Close Encounters of the Bear Kind
Anyone who has lived in Montana has a bear story and most are a little scary, but no more. If it is a bad bear encounter, it is in the papers or on the news. They are rare but can be catastrophic. This is a review of the scary kind and even a current scary kind.
In Montana, you will have to stop on the highway while a bear sow will lead her cubs across the road. Marian has had to do this as she was entering Bigfork Montana. You will see bears on the other side of a mountain lake or along a hill side. In our case, we have many close neighbors along a rural lane bordering Flathead Lake. Because we have neighbors along the lane and lots of boat traffic (boats, Ski Boats, kayaks, paddle boards, sail boats and the like) on the lake, it does not feel remote. However we are less than a half mile
away from the Flathead National Forest which includes the Bob Marshall Wilderness. This is about as wild as it gets in the lower forty eight. Another factor in the presence of bears is that our next door neighbor has numerous fruit trees (cherries, plums) and raspberries. This time of year the fruit is ripe and the bears like to stop by to help themselves. You can tell when a bear has stopped by to pick fruit because they lack the manual dexterity of humans. Their approach is to use their paws to crab a branch and just strip off the leaves, fruit and branches and then eat the fruit off the ground. The cubs are too short to perform the stripping but get to eat anyway.
Close Encounter with Wall
When you encounter a bear at a distance, pictures do not provide much feedback. Close encounters (less than fifty feet or so) usually do not have pictures because that may not be the first thing on your mind. So to start with, the first picture is from a neighbor on the other side of Crane Mountain and what your yard may look like when the bears (in this case Grizzlies) come out of hibernation. A truly fortunate case of close encounter with pictures. The wall really helps in this case.
Grizzly Bears NOT in Our Back Yard
Grandma Edith and her Bears and a Wall
In the past, Grandma would not want to go to dinner with us and we would often call her when she was home alone. One time she recounted that everything was fine but there was a bear walking across the porch. Another case of close but with wall. She also recounts another occasion when a neighbor lady was visiting and a bear walked across the porch. The neighbor had walked down the lane to visit but called her husband when she was ready to leave and wanted him to come and get her. The husband was a little put out since it was not a long distance. She had to explain that short distance or not, a race with a bear was not the way to conclude an evening.
Bear Cubs are not Cute Little Stuffed Animal Size
When talking about bear cubs, it is often assumed that they are cute furry little things. That may be true soon after birth but by late summer they are a decent size. We have an English Yellow Lab. The English version is bigger and blocker than the typical US lab and we have had both. Our current lab weighs around 80 pounds and comes about half way up my thigh in height. A black bear cub will be about the same height but probably weight around 200 pounds. Think of a pig which is smart, mean and fast but with claws. A grizzly is a really, really big pig. To emphasize what a big bear means, we have a cast of a grizzly bear paw as seen in picture below. The paw alone is roughly the size of a chair back.
Grizzly Bear Paw Versus Size of Chair
Does the Extended Warranty Have a Bear Clause
Living in a cabin in Montana attracts visitors. During a typical summer we will have visitors for around 20 Bed Weeks each summer (a Bed Week is one person in one bed for a week). We find it very enjoyable and love to have guests setting on the deck having breakfast, or afternoon cocktails, and just glazing at the lake and whatever may be going on. There is enough traffic that we must keep a visitor log. It tends to be very full as soon as school gets out and up to Labor Day, when school restarts and everything slacks off. After Labor Day, events for the locals start, prices for hotel room’s drop and restaurants are easier to get reservation. Of course the days are shorter. We are only 80 miles from the Canadian border and from June to September, the amount of daylight will drop by five hours. Now this is not a lot different anywhere is the country, but looking across Flathead makes sunset a very distinct activity.
How does any of this have to do with bears? Well, the main cabin is just that, a cabin. It has lots of beds but a very small kitchen and a small utility room. In order to accommodate the cooking and cleaning needs, there is a freezer and the dryer on the back poach. They are under a roof and hence protected from the rain and snow. However the best way to visualize this is Ma and Pa Kettle at the Cabin. The refrigerator is the same vintage as the cabin (you know this because the refrigerator is yellow) and still has ice cube trays. For the whole thing, think mid-century modern. By the way, Ice Cube Trays are something that grandchildren look at and wonder how they work and why doesn’t the ice come through the door like it is supposed to.
