Friday, November 20, 2015

Ten Steps to Hiking in Grizzly Country

I arrived in northwestern Montana this April thinking I was an experienced solo backpacker.  Because I’d dealt with black bears in “problem areas” like the Smokies and Yosemite, I thought I would easily adjust to hiking solo in grizzly country.  I thought that fears of grizzlies were overblown. 
Trailhead sign in Glaicer NP.
Turned out, it was more complicated than I'd assummed. 

After eight months, I’m certainly no expert.  Learning the best practices for hiking in grizzly country was straitforward: make noise, be constantly alert, take care with food, keep food and food smells away from camp, carry bear spray.  But the mental aspects required significant adjustment.

I found little information about solo hiking around grizzlies.  Signs and guidebooks simply say don’t do it. The vast majority of locals say don’t do it.  "Why?" I kept asking.  "Is it really that much more dangerous than going with a partner?" 

I am not making any recommendations here.  Its best to follow the official advice.  Or avoid Montana.

But here is my story of the ten steps that I took to hike here, alone:

1. Study reports of grizzly attacks.  Realize that the risk of death is low, but maulings happen more frequently.  Statistically, drownings and falls present a more serious danger.  Try (and fail) to identify patterns in the attacks.  Did the victims make obvious errors? Which areas have problem bears and the highest bear concentrations?  Listen to some people say that the Bob is safer because bears are more wild, while others say Glacier because it’s heavily monitored and bears are sort-of habituated.  Realize that bears are unpredictable, that they could be anywhere.  Even experienced hikers taking all the precautions have been attacked. 

2. Practice skills for hiking in grizzly country;
    -  How to make noise especially around blind corners.
    -  How to distinguish black bears and grizzlies, and how to respond to each.  
    -  How to carry bear spray on a belt so it says with you when you take off your pack, and doesn’t fall down a cliff and roll into a freezing cold lake.
    -  How to keep the safety on the bear spray covered so it doesn’t break in your car, and then accidentally fire into a fellow hiker’s face at the trailhead, causing all sorts of pain and leaving you feeling totally mortified and too embarrassed to ever hike with that group again, even though they were probably your best hope to find hiking buddies.

3. Practice wildlife avoidance tactics.  Choose popular trails.  Wait at empty trailheads for other hikers to arrive.   Avoid trails with grizzly signs.  Avoid hiking at dawn and dusk.  Inquire about bear activity at the backcountry ranger office.  Question everyone you pass about what wildlife they’ve seen.  Hike 10 miles to a campsite where you have a permit, only to hear about a grizzly in the area when you arrive, and hike the 10 miles out again so you don’t have to camp there alone.
Do I really want to camp here?
4.  Seek guidance from experienced solo hikers.  Discover that most of the badass female backpackers did not go through Montana alone when they were on the CDT.  Identify two superheros of backpacking and get up enough courage to ask how they went solo.  Listen carefully as they emphasize that mental state is key.   “Know your place on the food chain."  "Accept the risks you are taking."  "It’s complex,” they say. 

What does that even mean?

5. See grizzlies up close with other people.  Walk by a grizzly that you could reach out and touch with your hiking pole.  Camp in a place where a grizzly walks past the tents.  Feel what it is like to know your place on the food chain.

Notice that there is a risk to hiking with other people because you are less cautious, less aware.  Discover that hiking with other people doesn't feel that safe either. Especially when other people run from bears, or do other stupid things.
Two women running from the grizzly bear towards us on the Highline Trail.
Roadside grizzly at Logan Pass, Glacier Nationa Park.  This makes me uncomfortable for a number of reasons.  People think they are at a zoo.
6. Go solo hiking, and experience the discomfort.  Drive yourself crazy shouting and clapping and making noise.   Lie awake at night, startling at the smallest rustling.  Question whether you are cut out for Montana.  Cry at the incredible beauty.  Wish this place could feel like home.
Solo trip to Lincoln Lake.
7. Decide to stay home.  Have a backcountry camping permit and your backpack packed for the weekend, but then read the day’s news reports of a bear mauling and the FWP press release saying that bear activity is on the rise.  Call the backcountry permit office and cancel the reservation.  Try to think of something else to do, but fail to come up with anything to do at 5 AM but hike.  Face the reality that you are a hiker and your heart longs for the woods.  Spend the day lying in bed feeling depressed.

Learn that there is a measurable risk to staying home, to NOT hiking solo.

8. Feel the fear.  Have a solo bear encounter.  Feel the clarity of mind when you know danger is that close and make those smart decisions.  Have everything go well- the bear stands up on two feet to get a good look at you, then you realize it's only a black bear as it runs off.  
Completely realistic likeness of the solo black bear encounter in Glaicer.
 9. Watch Night of the Grizzlies and the next morning hike to one of the sites of the maulings.  Sit at the edge of Trout Lake for an hour in a hail storm by yourself.  Think about death.  Feel what it is like to be completely alive.
Trout Lake-- site of one of the 1967 grizzly attacks that changed attitudes towards bears and led to our modern managment system.
10. Accept the risk of going solo.  Feel the mental shift that has happened.  Measure the risks, find ways to mitigate the risks.  Feel the fear but also the even stronger drive to be out in this beautiful grizzly country.  Value the wildness of this place.  Respect that you are traveling through the home for these endangered creatures.  Realize that you probably shouldn’t even be here, but that having this experience is powerful and is challenging you in ways you had never imagined, certainly would never have asked for.  Be grateful for all of this.
Solo trip to Dawson Pass, near Two Medicine.
Again, I'm not saying I recommend going solo.  But as someone who previously backpacked solo for many years, and as someone who had trouble finding available hiking buddies, this is what I did.  Because I weighted the risk of hiking solo with the risks of staying home.

