September 8, 2012

Hiking in Yellowstone the morning of the park’s first bear mauling death in 25 years

During the summer of 2011 I talked my bride and 13 year old daughter to take a trip with me to the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. The primary objective was to experience as much of the parks as one week would allow. This meant plenty of driving, but I also wanted to at least get in a few hikes.

We began in the South and worked our way north, beginning at Jackson Hole, just outside Grand Teton National Park. Wanting to spend most of the time in Yellowstone and Glacier, we moved through the first National Park in a hurry. As quickly as we enjoyed the sights of the Grand Tetons, there was no escaping the constant reminder that bears, and a lot of bears, frequent this area.
Bear warning sign in Grand Tetons
Moving north and seamlessly driving into Yellowstone, we were soon reminded once again that bears inhabit the area. This time, I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye and stopped our rig as soon as possible. Perceiving the movement was well away from the road, I got out of the SUV and ran back up the road to find what I saw. Sure enough, well over 100 yards off the road was a bear. From the distance, I couldn’t tell what kind of bear was meandering through the small meadow – a black bear or a grizzly.

We camped near the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, with signs and rangers constantly reminding us of bears. On our daytime drives on the figure eight road system inside the park, we saw more bears – all black bears. On the last day we were to spend in Yellowstone, I had not yet hiked. Determined to do so, I woke up early that morning and drove to the Cascade Lake trailhead. From there, I proceeded to the lake through pine forest, skirting a large meadow before arriving at the lake, 2.5 miles from the trailhead.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone 
Hiking in grizzly bear country certainly adds an entire new element to a hike after you’ve spent your life in the Pacific Northwest woods, where even a black bear sighting is rare. I found myself “in the zone,” my eyes never resting, scanning the forest and meadow for big brown movement. It was then that I thought those bells for sale in the Yellowstone store we visited would have come in handy. Those bells attach to shoes, so when hiking, they jingle as you move along the trail, warning bears of a hiker in the area. Those warnings allow bears, who really don’t want anything to do with people, to move from the immediate area prior to one’s arrival.
Meadow near Cascade Lake

Prior to our trip, a friend asked me, “Do you know the difference between black bear poop and grizzly bear poop?

Thinking I would learn something that might be helpful along the trail, I said, “No.”

“The difference is grizzly bear poop has small bells in it,” he said.

After returning from my hike, we packed and headed out for Glacier National Park. Listening to the radio on our drive, a news story immediately caught our attention. A man hiking with his wife in Yellowstone had been mauled to death that morning. It was the first fatality in Yellowstone due to a bear attack in 25 years.

The news was bit chilling, realizing I had been hiking the Cascade Lake Trail at about the same time as the attack. However, Yellowstone is nearly 3,500 square miles in size, so I figured the attack probably occurred quite a distance from where I was hiking. Later we heard the attack happened on the Wapiti Lake Trail, near Canyon Village, where we were camped and only a few miles from the Cascade Lake Trail.

Grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park
Grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
According to an investigation into the incident, about 90 minutes into their hike, the couple met a solitary hiker who pointed out a female bear and her two cubs in a meadow about 500 yards off the trail.

After taking photos, the couple continued walking east along the trail toward Ribbon Lake for about a half-mile. But they decided to turn back because of large populations of mosquitoes. As they walked back along the trail, they saw that the bear and her cubs had moved toward the trail and were now only about 100 yards away from them. As the couple walked away from the bears, the female began moving toward them. The man told his wife to run.

The couple ran an estimated 173 yards before the bear caught the man. His wife jumped behind a fallen tree and saw the bear “hit” her husband. After a few seconds, the bear spotted the woman hiding behind the fallen tree, walked over and picked her up by her backpack before dropping her. After the bear left, she tried to stem her husband’s bleeding, but he was unresponsive and apparently dead when she reached him. The same bear they had photographed earlier ended up killing the man.
Yellowstone Black Bear
Another nearby hiker who said he heard the bear roar and the woman yelling for help was able to get through on his cell phone to Yellowstone Park Dispatch to request help.

The investigative team concluded that running away probably triggered a response in the bear to chase the couple. The forest service recommends that when encountering a bear, one should stand still or slowly walk away. If the bear charges, they suggest to lie motionless face down.
English: Two grizzly bears in a meadow in the ...
 Two grizzly bears in a meadow in the Yellowstone park.

Because the grizzly sow was found to be protecting its cubs and did not have any history of causing trouble, it was not euthanized. Unfortunately, the bear was not done. What investigators Later that summer, DNA samples linked the same bear to a second mauling, which killed another hiker within the park. As a result, it was tracked down and killed.
Again, at Glacier National Park, constant reminders of bears were apparent in the form of signs. We had intended to drive through the park on Going-To-The-Sun Road, but heavy winter snows that year blocked the road at its highest elevations. From the information we received, it sounded as if they were planning on keeping the road closed the entire summer.
Signs for bears weren't the only warnings at Glacier
Fortunately, one of the trails I wanted to hike was accessible from Going-To-The-Sun Road. Avalanche Lake is only two miles from the trailhead and offers spectacular views of waterfalls plummeting into the cirque in which the lake lies. Nearby, is the short Trail of the Cedars, a wood trail consisting of a wood deck a few feet off the forest floor that meanders through large cedar trees. Although a nice little jaunt, this trail did not offer anything more than I have already seen in the forests of Oregon.

Along the trail to Avalanche Lake, I was very aware of my surroundings, making noises every now and then to inform any bears that I was in the area. When I arrived at the lake, other folks were already there, snapping pictures and taking in the spectacular scenery. One couple with a small child and another women, who I gathered was not part of the family’s party but had hiked in with them, struck up a conversation about bears. I think our talk freaked out the lone woman, because she asked me if I would hike back with their group. Did she think I would be able to stop an attack or did she think her odds of survival were better the bigger the hiking group. I don’t know.
Avalanche Lake
We sighted no bears at Glacier National Park. We looked for them on evening drives on back roads, but had no luck.
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