Bears and Bears and Bears, Oh My

When I was about seven, my family moved from Washington, DC to Bozeman, Montana.

Will there be chocolate in Montana?

That’s quite the change for a ripe young mind. And when you throw into the mix that my best friend at the time–who was pretty much my honorary big brother–had told me that Montana was an island in the middle of the ocean inhabited by cannibals, you can get a glimpse of how I felt about moving.

But once we settled in, I fell in love with our new home right away. I found a horseshoe on the lane next to our house, and once I was told it was good luck to find a horseshoe, well!! I knew I was set.

…Until we went to the museum. That was the day my fragile seven year-old psyche was positively shattered.

The museum in Bozeman is actually pretty well-known, as it houses world-famous paleontologist Dr. Jack Horner. If you don’t know who he is, rent “Jurassic Park” and watch the credits. We have the world’s first female T-Rex, and several other big-time paleontological finds.

As a small, aspiring intellectual on that fateful day in my seventh year, I had been impressed with our new museum–it was no Smithsonian, but it would do. I had been inside a real teepee, and had gotten to move a big metal thing back and forth while pumping make-believe gas from an old do-it-yourself gasoline pump. Those are pretty cool activities when you’re seven. I was stoked.

The last exhibit we would visit for the day was the temporary one, which changes every few months. As fate would have it, this season’s exhibit was on bears.

Bears are, no doubt, an important topic in Montana. They’re a part of life here. When camping, you have to store your food bag up in a tree. When hiking, you alwaysalwaysalways carry bear spray. Every Montanan needs to know the difference between a black bear and a grizzly, so they can act accordingly if need be. For all these reasons, educating the public is really important. Bear education has saved a lot of lives.

But this exhibit went beyond education.

In the corner of the last room, there was a looping tape of bear attacks.

It was the greatest mindf*ck my seven year-old self could have possibly encountered.

I watched in horror as an armless woman told the story of her attack, in which she mistook a black bear for a grizzly. You see, when dealing with black bears, you must jump and shout and try to scare them away; but when it comes to grizzlies, you have to get down on the ground and put your hands over your neck, with your elbows out, in hopes that it won’t be able to roll you over. So, when this woman rolled herself into a ball on the ground, the black bear assumed she had declared defeat, and proceeded to slowly eat off her arms.

Victim after victim told their gruesome stories, with occasional roars and screams for effect. I didn’t even cry; I was simply transfixed with terror.

Pale and shaking, I numbly walked out to the car with my parents, distracting myself from the certainty that a bear was about to pop out around every corner by mentally planning exactly how I would escape my second-floor bedroom if a bear ever came into it.

Since then, I’ve slowly regained at least a bit of rationality. But fears you develop during those formative years stay with you. Though I hike, backpack and ski, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m still absolutely terrified of bears.

Most of the time, my interaction with bears isn’t even interaction. We rarely see them up at the house. For the most part, I see them in Yellowstone, and it’s always from a car with lots of other people around.

A cub we saw in Yellowstone a few summers ago. Don't be fooled--it's my camera lens that's courageous here, not me!

We saw this grizzly the same day; in fact, we saw three bears that day in the park, making it one of the most traumatic I've ever had.

It’s when I’m hiking that the old fear kicks in. Most bear attack stories occur while the victim is hiking, and we just had that awful fatal mauling in the Park. (And all the ridiculously sensationalized reporting that went with it. Articles featured headlines like “Killer grizzly roams free in Yellowstone!” Well, Media, it may surprise you to know that ALL GRIZZLIES KILL THINGS. Yes, that’s right–every bear in Yellowstone is a killer. They may as well have titled the article “OHMYGAHIT’STHEBEARPOCALYPSE.”)

But, if I never bucked up & put my fear aside, how would I ever experience sights like this?

Wildflowers, pretty weeds, and Gallatin Peak on a sunny day.

This weekend, I went for a hike into the Spanish Peaks with two friends of mine. We took the Pioneer Falls trail, which is about seven miles round-trip.

Before the hike, I was pretty nervous. I thought about doing a little research into bear danger in the area, or asking my friends (who know the area far better than me) what they thought the chances were that we’d see a bear.

Instead, I just decided to go with the flow.

(Thank you, Greece.)

The rewards for this decision were tangible… and spectacularly gorgeous.

The Pioneer Falls trail offers magnificent views of Gallatin Peak.

My hiking buddies head down the trail past some aspens.

I love trail marker signs. They're just so old-fashioned and picturesque.

The lone cloud in the top left makes this photo for me.

On top of the big-picture scenery, hikes are all about the little things for me. The air is so fresh and sweet-smelling, and the sounds of birds such a lovely way to break the silence. There’s beauty all around, from your eye-level to your feet.

We think this is some strand of geranium.

The wildflowers are one of my very favorite things about Montana. My favorite kind is called "Indian Paintbrush."

The geometry of nature never ceases to amaze me.

And then, of course, there’s the destination. If a hike isn’t one giant metaphor, I don’t know what is.

Me and my buddy Bennett at the falls!

Water is so hard to photograph, but so rewarding once you finally get it the way you want it.

I once dated a geologist, and the hikes we took were always great because he could offer guesses as to not only what kinds of rock were around us, but how they got there in the first place.

My favorite thing about this photograph is the single drop of water hovering above the rock at the top center of the photo.

As we wandered back down the trail, I couldn’t help but reflect on the very nature of fear. It’s one of the single most overpowering emotions, and yet the rewards one reaps for overcoming it are often some of the most precious rewards we could possibly gain. As a Montana citizen, if I let my fear of bears rule my life, I’d practically never be outside.

And as a Montana citizen, outside is where I want to be.

