It’s Sunday, football day, and John asks if I want to go for a walk up Palmer Mountain Road.
“We need another grouse for that pot pie,” he says.
I don’t particularly care for football day, but John does, so I’m surprised by his suggestion. I consider briefly the grizzly sow with three cubs spotted up there a few days before.
“Hmmm. I don’t know. What about that bear?”
“We’ll make lots of noise,” he says.
“I’ll get my boots,” I reply, already heading for the mudroom. If I didn’t go hiking because I had heard that there was a bear in the area, I’d never go hiking at all. Besides, that was a few days ago, and bears range widely. So we grab our day packs and scoop Meg, our black lab, into the back of the jeep.
There are more bears now than ever, or at least since the 1970s. More than 700 of them reside in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The large population means that people are running into bears with growing frequency as we both jostle for space in what seems like the limitless Rocky Mountains. We all hope that we don’t run into one another, but it is usually only a matter of time if you hike in Montana’s backcountry.
The road to Palmer Mountain is rutted and only wide enough for one vehicle. Two flatbed trucks are headed our way. One of us will have to give way. They pull to the side and as we edge past, I notice that their beds are filled with fresh cut wood.
“Oh, good,” I think. They will have made lots of noise up there with their chainsaws. The sow with three cubs probably ran for the hills at the sound of it. That would be better for bears and humans alike. John thinks the same thing out loud a moment later.
We park along the edge of Palmer Mountain Road. A wide rusted gate is swung across its width. We squeeze past it and onto the single track. The senescent summer vegetation crunches under the soles of our boots. The day is warm but the sky is ominous. It had rained overnight and it looks like it will rain again before our walk is over. Meg noses through the grass picking up the scent of grouse, we hope. But Meg doesn’t discriminate. She loves all smells. I watch her sniffing shrubs sometimes. She starts low at their base and then works her way up to the very tip of a single branch and delicately sniffs the end of it.
I want to know what she knows. I want to tap into my wild side and have one sense that is superior to all others, like bears and their sense of smell or the keen eyes of an owl. In bear country I sometimes feel like a wild animal, a deer perhaps. Nervous and watchful. I am an animal, but I’ve been domesticated. I fall quiet and John brings me out of my head by saying something about all the grouse we’re not seeing.
For humans in grizzly country, noise is best, so I give a shout out to the bear. It means, we are here and we don’t want any trouble. My call is just as much for the bears’ protection as it is ours. Trouble begins with surprise. Neither humans nor bears like surprises.
It begins to rain and I get a whiff of what Meg knows. The rain is like a key that unlocks the scent of spruces and sagebrush, the earthy aroma of fallen leaves and dead grasses. It smells like autumn, deeper and richer than the sweet, carefree smells of summer.
We hear a huff and the sound of a broken stick, maybe, coming from deep in the forest. Meg perks up and stares through the trees. We all do, straining to make our eyes see more than the pines and spruces. A grizzly could easily hide in there without trying to be hidden. My heart beats fast and I feel my face flush. I have the uncomfortable sensation that I am being hunted. But I hear nothing, which is exactly what I expect from a hunter.
We continue down the road and I grow quiet again. The sound of my jacket swishing sounds like the heavy breathing of a bear behind me. I turn to look even though I know it is only my jacket that is making the noise. I pull myself out of silence once again and give another shout out. We are here and we don’t want any trouble.
I know all of the statistics. I know that I’m more likely to be struck by lightening or bitten by a snake or even attacked by a shark if I swam in the ocean. I’m more likely to be killed by bees or succumb to the weather. I’m more likely to injure myself. I also know that most people never have bear encounters despite lots of time spent in the woods.
I know that if I ever did surprise a bear and she charged, it would most likely be a bluff charge. I know that if a bear ever attacked me I would most likely survive as have the numerous hunters who’ve been injured this year. None of them were killed. They were terrified. They were swatted and bitten. They were hospitalized, but none of them were killed – so far.
That, I think, is a testament to the restraint of the grizzly bear and a bit of good luck on the human’s part. Just like humans with bears, grizzlies would rather avoid us. And for the most part, they do. For as much time as I’ve spent in the woods I know I’ve scared off many more bears than I’ve seen. I’ve scared bears.
Still, these facts do little to lessen my unease at times because I also know that people have been killed by bears before. It’s rare, but it has happened often enough since I’ve moved here that the fear of an encounter occupies a corner of my mind. But it really isn’t death that frightens me; it’s knowing that there is something out there that can easily put me back in my place in the hierarchy of life.
We cut through the forest and over to the road again to begin our loop back. A small bowl is scooped out of the hillside. It is filled with grasses. Doug firs rim its edge and a lone snag stands tall in the middle. Perched atop the snag is a great gray owl. She watches us with golden eyes that match the season. We, in turn, watch her. I am mesmerized by her size but know how light she is — only a few pounds despite the 2-foot stature and 4-foot wingspan. I know this because I’ve held a dead one in my arms. She had been hit by a car probably swooping after a rodent caught in the vehicle’s headlights. We salvaged her wings and tail to teach people about the silent flight of owls and so that they could experience the softest feathers on earth.
The owl, this live one, stands like a statue atop her totem. She looks as if she were part of the stump – her gray and mottled feathers are the same color and pattern as the gray and furrowed bark. We leave her be and continue down the road. The jeep comes into view. We don’t see the sow and her three cubs nor do we come away with a grouse, and I am relieved. I’ll never be totally comfortable hiking in grizzly country and it’s why bears were hunted in the first place – to eliminate that feeling of fear in the woods. But this the challenge of living in the new and more complete west. A west where humans are no longer always at the top.