OK I better wrap up the bear story and the hanging tangent from yesterday’s post.
So first, a little background. My spouse- aka Awesome Wife- almost never sees wildlife. Seriously. We live in Utah and I’m always seeing moose, deer, elk, porcupines, coyotes, desert bighorns, pronghorns, mountain goats and sometimes even bears or mountain lions. She never sees anything. In more than 2 decades of living in the West, she’s really never had a great wildlife sighting. Now part of this to be sure is because she doesn’t spend anywhere near the time in the Wasatch backcountry that I do, but still, she regularly hikes in the foothills, and as a family we go off on several weekend or longer backcountry and/or camping trips each year.
But if Awesome Wife is along, we don’t see wildlife. It’s as though she radiates a special Anti-Wildlife Dispersal Field that somehow telepathically repels forest creatures.
Now I can see where in some cases (repelling hungry polar bears in the arctic for example) the AWDF would be highly beneficial. But the problem is that the Trifecta- like all young children- love animals. Here’s a quick example. Last week I blogged about our hike to Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park. It was a wonderful hike, featuring stunning waterfalls, a picturesque mountain lake, lush, mossy quasi-rainforests, beautiful wildflowers and dramatic craggy peaks peeking through the clouds. But did the Trifecta care about any of that? No. The highlight of the hike- of the entire day- for them was the chipmunk- a chipmunk!- (pic right) that repeatedly tried to beg food from us and scour for dropped crumbs as we lunched by the lake.
So we really hoped that, in spite of Awesome Wife’s AWDF, we might see some more impressive wildlife in Glacier. But during the first 2 days, we saw- excepting the chipmunk- zip. Our lack of success was rubbed in the evening of the second day, when we returned to our rental cabin. The neighboring cabin was occupied by an older couple. Over the past 2 days we’d seen the husband out on the front porch of the cabin, chain-smoking and drinking beer constantly. Really- we never looked over and saw him not smoking and drinking beer. And, rather snottily, I suppose I looked down my nose at him a bit, wondering what kind of satisfying, get-in-touch with nature experience such shlubby smoker/beer-chugger types could possibly be having.
So imagine my surprise when shortly before dinner, as I was out in the driveway fiddling with my bike, the shlubby couple passed by and stopped to chat, and I found out that a) they were in fact extremely pleasant, friendly and interesting (filling me with guilt and chagrin for my earlier snotty assumptions) and that b) they had seen tons of wildlife in the park. In fact, that day- that very same day!- they had seen a grizzly, 2 black bears, and several mountain goats.
How was this possible? I’m Mr. Nature! I see moose a couple of times a week (pic left from Monday-freaking-morning, upper Mill Creek), I’m attacked by coyotes, and I have a freaking nature blog, and I come to the G-D park and see nothing!
So on our last day in Montana, I returned to the cabin from my early morning Cloud-Ride and announced to the waking Trifecta that today was the day: we were going to see a bear.
Tangent: I had absolutely no reason to think or idea of how we might possibly see a bear. This was just sheer bravado, like when I know I’m really going to suffer in a big race and act all cocky and say stuff like, “I’m going to crush it!” It’s the kind of juvenile thing most guys stop doing sometime in their 20’s.
“Really?” they asked? “How do you know?” “I can feel it”, I blustered, “Today is the day!”
We’d spent the previous 2 days doing various day hikes off Going To the Sun Road, the main traffic artery through the park. For our last day we decided to get off the beaten path a bit, and explore up around Bowman Lake (pic left), the park’s 3rd largest lake, which lies on the Pacific slope, to the North of Lake McDonald. Getting up there involved an hour+ of hammering our minivan on washboard roads, but we were pleased when we arrived at the lake- it’s a beautiful area. A couple of times one the way up, to distract the kids from the drive (“Are we there yet?”), I reminded them that today was the day we were going to see a bear.
We hiked along the Bowman Lake trail, a rolling easy trail that follows the lake’s Northern shoreline for several miles, dropping down to the shore at regular intervals. The lakewater (pic right)- like all the lakes in Glacier- is super-clear. Supposedly the reason is because the surface water temps are almost always <50F, inhibiting the growth of phytoplankton, but the water felt more like ~60F, and I would’ve ventured a dip at the end of the hike if I’d brought a spare pair of shorts*.