The freezer, on the porch, will have leftovers and items for future preparation. It may even may have leftover Ice Cream cake from Edith’s latest birthday over one hundred. When we finally return to California, we have come to depend on a cabin caretaker to close up the house. He also does periodic checks throughout the winter. Since we have had the cabin for 46 years now, we have also had to go through multiple caretakers. Just as we have had to go through multiple doctors and lawyers and masseuse. As part of the closing process, we leave the electricity on for the refrigerator and freezer but, in general, all the power is off. This does mean that the water heater and all the pipes have to be drained. There is a printed list of closing steps. It may be a little confusing because for the little house, we actually leave the power on. Hence we do not have to drain the hot water heater there. For California readers, note that it gets very cold in the winter in Montana and another task in closing is called “blowing the irrigation pipes” so that there is no water in them to freeze over the winter. So we have a new caretaker but he has a list of activities and we are gone for the winter.
For many years, our next door neighbor and friend was Nan Kasson. She lived at the lake the year around. She had a very pretty dog named Coda who had free reign especially during the winter. One day, Coda became very sick and the Vet says that he has been poisoned. Coda recovered and Nan kept a close eye on his behavior. No sooner had they returned home from the Vet that Nan sees Coda with a chunk of meat. She takes it away from Coda and then follows the dog as he goes for more. This leads Nan to our back porch and scattered on the lawn was all kinds of rotting food from our freezer. The freezer itself had the door ripped off. Obviously by a bear, we never really suspected Coda could do it. So Nan and Frank, another neighbor clean up the mess and tell us what has happened. It was the first and last year for that caretaker.
The freezer was thirty years old Sears Kenmore and actually inherited from Marian’s grandmother. So as soon as we get to the cabin the next year, we go into Sears to buy a new freezer, I mean the last one lasted 30 years and much of that was on the back porch. We pick one out and accepted the price. The clerk then wants to sell us an extended warranty. I ask if the warranty has a “Bear Clause”. He did not know what that was and I explained that the last freezer lasted thirty years and only failed because of a bear. Why would I want to buy a warranty that did not include the cause of failure? So we have a new freezer, a new caretaker and no extended warranty because there was no “bear clause”.
Ma and Pa at the Lake with Freezer on Back Porch
White on the building on the right is the dyer freezer. The little cabin is right behind the concrete dock but mostly hidden by trees.
Julia, Sarah and the Bears (2017)
Our daughter Sarah took her niece Julia (our daughter Susanne’s daughter) on a trail ride in Glacier National Park. Julia is eight and loves to go to the rodeo but has not had the opportunity to go horseback riding. The local dude ranches tend to cater only to their own customers but Sarah found that the park had many trail rides. So the two of them had a one hour introduction to riding and then headed off with a small group on a trail out of Apgar in the park. It was less than an hour into the ride, when a mama black bear and her two cubs came onto the trail in front of Julia and her horse. The horse immediately wheeled to return down the mountain because it too knew that close encounters of the first kind were often a big problem. Julia stayed on the horse and got it under control. Sarah turned and caught up with them shortly. All were safe. It happened so quickly, that it is not clear that Julia was even concerned. Sarah, of course, was greatly concerned. The guide immediately turned the whole group downhill. The guide also called the Forest Rangers and before the group got down the trail, two armed Rangers were going up. Of course the trail was then closed and bear traps put in place to catch the bears and relocate them to a less populated portion of the park.
Before the Bear Encounter
Larry has a Close Encounter at Home
We have lived here in the summer for 46 years and I have never seen a bear or a mountain lion at home. Grandma has, our neighbors have, our friends have but Larry has not. On one occasion our friends from Chicago (Mac and Sandee) had gotten up early and were having breakfast when they saw a big cat in our yard. When we quizzed then later, we noted that big house cats were not common and asked how big its tail was. “Really long.” Well, really
long tails are on big cats and they are called Mountain Lions. We get grouse along the lane during the latter part of summer and fall. When you see Grouse wings but no body, it means that the Mountain Lions are roaming around. One of the neighbors who lives here year around decided he wanted free range chickens. Having lived on a farm where the foxes were constantly attaching the chickens, I did not expect the free rangers to last very long and they did not.
