That's No Moose, That's a Bear
Deep in the Absaroka Mountains, all that stands between an attacking black bear and two students' lives is their outdoor leadership bear training.
Just a few more steps up the backpacking trail. Looking at a map in a thick stand of pines above the West Du Noir Creek in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest, my classmate and I were using terrain features to verify our topo map reading skills and verify we were navigating on course. My classmate was the “leader of the day” for our outdoor leadership course.
We had been backpacking for two weeks of a 43 day course. The course was tough backpacking with snowshoes in snow in the high country. Carter was the leader of the day and I was assisting as her navigator. Our three instructors were far behind us along the trail. Our four classmates were resting below the volcanic ridge where Carter advised them to take a break.
Carter and I were so focused on map reading that we forgot to sing, yell, or whistle as a bear warning. We routinely did those bear warnings in our travels. Suddenly, I spotted four moose hooves visible from underneath a grove of pine trees.
I said, "Carter, look I see a moose."
Carter said, "I don't see the moose, but I see that bear."
The sound of fear in the tone of her voice told me she was not joking. I looked over towards where she was looking. I saw a mother black bear with a cub about 30 feet away across the glade. The black bear was approximately 350-400 pounds moving towards us as a fast pace, its fur outlining its muscles moving with it as it galloped towards us.
I remember thinking, “What do I do? Do I run, fight, or climb a tree?”
I scanned my memory for our bear training. Our instructors told us not to run, they taught us well. I remembered to stand tall, lock arms with others and look big and imposing. I thought about the 30 miles per hour bear speed. The instructors emphasized the greater speed of bears over humans. I saw that speed as the large bear came towards us at an alarming rate. The bear's stride was roughly 12-15 feet that it moved in one gallop, so it crossed the field in front of us in two strides.
We had no weapons, pepper spray, or any protective gear other than our training and wits. The instructors told to not to bother climbing a tree due to the bear's speed and climbing ability. I knew this from hanging our food nightly in a bear bag thirty feet up a tree. Fear made me think about climbing a tree anyway, but I remembered my friend Carter. My classmates Carter and Marybeth made this trip one of the best trips of my then 30 year life I ever had. I would not leave a friend behind. My military training echoed in my memory about never leaving anyone behind. I remembered being awed by one of my army team mates dragging a downed soldier with him over a mountain.
The bear was on us before we could run. It came within 2-3 feet of us and stopped. The bear raised its right front paw at us and growled like a warning. I could hear the deep guttural growl. I could see the large sharp teeth. I could feel the spit hit my face as the bear growled. I could smell the bear’s wet fur giving it a wet dog smell. My classmate got behind me using me as a human shield.
My last possible thought was, “If the bear rips your throat out you're dead, but if it rips your arm off, they can perform a tourniquet.”
At the last possible second my instincts made me pull my arms up in a boxing stance as I widened my leg stance and brought my balled up clenched fists up on front of my face. I figured I'd go out fighting as fear made me get mad. I’d dealt with bullies as a kid and I was beginning to think of the bear as a bully who was about to kick my butt.
The bear grabbed the cub and took off. I was so scared I could not move. We both were shaking violently from the adrenalin dump. I could hear the waterproof nylon we were wearing making a fwip, fwip, fwip sound from our shaking like leaves in a storm. I turned my head slowly towards the right leaning over my shoulder talking out of the corner of my mouth thinking that the bear might see my mouth moving. I spoke quietly thinking the bear would hear me and come back.
We stood there shaking for a minute or two before I said, "Carter, start walking backwards slowly."
We walked backwards painstakingly slowly for fifty paces like cartoon characters out of a Saturday morning cartoon mystery. Somehow I got it into my head that the bear was going to come back of we weren't quiet. Fear does weird things to people. I was involved in a police shooting six months earlier, so I was familiar with the effects of adrenalin regarding the body's fight or flight response. I knew about visual acuity, auditory exclusion, and loss of fine motor skill. I tried to concentrate on slowing my breathing to keep my wits.
After fifty paces walking backwards, I leaned over my shoulder and said, "Carter, turn around and run."
Carter and I ran back to our classmates as fast as we could. I looked over my shoulder several times to make sure Carter was still with me. We got back to our classmates and briefed them on what happened. They weren't sure what to make of our tale. There were no accusations, but the looks on their faces showed doubts. We discussed it over and over like people do after being involved in a serious incident until our three instructors showed up.
We told the instructors our story. They were surprised, but interested. Mark suggested we return to the encounter site to look for any evidence on what had happened. At the bear encounter site we looked for any evidence.
Mark was the first to notice the bear tracks as he said, "Wow, look at the size of those tracks."
He held his hand over the front paw tracks where the bear stopped after coming towards us. Mark's hand was dwarfed compared to the track below it. The front tracks were deeper than the rear tracks as the bear shifted weight from stopping so fast going from a full gallop to a complete stop.
The tracks made me feel better because our story was validated. Our instructors were excited as they told us we would be the school's first documented case of a bear false charge. We were just excited to have survived the ordeal.