I hope this will give you some idea of what they mean when they tell you not to hike solo in grizzly country.

If you have questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.  My email address is listed on my "about me" page.

For more information:

Night of the Grizzlies -watch the documentary or read the book

Good article on food protection by Andrew Skurka

Glacier National Park's bear advice and video

Bear biology and research

13 comments:

  1. In Alaska for seven years, I am somewhat ashamed to say I got a little complacent. I never backpacked alone (backpacking there required serious route finding, no trails and hazardous terrain, and for work they made us go in pairs ) but I often day hiked and ran on trails solo. Then my last summer we got charged. And in a separate incident, a solo camper got mauled and partially eaten. So....I'm as mystified as ever.

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    1. It sure is the random incidences where something bad happens that give me pause. I can't wrap my brain around why they happen. I want there to be patterns. But there are not.

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  2. Your reality check has certainly given me pause. So many areas in grizzly country high on my exploration list. Will an invisible friend count as a companion? How about a blow-up human (that would be a light weight option)? Oh the dilemma of being solo :(

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    1. Jan- I'd encourage you to not let it stop you! I think it's totally worth the risk, and I think the risk is overblown for someone like you that will be respectiful and aware. Being in a place with so many incredible and large animals is like nothing else. Even when you don't see animals, you can observe their impact, on the plants, on how the place just feels. In comparison, other places just sort of feel a bit more... empty. It gives you perspective on what ecosystems used to be like hundreds of years ago. Like I said, it's totally worthwhile, just be prepared to go through some adjustment period. I also honestly think that being solo isn't as unsafe as being around stupid tourists that disrespect the space around the animals and create problem situiations. When we go solo, we know how to listen, to make smart decisions, and to be cautious-- that all goes in your favor.

      But I also love your suggestion of a blow up human! I was also wondering how they respond to the silver sun umbrella, though I never did test it's danger-repelling properties in Montana. :)

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  3. Yes, it's hard. I've lived here for almost 10 years now (this time), and Alaska and the Tetons before that, so I guess I've lived in grizzly country for about 20 years total. Sometimes I hike alone, sometimes not. There's places I won't go alone and places I will. Sometimes I wish the bears weren't here, but then I've also lived in other places where the woods are overrun with hikers and you don't see any wildlife.

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    1. What was most surprising for me was that it WAS HARD. I'm glad I met you early on and that you gave me such sound advice.

      Towards the end of the season, I ended up feeling really glad to be able to see the wildlife. It's so remarkable.

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  4. My only time in Yellowstone, I was there for a few hours, and I decided to try to hike a few trails. I could not go very far, I continued to spook myself. Every noise had me turning around.

    You have definitely come a long way towards feeling confident hiking in grizzly country. I wonder if surfers ever feel the same way when surfing in known big-shark waters?

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  5. Lovely post. I am going to recommend this next time someone asks me about hiking in grizz country. Right now the North Cascades are considering reintroduction and my hiking partners (including my boyfriend) are against it, whereas I am 100% stoked. I love bears, especially grizzlies. I love them in the majestic, put you in your place, horrifying, mesmerizing, this-is-how-the-wild-should-be sort of way that only watching avalanches and tornadoes can rival. I've run into well over 20, all when I was hiking solo and every time it elicited the most incredible, primal, gut-punch sensation of honor, awe, fear, and respect. And every time I watched their powerful bodies move away I felt flooded with the most overwhelming sense of aliveness.
    It's as you say, it's a complex emotion. Attacks are random. It forces us to consider our mortality and our absolute frailty in the natural world. But in the end, I wouldn't trade the possibility of death for the tamed and trammeled. Let the wild be wild.

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    1. Exactly! You are so right about the power of the experience of an encounter. So primal. I'm grateful to be in a world where there are grizzlies. Even though it's terrifying. There is so little left that is still wild.

      Thanks again for the all the advice and encouragement!!!

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  6. Hey Joan,

    I had to share this in case you've never heard it.

    After a number of attacks on hikers and campers in Alaska, the Department of Fish & Game released the following advisory:

    We advise that outdoorsmen wear bear bells on their clothing so as not to startle bears.
    We also advise outdoorsmen to carry pepper spray with them in case of an encounter with a bear.
    It is also a good idea to watch out for fresh signs of bear activity.

    Outdoorsmen should recognize the difference between Black Bear and Grizzly Bear droppings.
    Black bear droppings are smaller and contain lots of berries and squirrel fur.
    Grizzly bear droppings have little bells in it and smell like pepper.

    Swampfox

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