*There were families/kids around back at the beach by the T/H. Skinny-dipping was out.
Tangent: We spent a good amount of time skipping rocks, and I’m happy to report that all of the Trifecta mastered the technique during an extended break. Now every member of the Watcher Family is an accomplished rock-skipper, with the glaring exception of Awesome Wife, whose rock-skipping abilities are, unfortunately, “awesomely” non-existent. My theory is that the AWDF affects the spin of the rocks she throws, causing them to break the water surface-tension prematurely…
All About Bears
Bears have been around for something like 20 million years, and when you compare them to other groups that have been around that long (canines, felines) it seems surprising how few species there are- only 8, worldwide. 3 of those species are native to North America and 2 of them, the American Black Bear, Ursus americanus (which is the only bear endemic to North America), and the Grizzly Bear, Ursus arctos horribilis (which is actually the North American subspecies of the wider-ranging Brown Bear), are found in Glacier National Park. But there used to be many more species, a number of which became extinct only in the last 10,000 – 15,000 years.
The most notable recent ursine extinction here in North America was the Short-Faced Bear, Arctodus simus, (drawing left, not mine) which roamed North America until around 12,000 – 13,000 years ago, when it became extinct along with the vast majority of the Pleistocene megafauna. A. simus stood over 5 feet high at the shoulder, and something like 10 feet when it reared up on its hind legs. Unlike a Black Bear or a Grizzly (but like a Polar Bear) it wasn’t omnivorous- it was a carnivore*. The thing must have been absolutely terrifying.
*They can tell that its diet was carnivorous by examining different nitrogen isotopes in its bones. What’s not settled though is how A. simus got it’s meat, or rather whether it was a hunter or a scavenger- or more specifically, a kleptoparasite. And if it was a hunter, it’s not clear what kind of hunter- whether an ambush hunter, like a cougar, or a run-‘em-down hunter, like a cheetah. Its long legs suggest a runner, but its mass would seem problematic for long-distance chases.
Most people who something about bears know that there are a number of differences between the Grizzlies and Black Bears, the most important of which- from a outdoorhead’s perspective- is probably behavior. Grizzlies can be more aggressive and problematic in their encounters with humans, and that’s why, when you get up into Grizzly country, people start carrying around canisters of bear spray and wearing little bells*, things not so common does in Black Bear country**.
*Quick lame joke: How can you tell Grizzly scat from Black Bear scat? Grizzly scat has little bells in it.
**In fairness, “Black Bear country” covers a huge swathe of the lower 48, while Grizzly populations in the continental US are much more localized. So it makes sense that hikers and such would be more bear-aware/concerned when visiting Grizzly habitats.
But here are 2 differences between Grizzlies and Black Bears you might not have known- one useful and one geeky. The useful difference is profile, which is helpful when seeing a bear a ways off. When a Grizzly is on all fours, the highest part of its body is its shoulders. When a Black Bear is on all fours, it’s highest part is its rump. (great diagram right, not mine) The big rump of a Black Bear is also real obvious when it’s running (though maybe not quite so obvious when it’s running toward you…)
The geeky difference is that from a natural history perspective, as one is an American original, while the other a Johnny-come-lately to North America. Grizzlies are a subspecies of Eurasian Brown Bear, and migrated to North America via the Beringian land bridge only about 100,000 years ago*. And until 13,000 years ago, they kept to the far North, in Alaska and/or North of the glacial ice sheets. It was only at the end of the ice age- and coincident with the extinction of the Short-Faced Bear- that Grizzlies showed up in the lower 48.
*Which coincidentally is right around the same time “native” Dandelions appeared in North America, presumably via the same route, as I described in this post. That land bridge was a happening place.
Side Note: This appears to be another instance of the Megafauna-Extinctions-Creating-Vacant-Niches effect that we’ve discussed previously with both Moose and Wolves. The scale of change in North American fauna during just the last ~600 or so human generations is nothing short of astounding.
But Black Bears have been in North America for, well, forever, meaning that they evolved here, apparently from an early, fox-sized ancestor-bear, Ursus minimus, that migrated here from Eurasia somewhere around 4 million years ago. BTW, here’s an odd little factoid about Black Bears: although they were (obviously) one of the few North American large carnivores not to go extinct 13,000 years ago, they were actually larger 13,000 years ago and earlier than they are today. Isn’t that interesting?
