Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Running Bear Through the Lodgepole

Jake, my nephew, and I looking for firewood outside my Lynx Creek camp. In the background is an old, yet burnt stand of lodgepole. New lodgepole in the foreground.

Much of Montana’s mountains have been burnt. After a fire a coniferous “weed” takes over. It’s called Lodgepole Pine. Lodgepole has adapted to fire. The only way that lodgepole pine cones release their seeds, is from the heat of a fire. Seeds are scattered densely and create lodgepole thickets too tight for a horse and rider to ride through. Twelve years after a fire, the lodgepole will vary in height from three feet to over 15. Diameters will range from and inch to almost six inches. Some places you can’t see more than four or five feet, and many times you have to pick a spot wide enough for your body to slide through sideways. Elk hunters moving through a lodgepole thicket in the snow resemble snowmen.

Over a decade ago, a guide from a camp I worked in and his hunter were such snowmen. The guide knew better, but thought he would impress the hunter by showing him a dead, rotting cow elk. There are places that you can do that, but a lodgepole thicket isn’t one of them.

When they were less than 15 yards away, the guide froze, held his right arm out, and whispered, “Don’t move.” A few yards beyond the corpse was a grizzly gnawing on a chunk of leg. The guide took several steps back, reached into his belt, where he kept a .44 Magnum pistol and started to turn away from the bear.

The hunter said he never heard a sound, and was surprised how fast and quietly the bear was on top of them. The hunter unslung his rifle. He pointed it at the bear and fired. He tried working the bolt, but the grizzly was on him. He attempted a buttstroke. The grizzly absorbed the blow and took the rifle with his teeth, flinging the rifle out of sight. The guide had tripped and slid a few yards from the tussle. When he righted himself the bear had pushed the hunter to the ground and was playing patta-cake on the hunters chest. Mr guide pointed the pistol, but was afraid of hitting the hunter with one of his shots. He yelled, screamed and waved his hands. Finally, he started kicking the bear. As the bear moved off the hunter, the guide emptied the .44 into the grizzly.

The bear ran off never to be seen again.

I was on a meat run at the time, packing elk to town on mules. Strange how that type of story races through Montana’s vast wilderness. I heard about it before I returned to camp the next day.

The hunter’s rifle had a bent barrel. A puffy, purple bruise on the entire left side of the hunter’s face is the only indication of a mishap. Most in camp believe the bruise was from the barrel hitting him in the face—after the buttstroke and when the bear took it.

The story didn’t end that day, that week or even that season. Throughout the winter game wardens interview the whole crew—repeatedly. They thought an illegal grizzly had been killed. I don’t think one was, but I wasn’t there.

I bring this up for two reason: there were two stories about bears in today’s Great Falls Tribune, and grizzly bear--all bears--need to be treated like a grumpy old curmudgeon. (I sometimes feel like a bear; my wife treats me like a grumpy old curmudgeon much of the time.)

Here are links to the Tribune stories:

Here are a few rules to use in grizzly country: (previous readers may remember some of these rules)

  • Never visit known dead animals.
  • If returning to a dead game animal that was left out over night, come in from the uphill side and with several people. There is more security in numbers, and you might get a better bluff.
  • Don’t run from a grizzly. Think of a dog and cat in a face off. If the cat stands its ground—fine, when the cat turns to go, the dog rips it to shreds. Running is also rather pointless. When I was about 12, I saw a grizzly run down a 150 pound elk calf and flop him about like an old wool sweater.
  • Keep your food away from bears. Most wilderness areas have minimum rules for food storage. Those rules don’t just protect you today, they protect future visitors from dealing with bears that have become habituated by human food and scraps.
  • Don’t eat food in your sleeping bag. Eat food in the eating area where it belongs. Candy bars, chips, and the like smell and taste good, but could cause you some unexpected lost sleep.

Go here for other bear stories:

1 comment:

Rick Kratzke said...

I guess you have to be prepared and ready for anything out there in the wilderness.

I sure wish I was there.