Bears: powerful, somewhat elusive creatures that tend to freak out even the most courageous of hikers and definitely their mothers. Black bears are found in many areas of the country and although they can occasionally be dangerous, they tend to be more akin to giant raccoons- nosy pests that want to steal your food. As long as you don't get between a black bear mama and her cub, generally they will just run away or at least leave you alone. Grizzly bears are a different story. While they don't necessarily mean you any harm and also would gladly steal your peanut butter and granola tortillas, grizzlies have a reputation to swat first and ask questions later, and that first swat from a creature as powerful as a grizzly (and especially with 3" claws) tends to be bad for your health.
I am not going to talk about HOW to hike in grizzly country, describe best practices or discuss the rules in the national parks. The entire time that I have been on trail so far (over 1250 trail miles), I have been in grizzly country, and now that I am finally about to leave their range, I am thinking about what it actually means for me as a hiker and the culture/mentality around grizzlies on trail and wanted to share my experiences.
Yesterday was the last day that I hiked through what is commonly considered grizzly "range"- the territory I am heading into now generally is not grizzly habitat and farther south the only bears known to occupy that area are black bears. I considered myself lucky when, around 10:30am yesterday, I saw bear tracks in the muddy trail. I couldn't tell what kind of bear had made them but they looked fresh if a bit incomplete. I promptly tripped over a stick, swore, then heard a loud snort in response and stomping just ahead. In a clearing perhaps three car lengths ahead of me on trail, stood a giant adult grizzly bear. There were only a few trees between me and the open space this bear was occupying and we could see each other quite clearly. My stumble had startled it and it clearly did not want to stick around to say hello. With the grace of a rhinoceros, it took off down the trail and off the other side, crashing into the trees and through the dense underbrush. I stood there, stunned, barely able to process such a massive animal being so close and neither of us noticing the other until just then. I have been carrying bear spray but the speed at which that bear ran would have given me zero chance to use it effectively had it chosen to run toward me rather than away. It took me a few moments to return to my senses and continue hiking, looking deep into the woods for any sign of my 900 lb friend and calling "Hey bear" around every turn.
This was the fourth bear that I have encountered on trail and the second grizzly. The first one was in northern Montana, strolling along a creek in a ravine far below me, a safe distance away. When in the backcountry, there are lots of rules and best practices for preparing and storing your food in camp, but every bear I've seen has been while I'm walking. Like I mentioned, I carry bear spray in case I have a bad encounter that is always accessible on the shoulder strap of my pack. My few encounters seem so rare and special that I can hardly imagine an aggressive bear, but things certainly do happen from time to time.
A few miles west of Yellowstone National Park, someone was fatally mauled by a grizzly on the CDT. They closed a section of trail and surrounding national forest but were unable to locate the bear, which they suspected to be a defensive mama bear with cubs. This caused a stir with locals and especially the thru-hiking community, and when we came through the nearest town (West Yellowstone, MT), everyone had an opinion and advice for our safety. The closure was lifted while we were planning our reroute, and 24 hour after it opened, we were hiking through the previously closed area, clapping our hands, singing, and calling "Hey bear!" loudly in all directions. This was the most bear aware that I have been on trail so far, and most of us (including myself) could absolutely do better.
As thru-hikers basically living in the woods and sharing habitat with many other animals, it feels like we become a bit desensitized to the risks and often get complacent. Nearly all of us have crumbs in our packs or pockets at the very least, and some even still cook in their tents and sleep with their food. Some people make a bunch of noise when hiking, calling out regularly and hiking in groups while others hike solo, sometimes with headphones. There is often talk on our mapping app or in town about grizzly sightings but rarely anything negative or fear-driven. We know that we aren't prey to these animals and that everyone just wants to have a peaceful experience- we are in their territory and need to give them space and respect.
I personally have been carrying a can of bear spray and also a bear canister to store my food at night. I now get to drop all of that extra weight (nearly 3 pounds!) and will have more room in my pack. I feel lucky to have been able to see one more grizzy before leaving their territory and am also glad to finally be able drop the extra weight I have been carrying. I still have to be bear aware, but at least now all I have to worry about are the giant snack-seeking raccoons!