Side Note: Confusingly, there were prehistoric bears in North America way, way earlier, back around ~5 to ~18 million years ago. These bears belonged to a now extinct branch of the bear family called Hemicyoninae, which died out either before or around the time U. minimus showed up.
There was also a family called the Tremarctine bears which pre-dated U. minimus in North America by at least a million years. The Short-Faced Bear was the last North American species of this family, but the Spectacled Bear, Tremarctos ornatus, - South America’s only native bear- is descended from Tremarctine bears that migrated to that continent from here as part of the Great American Interchange, roughly ~3 million years ago.
Polar Bears, BTW, (U. maritimus) appear to be a very recent offshoot of Brown Bear, and in fact Polar and Grizzly Bears kept together in captivity have produced fertile offspring.
Though Black Bears aren’t generally as problematic for backcountry hikers as Grizzlies, they still can be dangerous, particularly those who’ve become familiar with humans, their food and their trash. Black Bears typically kill between 1 and 3 people a year in North America. They’re fast, able to sprint at up to 35MPH; you can’t outrun a bear*.
*OK, another lame bear joke: 2 guys drive up to Montana to go hiking. They get out of the car and one starts putting on running shoes. The other guy asks, “Why running shoes? Don’t you want to wear hiking boots?” The first guy answers, “This is bear country. I need to be able to run fast.” Second guy says, “Don’t be silly. There’s no way you can outrun a bear.” First guy says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear; I just have to outrun you.”
The Hike, And 2 Things About Awesome Wife
OK, so back to the hike. The trail was beautiful (pic left= Bird Whisperer on Bowman Lake Trail), the weather lovely. We stopped for lunch, hiked a bit more, skipped stones for a while, then turned around.
The Thing About Awesome Wife I Already Knew
Now here’s something you should know about Awesome Wife. You know that old saying about a horse going faster when it’s on its way back to the barn? That is totally Awesome Wife hiking back to the car. We’ll be on our way out, and she’ll be strolling along, checking out birds and trees and what-not. But then we’ll turn around, and it’s like she’s on a Hiking Jihad to get back to the car- no stops, no rests, no chit-chat- she just moves. All of a sudden she’s transformed into this superhuman backcountry endurance athlete. We’ll come back to this in a moment, but first I should tell you the other thing about Awesome Wife, and unlike the first thing, this is something I never knew about her until later, that very day, when she finally shared it with me.
The Thing About Awesome Wife I Didn’t Know
For years, Awesome Wife has harbored a deep-seated fear of encountering large carnivores- specifically bears or mountain lions- in the backcountry. She’s worried on our hikes, when we’ve camped, when we’ve biked, etc. And this fear has, over the years, kept her from fully, really enjoying our camping and hiking trips as a couple, and later as a family.
I had no idea of any of this. Awesome Wife isn’t a complainer or vocal worrier; if she has a fault, it’s that she keeps concerns to herself sometimes longer than she ought to.
Tangent: I have to say, it was weird for me to find out something this significant about my spouse after so many years. How could I not have known this? What else don’t I know about Awesome Wife? Does she have a secret ex-husband? A love child by Orrin Hatch? Is she a Soviet sleeper agent, or possibly even a Republican*??
*Probably the only one I wouldn’t be able to get past…
Now it turns out that when we went up to Glacier, Awesome Wife made a decision. She decided that she wasn’t going to let a silly fear of wildlife keep her from enjoying a wonderful vacation. After all, she’d been doing backcountry trips with me for well over a decade, and never once come across a bear, a mountain lion, or even a badger. And with her newfound attitude and confidence, she’d relaxed and enjoyed our Montana hikes thoroughly.