My story is not as exciting as Julia and Sarah. I simply came home and everyone else was gone. I use a cane to get around these days and speed is not part of my skill set. I parked and went to unload groceries from the back of the car. Across our parking area I then see a bear cub heading across the neighbor’s lawn and toward the cherry trees. I just turned around, got back into the car and looked in the rear view mirror for the mama bear. After a few minutes of no bears, I unloaded the car and went into the house. The car was my wall and I shall not want. A no drama bear story.
Close Encounters of the Bear Kind – Julia, Sarah and How it Really Went Down, By Sarah Krummel
In the previous section, Larry told this story as he heard it second hand. Fortunately Sarah took pen in hand and has produced a more accurate first-hand account.
And for how it really went down
Julia and I went for a trail ride; it was Julia’s first and my fourth. We were in the care of a woman around 23 years of age who grew up with horses and was skilled not only at handling horses but acquainting people with their horses. The Trail Manager arranged the horses according to experience - Julia and her horse, Casper, were directly behind the wrangler and my horse, Stein, and I were directly behind Julia and Casper. As we headed out on the trail, the wrangler asked us questions about where we were from and how we spent our summers in Montana. We fell into an easy conversation when Lauren, the wrangler, saw a bear about 50 yards away. I looked deep beyond the trees and saw a black bear and four small ears low in the brush - the black bear was a mama with cubs. We continued on our trip and got a bit more comfortable on and with our horses. On our way back, through the same area that we had passed an hour before, a black blur ran across the trail. Julia’s horse, Casper, backed up and turned around. The bear had run between Julia’s horse and the wrangler. Thirty feet separated us from the wrangler but now there was no bear in sight. The wrangler called the horses to a halt. Julia’s horse was trying to go back up the trail and I called to Julia (who was five feet away from me) to pull back on
the reigns to make Casper stop his retreat. Julia was a bit shaken but did what she needed to do and she and Casper came to rest a foot from me and Stein. The wrangler called the incident in to the Trail Manager who told the wrangler to start yelling at the bear to scare her and her cubs off the trail. We started yelling and I rode a bit closer to the wrangler. The mama bear again came into view and she started chomping and drooling. Not a good sign. We turned the horses around and rode a much longer way back to the stables. Julia did exactly what she needed to do in a tense situation. She was composed and in control in a situation which may have reduced another eight year old, not to mention first time horse riders, to tears. When we got back in the car (after tipping the wrangler in kind) we talked about how that could have been a bad situation but we were in good hands and did what we needed. Julia and I wouldn’t have yelled at the bear, but we made it back safe nonetheless.
Indian Brand on a Yellowstone Grizzly
It is not fair to discuss recent bear encounters without including one story about a Yellowstone Ranger who had many bear encounters and many that were way too close. That would be Marian’s dad Gus. Gus was a Yellowstone ranger in the 1930’s and had so many encounters that one was published in Nature magazine. The following is not a published story but one that Gus recounted.
For background, Gus Wylie was the nephew of the founder of the “Wylie Way in Yellowstone”. His family, and hence Marian, are all members of the Montana Pioneers, i.e. the first settlers in Montana. Marian’s great grandfather was a member of the “Virginia City Vigilantes”. You can Google the quoted items and get more background.
Gus graduated from Montana State and in addition was a Walter Camp All American halfback. So he was able to get a job during the depression, and a special job, because he was a local hero from a famous family. One of Gus’s jobs was to collect the gate receipts from all the park entrances and bring them to park headquarters. To do this, he would ride on an Indian motorcycle. On one occasion Gus came around a corner and a grizzly was crossing the road directly in front of him. Gus laid the motorcycle down and slid right into the side of the bear. The bear was as shocked as Gus and ran off. Gus was not hurt and he too drove off. The Indian motorcycle in those days did not have a guard on the exhaust pipe. As a consequence the bear was branded with the outline of the exhaust pipe. Ever after that when Rangers returned to the barracks, they would report to Gus that they had seen his bear today, the one with the Indian motorcycle brand.