Thursday, August 14, 2008

Charged by a Grizzly Bear!

Wild Goose Island Dawn, originally uploaded by Jeff Sullivan.

I took this shot shortly after being charged by a grizzly bear, maybe 75 yards downhill from this popular overlook in Glacier National Park.

Intending to return to the shore of Lake St. Mary a second morning, I startled a grizzly bear about 40 feet in front of me. He bolted way at high speed, crashing through brush as he went. Standing still and making noise for a while, figuring that he had probably wandered off after the encounter, I suddenly noticed him staring at me looking very agitated, in about the same point that he had bolted from! This highly aggressive behavior is in sharp contrast with what I've experienced with black bears (apparently even our bears in California are laid back). This massive grizzly was clearly very pissed off, spitting and making a loud huffing noise and making short but powerful lunges into the bush in front of him, clawing at it with his giant paws.

He probably thought as I moved downhill swiftly towards him that I was charging him, and although his "fight or flight" instinct initially told him to run, he had clearly chosen to come back for some "fight" once I started making noise and he figured out what I was.

I figured the bear could close the distance between us in 3 seconds or less. I could either retreat inmmediately or turn on my camera on (unfortunately with a wide angle lens on), get it out of 10 second timer mode, and capture a few frames (possibly the last of my life). Choices are rarely so easy. I assured the bear that yes, it was his huckleberry bush, backing up. I don't remember actually getting back up the hill, but I know that I was careful not to run, and an instant later I was most of the way back up. I warned the half dozen photographers at the top of the hill that they had an agitated bear 50 yards downhill.

When I reached the Logan Pass ranger station I filed a bear encounter report. Several rangers told me over the next 24 hours that I was very lucky not to get attacked. I read a book "Bear Attacks" the following morning and the huffing noise is the second most common thing grizzlies do right before they attack. Growling is reported by slightly more survivors of grizzly attacks. Loud vocal noises by people are interpreted as highly aggressive behavior and can trigger an attack. My yelling up to the other photographers at the top of the hill to warn them about the bear and my whistling loudly may have been what brought him back (interpreted as a challenge). If I had happened upon a female and cubs (like the ones I saw this morning), there's a high probability that I would have been instantly charged and the females are much less likely to end a charge as a "bluff" attack.

Always wear bear bells in grizzly country!

I don't think this was the grizzly bear that charged me this morning... it was a second one only 1/2 mile down the road. He crossed the road in front of me and I had a couple of seconds to shoot this right out the window of my car.