Now, I’ll tell you right now, I don’t have a photo of the bear. But it so happens that I have 3 photos taken over the 10 minutes immediately prior to encountering the bear. We were walking through an especially pretty stretch of forest, and I thought it would be nice to get some photos of the Trifecta, so that years later, when they are in the throes of adolescence and hating their parents, I’ll be able to reminisce fondly about when they actually still didn’t mind being seen with me. Now as I mentioned a moment ago, Awesome Wife sets a blistering pace on return hikes, which you can actually see in the 3 following photos. Here she is, at the head of our pack:
A moment or two later, she disappeared around a bend. We cleared the bend, and there she was again, marching along with the same strong pace, the same focused determination. Only now she was rapidly striding toward us, and ~40 feet behind her, standing in the trail, was the largest Black Bear I have ever seen.
The Trifecta didn’t see it. I kept walking forward at the same speed, and started speaking in a loud clear voice: “I see him. He’s not chasing you. You’re fine. Don’t run. We’re right here…” As soon as I came into view and started speaking, the bear turned and started loping away down the trail fast, rump bouncing in the air.
What had happened was this: As AW was hiking, one of her contacts lenses was bothering her a bit. She rubbed her eye. Still bugging her. Rubbed it again, Still bugging her. She rubbed it good and hard, closing both eyes for a moment and when she opened them, there, 30 feet ahead, was the HUGE bear, sitting in the trail, staring at her. She stopped, and rubbed her eyes yet again. Still there. She turned and started walking the other way.
Tangent: Now I know that this is not what one is supposed to do when encountering a bear. AW knew it too, and in fact we’d discussed it previously many times. Obviously, in the heat of the moment, she “locked up” and turned tail. But in her defense I’ll say 2 things: First it was a Big Ass Bear. (See paw-print photo, below) You can read all the books, websites and “While in Bear Country” pamphlets you want, but when you come unexpectedly face-to-face with Big Ass Bear in the woods, everything’s different.
Second, 3 years ago, down in the Abajo Range, on a solo mtn bike ride, I did pretty much the same thing. It was small- possibly a cub- and I turned the bike around fast and headed the other way rather than poking around looking for Mama Bear. I didn’t think- I just turned around and started pedaling the other way before I was conscious of making a decision.
I quickly re-ordered our line, with me at the front and AW at the back. We continued in the same direction, sticking close together, and I instructed the Trifecta to talk loudly and clearly about whatever they liked- Pokemon, Hanna Montana, whatever. For once, their most annoying trait- talking too loudly about toys, games and pop culture while in quiet beautiful places- was exactly the right thing to do.
The only sad part of the whole encounter was that a) I wasn’t fast enough on the draw to snap a photo, and b) the Trifecta never saw the bear. In fact for a moment or two, they were convinced we were pulling their leg. But the trail back was lined with fresh paw prints, and highlighted by a massive, brand-new, still warm pile of scat (pic below), and so they were soon convinced.
And that’s how Awesome Wife finally had a great wildlife sighting.
Clean-Up Tangent: I started, but didn’t finish the vacation-related tangent in yesterday’s post. I can’t remember a harder vacation to come home from than this one. We left Whitefish the next day and drove down to Stanley, Idaho. The following day was perfect- sunny, clear, low 70’s. I biked at dawn through Lodgepoles, past open wetlands (pic right) with Blue Herons (pic left) stretching their wings in the early mist. Later we hiked above Redfish Lake on a ridge through an open sunny Douglas Fir/Pine forest. For lunch we ate cheeseburgers by the beach at the lake, in the shadow of jagged peaks of the Sawtooth Range, after which we played in the water (pic right), stretched out on the sand, lazed/read in the deck chairs- anything we could do to procrastinate starting the long drive home. It was a wonderful day. Finally at 3:30 we packed up and headed out. Leaving a place so beautiful felt so wrong, and as we rolled over Galena Pass, through the busy little sprawl of Ketchum, Sun Valley & Hailey, and out onto the rolling volcanic plain toward Shoshone, I kept thinking how not ready I was to go back. Maybe it was the end of a great vacation, maybe it was summer wrapping up, maybe it was just a “no tickets on the fridge” thing. I don’t know.
But part of me suspects that glimpsing such beautiful, amazing places, where either I hadn’t been before (Glacier) or hadn’t been in some years (Stanley, Missoula) at the very end of the summer, I was hit with the sense of time slipping by, of the thousand wonderful places I didn’t get to over the summer, and all the time I would’ve lingered longer in the places I did get to. When you really get down to it, the only thing you get in life is time, and it just seems like I burn through it faster every year.