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Too close to grizzlies: when it comes to sheer terror, nothing rivals a face-to-face meeting with the king of bears--the grizzly!

If you were a young man just after the war and wandering through the mountains of Montana, you were fortunate indeed, fox the wilderness is a tough and tender mother. She gives you dreamless sleep and builds you up instead of tearing away. She is the great teacher, forcing you into your spirit her eternal values. She's always willing to forgive, yet instantly ready to slap. Her animals are her aides; the sheep, the goat, the deer and, of course, the majestic elk. But one animal surpasses them all as her final taskmaster--the grizzly. When you bump into one of these great bears, you will learn many things never to be forgotten, and yet, after a lifetime of it, you still won't understand, for no one really knows the grizzly.

We were asking for it by hunting elk in late November high in the mountains of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. That time of year, the suspended sledge of winter hangs over the northern Rockies, and the weather varies from bad to miserable. But when real winter does slam down, you'll stop complaining about comfort and start worrying about survival.

For five days, the misery storms had sailed through--awesome gray airwaves whitecapped with snow--and then in the night, winter fell with fury and we all knew that the waves before were only trying to warn us to get out before the passes were blocked. I stayed awake and propped tent walls to slip the snow, and I worried about the weather. I should have worried about bears.

We had 23 horses--one apiece for the four hunters, the three guides and packers, and the cook, plus 15 head of pack stock--and in the morning they looked like four legged snowplows. I decided then to move the camp 10 miles down, closer to the pass. The string trailed out like a half-mile snow snake over the same country we had hunted so hard without seeing fresh sign, but now I could see elk tracks everywhere, furrowing the powder. The elk were migrating lower--they also knew that winter had come to stay in the high country.

In the darkness the next morning, we circled the fires at camp, slowly spinning to dry our clothes for the coming day's hunt. Someone asked about bears because one of the packers had spotted a good-size grizzly four days before, up high in the cliffs. I vowed sure that the bears would be holed up--they sensed the seasons. I should have known better. In 35 years of wandering grizzly country, I had learned the hard way how unpredictable those bears can be. Despite this, that mistake, that little over-confidence, would almost cost me my life.

We fanned out in pairs to hunt afoot, saving the stock to pack us out. I had cautioned everyone to anchor his elk somewhere close to the trail, because packing one off the snow-covered bear grass up high in the rocks would be another one of those "unforgettable experiences." My hunter, who was from Milwaukee, was after meat, not horns, and was using a new 300 magnum. We gained a little altitude, and it was tough going through the hip-deep snow, so we stopped to blow.

Then came one of those magic moments that mysteriously make the hundreds of hours of work and misery worthwhile, that special kind of moment that lures you back year after year, just to see if it might happen again. Eleven head of elk filed out of a fir thicket like a slow, tan freight train--one big herd bull that you had to stare at came first, then seven cows and three calves. They were 400 yards away on a perfect intercept course, so we slithered down to within 50 yards of the crossing. I whispered to my hunter to shoot the fourth cow in the boiler room, then watched in amazement when hair flew off the jaw plate and the cow split from the herd at full speed. He had tried a head shot.

The blood trail was easy to follow, but I was heartsick. Gone was the chance for the clean kill, and a wounded elk will go far. We trailed fast, and after three miles, the red snow vanished into a washout, with only pure powder on the far side. We eased up and found her bedded down 20 feet away, offering an easy finishing shot. We did our work and walked back to camp, but the hunter was through, physically and psychologically. I left him in camp and took a saddle horse named Hooker and my two best packhorses, Bud and Hud, to pack out the elk. I loaded four manties and ropes and a double-bitted cruiser axe. Then I slid my .338 out of the scabbard and stashed it in the saddle tent--I didn't want the bother.

Arriving at the downed elk, I kicked snow from the side of the washout and tied Bud, the lead packhorse, to a gnarl of roots. I quartered the hinds with the axe, working fast, and had just finished the manty of one. I was bent down skinning it, complaining aloud, when I heard a long suck of air from a dish-size snout and a weird, low-throated "whoof," way too close for comfort.

