CODY, Wyo. — A thin covering of snow had settled over the Wyoming landscape as our hunting group worked up the river bottom trail shortly after sunrise.
At the entrance to the trail, which we had walked many times in recent years, we had seen a local Jeep and two sets of footprints, tipping us off that there were other hunters in the area known as Alpine Canyon. And then we came across the other footprint. Big track, big claws.
There is something unsettling about walking into the mountains near Yellowstone National Park and looking down to see a fresh grizzly bear track in the snow. This one was fresh, on top of the tracks left recently by the other hunters, and perfectly defined even though it was still snowing. The bear was close.
I was out West with my hunting buddy Mike Carson and his son, Spencer. Mike and I have been making this trip since 1984. We were a lot younger then. Climbing a mountain at dawn is getting harder on my middle-aged knees and ankles. At age 59 I find myself getting stiff a lot quicker now.
It also occurred to me that back in the old days we had never worried about grizzlies. Now we have to, as the predators have experienced a population explosion even though they are still “endangered,” a very debatable subject with the local people in the Cody area.
One of those locals is Mike Christianson, the owner of Shosone Lodge & Guest Ranch where we stay on our Wyoming trips. The first day we arrived, Mike told how a medium-sized younger grizzly had charged him twice right outside the cabins, once just as he snatched up his two small children and darted into a chain-link enclosure.
The bear crashed into the fence but then backed off when Mike and his staff fired several “firecracker” shells at his feet, making a loud boom. The bear left the campground, and while Mike’s 9-year old daughter called the experience “awesome,” he knew the young grizzly was potentially big trouble. The bear returned later and once again had to be scared off.
The same week, a big, dark-colored boar came into camp and was looking through cabin windows, Mike said. “There are way too many bears,” the Wyoming native told us.
That seems to be the general opinion in Cody and elsewhere among people who live with bears. They want grizzlies delisted and control of hunts returned to the state, much like the wolf situation in Wisconsin.
Making sure our bear spray was attached to our belts after coming across the fresh grizzly prints, we made our way up Alpine Canyon leading into the mountains and started our ascent. Mike and Spencer took one side, heading north by following the tracks of the other two hunters while I climbed up the other way.
A short time later my walkie-talkie crackled and Spencer reported that they had come across the two hunters, young locals from Cody, who had indeed encountered the bear at close range. They were spooked and on their way back out to their Jeep.
I kept climbing the steep rocks toward a meadow with a nice view, thinking that with the bear having just been spotted about a mile away there was little to worry about.
About 15 minutes later I had reason to worry.
The morning had broken grey, with an almost murky, filtered light. As I climbed there was a rock ledge to my right and a stand of aspens still holding yellow leaves to my left and ahead of me. About 30 yards in front of me the terrain leveled out, offering a great view of the valley.
I was just about to lower my head, catch my breath and make a rapid charge to the top when, for some reason, I stopped to look up. Had I not done so I likely would have walked head first into the 400-pound, blonde-colored grizzly that stepped out of the aspens about 20 yards away and stood directly in front of me.
As big as he was, the grizzly had not made a sound. He was so close I could see his eyes blink. As he put his nose in the air and turned his head to look at me, I suddenly knew what it means to have your “blood run cold.” We briefly made eye contact, and I slowly looked down as he stiffened both front legs and did a jump before taking about three steps toward me.
I learned later that particular body language is a sign the bear is not happy to see you. A grizzly walking away, sitting or lying down is demonstrating an unwillingness to fight and wants to be left alone. Aggression in grizzly bears is often demonstrated by lunging, as this one did. But a few moments later, looking directly at me, he sat down. Mixed signals, I guess.
In any case, bear spray in hand, I slowly walked back down the way I came, checking every so often to make sure he was still sitting.
“I’ve got a bear right here, 15 or 20 yards away,” I said quietly on the radio as I retreated. I looked up to see the grizzly take a few more steps and then sit down again, those dark eyes staring through me.
Back on the trail I came across the two other hunters making their own retreat. We decided the bear I’d come across could not have been the one they saw. We got back to our vehicles and took a deep breath. They left for another hunting area and I checked in on the radio.
Another local hunter driving by stopped to warn me that a young bear, likely the one I encountered, had caused trouble in the area. He said there was also a large boar and a sow with two cubs nearby. I radioed Mike and Spencer, who decided to come down.
Two days later, as we climbed the ridges above Shoshone Lodge, the Carsons were charged by a bear we suspect was the same one that went after Mike Christianson. It broke off the attack when they shouted and beat branches on trees.
“We just got to see a grizzly close like you did,” Spencer said on the radio.
“Exciting, ain’t it?” I replied.
That bear is young and seems pretty aggressive.
Back at the lodge that night we saw a report of a hunter being mauled by a grizzly just north of us. He survived, but the photos were gruesome.
And there were other reports. The grizzly news was heating up, and we were right in the middle of it. Cody hunting guide John Sheets was seriously injured while field dressing an elk on a late-season cow hunt with a female hunter when she was attacked by a grizzly. He said he rushed in and grabbed the bear by the neck and stabbed it with his hunting knife. The bear then retaliated, and Sheets said the rest of the encounter is fuzzy.
Sheets and the woman were able to get back on their horses and eventually met up with another outfitter. Sheets had a cast, stitches on his head and had to have one ear sewn back on. The woman was in stable condition.
Two days later, again near Cody, an off-duty game warden shot and killed a charging grizzly.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department reports there have been more human-bear conflicts this year. Eight grizzly bears have been shot in 13 incidents in which bears were charging or attacking. Four of those resulted in human injuries. It made us feel lucky we got out in one piece.
When we got home from our hunt we learned that the bear I encountered had been trapped and relocated after continuing to cause a stir. I’m glad he wasn’t killed. Grizzlies make the wilderness more complete, though “thrilling.”
It was a great trip, and now it is time to focus on our own deer hunting season in Wisconsin.
But I can’t help but think that while sitting in my stand on opening day I will take some comfort knowing that I won’t be chased out by a grizzly bear.
Thornley is the outdoors editor at the Spooner Advocate.