Quietly hiking up a steep section of trail, a loud crack of a branch broke the silence. "That’s a big animal," I thought.
A rush came over me like a rocky mountain freight train as I quickly realized what was happening. The largest predator in the woods was barreling straight towards me, growling as it announced its intentions.
If you spend time in the Mountain West you know that grizzlies are a common thread of discussion. With their population well recovered in a small percentage of their native range, we are seeing more and more encounters. For those of us who live and recreate in grizzly country, much discussion goes into the age old debate of bear spray vs bullets.
That very day, which was October 12, I had one of those conversations with fellow teachers during our school's lunch. I remember thinking back to that talk as I was walking out the door to go on a trail run. I always carry bear spray strapped to my chest, but that day, I decided to throw my .45 Colt with bear loads into my running pack as well. "What the heck," I remember thinking.
I live in the foothills of the Swan Range in NW Montana, and have had bears in my yard and have seen plenty of sign along the trail. My home is in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which encompasses Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex - a lot of wild country, and a lot of grizzly bears. So precautions are warranted.
Most days the first 15 minutes of my run is spent talking loudly to my two dogs, an Australian Shepherd and a Lab-Poodle mix. But today, after a long day of school and no recent bear scat on the trail, I was in my own head and my dogs were running with me without needing any encouragement or direction.
My run slowed to a quiet hike during a steep climb. And that's when the loud crack broke the silence.
There was no time to think, yet everything slowed.
I remember seeing the bear's brown coat rippling with strength as he lunged toward me. It was frightening, but still so beautiful, like golden wheat grass blowing in the wind.
My memory of this moment is made up of slow motion frames and half thoughts.
"This is not a false charge, this guy is pissed..."
I pulled the trigger on the bear spray but the bear kept coming. "I’ll have to tell the guys at lunch," I remember thinking.
I kept spraying. "This is how it happens…. just keep spraying.'
And then, two paces from where I stood, the bear dropped its head and peeled to my left, circling away from me.
One of my dogs took off after it. Thankfully, she is very well trained to voice commands and she came right back after I hollered. With the bear having disappeared in the thick brush, but still close, I kept one hand on the bear spray and fumbled to get my revolver out of my pack. Charged full of adrenaline, I thought to myself, "Wow. That's it?!"
I was hoping for maybe a little keepsake, you know, just a surface level claw mark that would leave a cool scar or something. But this story is all I have.
Loaded with a nearly empty can of bear spray and my .45, I gathered my dogs and headed home, buzzing on the adrenaline and shock of the encounter.
This encounter turned me into a firm believer in bear spray, and I couldn't wait to tell my fellow teachers at school.
Throughout this winter I have told this story to many friends and family, as well, and have processed the events many times over. I think there are some very important takeaways to be better prepared in the woods.
Takeaway #1 - Be prepared: My bear spray was on my chest. Had it been in my bag I would never have had it in time. My pistol was in my bag, and even if it was on my hip, I would have never had a chance had it been my sole protection, at least not for this encounter.
Takeaway #2 - Expect it to happen: I know how lucky I am. The individuals in our area who have been killed by bears have been experienced outdoors people. It can and will happen. I also know that I did what I needed to do to defend myself, but more importantly, it was instinct. When I run in the woods and when I am out hunting I think about where bears might be. I practice drawing my bear spray and I have fired a bear spray canister, both inert and real for the sake of practice. Have you? I live with bears, my whole family practices. Get a practice can.
Takeaway #3 - Pick your defense wisely: I am a firm believer that bear spray is the best option for me. I shoot my revolver and can hit a plate at 20 yards, but I am not tactically trained. My only hope of stopping this bear was bear spray. I know that my outcome would have been drastically different had my revolver been my primary defense. While I sure felt good about having the revolver as a secondary option - especially after I all but emptied the spray - I simply do not practice enough with the revolver to have been proficient with it in an instinctual way. If you prefer a side arm, remember that you’ve got to be able to hit moving targets, under pressure, instinctually. For me, bear spray and the broad and reliable cloud of pepper will continue to be my go-to in bear country.
But that choice is entirely up to you.
My only hope is that my story might help you be better prepared in the woods, so if you find yourself looking eye-to-eye with a charging grizzly like I did, you'll be able to tell your story too.