The next tick of time was absolute terror: Hud reared and wheeled, snapping Bud's pigtail rope, which sounded like the crack of a rifle shot. Bud tore out his tie-roots and together they stampeded down and out, picking up Hooker on the way and shaking the earth. I never glanced at the horses. I froze like a bird dog on point, bent down grasping the quarter, staring at the grizzly as if watching a snake striking-hypnotized, terrified, and too late. He ground and popped his teeth, and the silver ruff hair tipped up on end like a 600-pound mad dog's.

He was 20 feet away and the axe lay between us. I straightened up and took a slow motion step toward the axe. That was a mistake. He shot me a raspy rumble that would pass for a growl, and he came for me--not in a rush or a jump into my arms, just a stiff-legged stalk like a cold-blooded killer choosing his time.

I stepped back and the bear stopped at a flyrod's length. I started to talk to him--quietly, evenly, calmly. "Now, Mr. Bear, if you'll let me out of here, you can have this elk, and I'll never come back in your kitchen again. And if you want"--I slid another step back, slower this time, but he stepped forward--"I'll even shook you another one and I don't know what in hell I'm doing here anyway and...." I tried another step back and he followed, closer now, so I started over again with the "Now, Mr. Bear," because I couldn't think of anything interesting to talk about right then.

I slowly backed up another step and then another. Finally he stopped following me and I eased over the lip of the washout, backing toward any tree I could possibly bump into, still talking to him. Then I could feel the horse tracks and I shuffled faster, tripping over my spurs but never taking my eyes away from that great, gray animal that ruled his country and my life by his whim.

The cook was in camp, and she had caught the horses by the time I got there. We went back for the elk, and she held the stock a quarter of a mile away from the washout while I circled to come in from above with the .338. The bear had inexplicably quit the elk, so we packed up the quarters, always watching, ready, He was there, somewhere close, allowing us. I snapped a few pictures.

Years later, Frank Hagel, the noted western artist, packed in with me to the same washout and I tried to relive the moments. From them, he painted "Blood Trail" and I can look on my cabin wall now and recognize Bud and Hud. Also, I can feel my awe at the whim of the winter bear.

In the fall of '64, I had a horrible, rough string of horses that methodically tore up my outfit. The local ladies would bring sandwiches up to the trail head every morning to sit and laugh and watch the rodeo. Mame Haasch was there laughing when a black horse broke my hand, so she helped me set the bones and wrap it with elastic bandages. I wasn't laughing much because I had to get that string lined out like pros, everything perfect. Frank Finney, a great friend, was coming out from Detroit for a month-long trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.

I met him in Missoula, 90 miles from the ranch, and we stocked up on food, including three huge hams and six sides of bacon. When we drove to the trail head it was almost dark, and I started to mantry the gear so we could leave before first light. I finished the cargo, and we made our beds in the back of the truck. Everything was peaceful. Then came the first hitch--Frank had left his license in the bunkhouse, five miles down slope.

I saddled a horse and told Frank I'd be back in an hour. I had almost made it back on time, too, when I heard the thunder of a stampede--the horses were fanned out and running at me like the 440 at Hialeah. They swept me up in a running buck, and we were back at the bunkhouse in record time. I strung them back together and rode for the trail head, but I could get those broncs to come no closer than 600 yards. I tied them up and walked in.

It looked like camp hash. Frank was in the truck under the dash and wouldn't come out--he'd had the rare thrill of watching a grizzly at work at close range. Frank spent that night in the truck and I sat under a tree with the .338, but the bear didn't come back. He didn't need to. He had eaten all of the hams and bacon, three pounds of coffee, five pounds of salt--and a riding saddle seat--while sampling everything else.

