Montana's gorgeous Glacier National Park boasts of some of the most spectacular scenery in the Rocky Mountains: craggy mountains, multi-hued wildflower-covered valleys, aquamarine glacier-fed lakes, streams and waterfalls. Cute and furry marmots, chipmunks and mountain goats scamper around. Are you humming a tune from "The Sound of Music" and dusting off your hiking boots? Not so fast. This alpine wonderland isn't as innocent as you might think. Its home to a big, hairy, toothy, pee-on-yourself scary predator: the grizzly bear.
By nature, grizzly bears are shy - though their appearance doesn't give that impression. Adult grizzlies grow to a standing height of 8 feet and a weight of 500-750 lbs! They have big teeth and big claws. They run at a top speed of 35 miles per hour. No, you do not want to cross this guy's path.
Fortunately, bear attacks are very rare, and bear-related fatalities even rarer: the last 100 years have seen only 10 fatalities in Glacier. Nevertheless, a visit to the park in August or September - prime foraging season - virtually ensures a grizzly spotting. Here's our advice for enjoying the unbeatable beauty of Glacier - without becoming bear breakfast.
Rule #1: Don't surprise them!
A startled bear is an aggressive bear, so its imperative that hikers make lots of noise while in bear country. Some people use bear bells, others sing annoying trail songs. I prefer to intermittently holler out, "Heeeeeey Beaaaaaar!" - a strategy that helped me survive a summer spent backpacking in Glacier. Once the bear hears you coming, it'll high-tail it out of your way.
Rule #2: Don't approach them!
Some naive tourists - whose only experience with bears are Yogi and teddy - have attempted to approach a grizzly. They'll hop out of the car and quietly move closer to the unsuspecting bear, camera in hand. Until they come up with a shark cage for bear encounters - this is a very bad idea.
Rule #3: Don't feed them!
Rangers stress the importance of not giving bears human food since it causes bears to associate food with humans. This actually proves more dangerous for the bears than the humans - once a grizzly makes the food-human connection rangers are forced to relocate the bear or worse - put it down. Remember, "a fed bear is a dead bear". When camping in Glacier, keep your campsite clean and store your food in a distance from camp in bear-safe containers strung high above the ground.
Rule #4: Be afraid!
Of course, we don't want you to be so scared that you don't leave the safety of the ranger station, but having respect for the power of these animals will keep you safe. If you're still not convinced, watch the documentary "Grizzly Man" - that outta inspire a healthy fear in you.
What to do if you encounter a grizzly bear:
- Immediately assume non-threatening posture by crouching down and avoiding eye-contact
- Talk in a soothing voice while slowly backing away
- Have your bear spray ready to use if the bear approaches
- If you're attacked, keep your pack on and fall to your stomach, protecting the back of your neck with your hands. Or, lie in the fetal position protecting your chest and abdomen. Remain quiet and motionless until the bear walks away. Tell park rangers immediately.