“HEY-O! HIKER COMING THROUGH!” Experts ask you to use your voice — not bear bells, not whistles — to alert animals to your presence as you hike. As we trekked in the heart of Glacier National Park on a sun-splashed August morning, Chris and I concocted many variations of hey-bear-we’re-here-and-we-don’t-want-to-surprise-you. The bear spray canister was at the ready on his belt, but we had no desire to have to use it.
Thirty minutes into the arduous ascent to Grinnell Glacier, we rounded a bend to find ten hikers huddled in a clump. A crashing in the near underbrush drew my eyes toward a large figure loping swiftly downslope in a characteristic ursine gait, brown fur glinting with golden highlights, sheets of muscle rippling beneath its sleek coat — five hundred pounds or so of surprised beauty. My heart rate instantly spiked.
From the huddle’s center, one woman’s voice betrayed the complete panic gripping her. “Susanna! Go down! GO DOWN NOW!!!” came a tight, compressed, choked scream/shout. A moaning whimper escaped from someone else coming face to face with risk and decidedly not liking it. I wanted to sidle over to Panic Woman and hold her by the shoulders and quietly say, “Breathe. Breathe again. You are in the wilderness, where your survival depends on your remaining calm in the face of danger.” But I couldn’t take my eyes off the fleeing grizzly, who looked hell-bent on getting far far away. And, besides, I was kind of tasting a metallic fear taste in my mouth, just a tiny bit — mixed with a large dose of healthy respect for this wild and free animal.
It was a rare and glorious moment, sixty seconds of a six-hour hike. No, no photos. Grizz got away from the humans and undoubtedly resumed gorging on berries. The woman and her group abandoned their march, undone by their wildlife encounter. Chris and I decided not to let fear rob us of seeing a stunning glacier, so we slogged vigilantly upward, shouting amusing offerings such as “We’re not tasty!” “Too many bones in us!” or, my favorite, “Let us be, let us be” sung to the tune of the Beatles song. This was more for our sake, perhaps, than for any bruin’s.
Barry Lopez, in Arctic Dreams, observes that “we have irrevocably separated ourselves from the world that animals occupy.” Do you agree? What would be different — in this scenario or in countless others — if we did not cut ourselves off from the creatures with whom we share this earth?