The ladies showed up early, so while I was wiring things back together, Mame drove to the Seeley Lake Mercantile for three more hams, six sides of bacon, coffee, and salt. It was too late to leave when we finished unpacking the cargo, so I spent the night in the bed of the truck, while Frank slept in his bed under the dash. I had a good dog, so we'd be okay. He'd let me know if the bear came.

Before dawn, I awakened and couldn't find the dog. I grabbed the .338 and then I couldn't find the horses. I couldn't find the replacement hams and bacon either. Mame made another trip to Seeley that day and bought them out--two more hams and three sides of bacon. I made war plans: I'd tie the horses high to stout trees, I'd make my bed right under the ham cache with the .338 in my lap, and I'd stay awake all night.

Dawn was due and I thought I'd made it through the night awake, reciting old songs and the alphabet. I woke Frank from under the dash, collected the horses, and saddled them all in the dark. We built a fire and it was then that I could see that the hams were gone. Up in the air hung the end of a rope, and now I realize it was perfect, because I hate to think of what would have happened if I had awakened from a doze with that bear standing astride me. The bear was a legend long before he decided to eat at my restaurant. He was huge and cunning, and he was missing two claws, so we called him Old Three Toes.

Frank was unhappy camping at the trail head, so when I told him there weren't any more hams within cannon shot, we headed up the trail for Two-Mile Meadow on the Little Salmon.

We had two perfect days, and then Old Three Toes tracked us down. I knew he was around because I had ridden to the South Fork of the Flathead and found the wreck of a Forest Service trail camp, with two young city boys nesting in trees. They had been hired on to repair trail damage from the big spring flood, but Old Three Toes had convinced them to quit.

A pack string was due shortly to pick them up, and they had to bury everything that couldn't be packed out. I saw two hams ready for burial, so I told them about my hams and they finally agreed to bend the rules if I promised not to tell.

Before dark, I prepared for the coming night: I cached the hams high in the trees, tied the horses tight about 600 yards away, bent the lantern into working shape (the bear had tasted the lantern and evidently eaten the flashlight), lined up a dozen kitchen matches on a scratch rock by my bag, and put the .338 where my right hand would hit the grip. We tried to stay awake awhile, listening, but sleep overpowers the will with background wilderness music: drinking-clear water whispering over free-stones, a faraway bull singing his four-note symphony song, a loon.

Claws the size of log spikes punched through the tent wall near my left ear, and I was instantly wide awake in the blackness. I started pump-pumping the lantern. Frank slid down into the boot of his bag with an "Oh, no!" the claws tore along the tent side, ripping and rending, tipping over the dishes and silver. Suddenly it was deadly silent, except for the pump-pump and the whoosh of the bear's breath. The whoosh circled the tent. I struck a match and waited for the hiss of the mantle. The saddle tent crashed down like a house of sticks. The lantern flickered, then flared and I grabbed the grip of the .338 and stepped out to meet the bear.

He charged me at the tent flaps and I raised the .338, pistol like. The muzzle blast would have blown hair from his chest, but my broken hand couldn't get the gun up. I set the lantern in the tall grass and grabbed the gun to shoot from the hip, but I couldn't see the bear, just rushing grass shadows of lantern light. I grabbed the lantern bail and then he was behind me, and then to my right, and I tried it all again and again and couldn't see.

He slapped the tent and knocked it flat on Frank, then roared toward me. I dodged aside and he brushed my elbow, his hump almost level with my shoulder (later a measured, flat-footed four feet three inches. He circled beyond the lantern light for a while, popping his jaws, and then it was silent, eerie.

We built a big fire and drank coffee, waiting and listening. At dawn I took the .338 down trail, following his hat-size tracks to where they suddenly stepped off into the head-high berry bush. I walked a little farther, gun at the ready. Finding nothing, I started back, but there was now a new set of tracks over mine--following. The hunter was now the hunted. The range would be a few feet, and I was angry enough to accept those odds, but the bear let me get back to camp.