Post-hike feet, even though I was wearing running shoes. I guess that even despite the initial trauma, I have definitely become a Montana girl! ๐Ÿ™‚

At the end of the day, there was one last reward waiting for me:

Ultimate. Post-Hike. Dinner. EVER. Bozeman Co-op-made local rosemary wine brats, organic caramelized onions, local whole-grain steak rolls, and a lovely organic spinach & strawberry salad with my mom's homemade candied pecans. And since the full label isn't showing, can anyone guess the beer?

Who knows if I will ever fully overcome my fear of bears. I don’t even really know what it means to “fully overcome” a fear. But in the meantime, I’m trying. Just like Big Scary Life Changes, learning to set aside one’s fears is another part of progressing as a whole human being.

What are your fears, how do you cope with them, and what do you gain as a reward?

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About wrap me in phyllo dough

travel addict. greece-obsessed. grad student. bottomless pit.
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16 Responses to Bears and Bears and Bears, Oh My

  1. This post had everything, food, history, bears, great pictures. Although, now I’m terrified of a bear attack. I still can’t believe I fell for this too: Montana was an island in the middle of the ocean inhabited by cannibals.

    • Yeah, I think I would have been equally traumatized to see that video as an adult. And at times, Montana actually DOES seem like an island in the middle of the ocean inhabited by cannibals (being a red state with a Democratic governor brings on some pretty heavy metaphorical cannibalism!).

  2. Georgia says:

    Today, as I pulled my car into the student parking lot, preparing to run to my first lecture of the day (which I was *very* late for,) I saw a suspiciously brown recluse-looking spider making its happy way along my driver’s side window into the car, obviously making a beeline to my thigh so it could BITE ME and KILL ME (I’m not irrational…) While scared out of my wits, I knew there was only one thing to do: keep driving like a normal person. Because insurance doesn’t cover ‘I swear it was a brown recluse…and THAT is when I drove into the tree.’ Nor do my medical school professors accept terrifying arachnid encounters as grounds for being late. Is this what growing up feels like?

    In other news, I’M COMING TO MONTANA NEXT SUMMER! I really hope you’re in Bozeman around June-July so we can reunite! From your stories, the town sounds like an awesome place ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ll keep you posted on my plans for The Epic Roadtrip! Okay, back to studying…miss ya Kate!

    • I miss you too!! Your spider run-in sounds awful. I’m glad you made it out alive. Did you pull one of those hilarious not-so-graceful running-out-of-the-car-while-squealing moments? I pull them sometimes, when running inside from our driveway when I get home late at night and have convinced myself there are multiple bears lying in wait in our garden. Growing up? Whaa?

      YESSSSS I AM SO EXCITED YOU’RE COMING. I will definitely be here when you are, no matter if I’m in Bozeman for the whole summer or not; if you’re coming, I’ll be here! And you’ve got a place to stay, too. Hurray! Keep me posted on your plans! Good luck with studying and a huge hug from me!!

  3. AJ says:

    I gave it five stars. Simply because the picture of you with chocolate on your face is F-ing AWESOME!!! I won’t laugh- I’m not scared of bears. But moose? Oh, don’t even joke about it!

    • Actually, there’s a great story involving that picture. I was in a play in college in which I had to hold a perfectly deadpan facial expression while spraying one of my best friends repeatedly in the face with a spray bottle of water. (It was just as hard as it sounds.) When opening night got closer, for the program, we were all asked to provide a baby picture for our cast bios. Naturally, I chose this one for its sheer accuracy in terms of portraying my everyday life ๐Ÿ˜€ We were in dress rehearsal when someone pointed out that the face I did in the spray bottle scene was EXACTLY the same as the picture with the chocolate face. What can I say? From the facial expression to the tendency to have chocolate all over my face, I guess some things never change…

  4. thirdeyemom says:

    Great post! I love your writing. It is so colorful and fun to read. What are you studying at grad school? English?

    • Thank you so much! That’s very kind of you to say. And yes, I’ll have my MA in English (literature emphasis) from Boise State after two years. And, I get to teach my own section of English 101 this semester! Woohoo!! ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. mmm that post hike dinner looks fab!!!

  6. ‘k – ‘Fat Tire’ for the beer? … and my in-laws live in Missoula and I’ve seen a bear (black) in their garage and one in the yard. Good thing, I didn’t know about curling myself into a ball (or was that for the Grizzly?) – I just ran into the house until I got the ‘all clear’ from somewhere.
    My fears: a) not having enough food in the house. b) not to have enough money to travel. c) rattlesnakes, scorpions, alligators, biting fish, and now – bears. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Yes!! It was a Fat Tire. Well done. And a bear in the yard is one thing, but a bear in the garage?! That doesn’t sound good at all!

      To comfort you in your fear of alligators, have you ever seen the fresh water episode of Planet Earth? There’s this amazing scene in it where a pack of otters totally oh-no-you-di’ints a crocodile who was trying to eat one of them. It’s just fabulous. Otters are my favorite animal–so playful & badass at the same time!!

  7. i’m totally with you on this one… fear is a funny thing. it helps protect our fragile lives, but if we let it rule us, we never actually live.

    i too hike a lot in grizzly country, and i am (like any rational human, or any rational living organism!) very scared of bears. but i try to transform that fear into healthy respect every time i set out… hopefully it doesn’t get me killed someday ๐Ÿ™‚ but if it does, at least i got to see all the amazing and beautiful things the wilderness has to offer!

    thanks for the post, i really enjoyed it!!

    • “it helps protect our fragile lives, but if we let it rule us, we never actually live.” Well said! Healthy respect is a great way to refocus that energy. Happy trails and thanks for stopping by. ๐Ÿ™‚

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