. We watched him as he munched on wildflowers, throwing us the occasional disinterested glance, then he walked into the trail and actually followed us for several feet until the brush on the opposite side of the path opened up enough to allow him to turn off and continue on down the hill. His behavior towards us, even from a distance no greater than ten feet, was completely passive and docile; we were clearly just part of the scenery, not something to be feared and reviled.

When a co-worker told me that he mostly hikes outside of the park in a high-hunting area and that every bear he encountered aggressively charged him, I couldn't help but think of those two grizzlies coming so close and yet behaving so passively. While I have no doubt that there are aggressive bears in the park, the fact that those animals are protected, are not hunted, and are not exposed to human violence definitely influenced how they reacted to our presence. Grizzlies tend to be volatile, more naturally confrontational than black bears, so their tolerance was extraordinary and to be calmly followed only a few feet away by one down a trail was a once in a lifetime experience. As for the bear that we surprised so closely that we probably could have reached out and touched the tip of his nose? Come that close from out of nowhere in a place like Alaska and you will likely get your head bashed in. Some very good food for thought in these encounters!

Some of you may recall reading - either from my book or from posts last fall - about the West Glacier black bear, a large 400 pounder who has been a local resident in the area for a few years and who clearly enjoyed the close company of people. Well, this bear made his return appearance in July of this year and spent more than one night sleeping outside the back door of my cabin...right outside my bedroom. While I admittedly find it strange that, of all the cabins in that area, he decided to spend his time curled up at the door of the bear man, I nonetheless wrote it off as coincidence. My co-workers, however, saw something deeper in it and insisted he could sense something and was drawn to me. When I took an extra job in the fall, moved to a different location, and found out he had followed me, I was perplexed but still wrote it off as coincidence. When I looked out the window of my apartment - located on the roof of the establishment in which I worked - late one night and watched him actually walk up onto the roof and curl up for a nap outside my door, my jaw hit the floor. I was officially mindblown! Yes, I knew this bear felt safe being around people because he knew no other bears would come near him, but I had to concede at this point that maybe he was drawn to me, that maybe he did see me as a benefactor and wanted to keep such company. It's a mind-boggling story and my fascination and interest in him has definitely piqued due to this unusual behavior. I can't wait to meet him again next year and see if this persists.

So now I'm back in action and working on new articles and some op-ed pieces. I almost wish I hadn't written the book due to these new discoveries this year, but there are other outlets for them and so much more to learn.

In closing, here is a link to a wonderful new article by Gay Bradshaw and Charlie Russell, who are also working on a new book, The Buddha and the Bear. More to come soon!

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