Frank had most everything packed, and I knew I'd have to tie him up to get him to spend another night at Two-Mile, so we loaded up and left for White River. When we forded the South Fork above Murphy's Flats, I waded the string in the current a long way. I'm sure now that this scent washing saved our new hams and maybe more. Old Three Toes must have been disappointed, but there were other packers around for him to work over. I know that I quit trying pack hams down the Little Salmon any more that year.

Some bear encounters are like the rack of a shotgun action at night. This one was like that--quick, jarring and ominous. It started with a tragedy, and when it was over I felt as if the gun were still cocked.

The fall of '68 was wet and dismal. I was out of the hills, finished packing, when my lead packhorse strayed and was killed by a logging truck. I couldn't replace him, especially in my mind, and I skidded him out back of the ranch to let nature do its work. A few evenings later, the gray scud of clouds parted like split Visqueen, and cathedral rays of yellow sun shot through. I stopped work to watch awhile, and then I walked to the bunkhouse to get a rifle for a soul-lifting stroll. I chose a little .270 and loaded three cases with 15 grains of 4198 behind 100-grain Sierras. That popgun load wouldn't damage the $7.50 hides of the coyotes that I figured were feeding on the carcass.

I eased Dony Gal, my saddle horse, up slope through the dripping ponderosas and tied off 100 yards from the carcass. I could sneak from tree to tree to get closer, and I had to keep checking the scope wires to make sure I could see in the darkened room of pines.

I sideslipped behind some brush 30 yards from the carcass, and I could make out five coyotes circling in the dark. However, the carcass had vanished, and instantly I knew my foolishness. I stopped breathing and moved only my eyes. There lay the bear, 30 feet away, his nose aimed at me. He had dug a hole big enough to store furniture in and had packed that 1,200-pound horse over and buried it under a huge mound of logs and brush. All day, the coyotes had harried him, making him charge so one could slip in behind for a quick bite. He was lying full length on the mound, and he was mad. I was the last straw--a final, sneaky human coyote.

I froze for eternal minutes, planning my escape and watching him. He couldn't see me, but his snout was sighted straight at me. I glanced for a tree to climb, but it was too dark to distinguish a good one. I worried about climbing in chaps and spurs, but I knew I'd be inspired.

Suddenly, he charged with a roar and three jumps of incredible speed. I held until the last instant, and when he chose the right side of the brush, I sagged to the left. Falling back, I threw the barrel in his face and fired. A fan of flame shot out in his face, blinding him and burning his hair. The gun flew from my hands, and I lay there awaiting the inevitable charge.

Dony Gal couldn't take any more. At the shot she screamed and tore loose, and that was what saved me, although it cost bet dearly. The bear caught her and slapped her at the breast collar, tearing into the bone. But the diversion gave me moments to spring toward home, tree to tree. He returned to search for me, huffing nose up and circling. He kept cutting me off, demonlike. When I finally saw the lights of the bunkhouse, I ran to it across the open meadow, expecting to feel his carcass breath on my back at any moment.

I sat for a few moments while I unhooked my chaps and spurs, then grabbed a lantern and the .338. I walked back to meet him, but he had gone. In the morning a neighbor helped me hunt. An angry grizzly is pure poison, especially to an unsuspecting tourist, but the bear had vanished, never to return to his cache. Somehow I was glad, because I would have had to kill him.

Young men still wander the mountains, and old men do, too--all needing the lessons of their wilderness mother. Her borders are cramped now, with drilling rigs and logging trucks traveling the old trails of the packer. The deer adjust and prosper, and the elk too, in places.

Most animals will gradually accept man-made changes, but not the grizzly. He will challenge the change and he can be devastating--sometimes he maims or kills, sometimes he lets you live on with tense memories.

Some people want him eliminated to "free" the backcountry. As for me, I pray that we grant him a tiny kingdom within the vast country he once ruled. If you then decide to wander his land, you will be truly free to know a wilderness, the same wilderness that lured our pioneer kin into the mountains. And if you bump into a bear, well, you really are just an intruder passing through.
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Author:Nixon, Ed
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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