Never surprise a grizzly bear
Physically weary and emotionally drained, we were relieved to have our ascent of western Wyoming’s 10,326 foot Mount Leidy behind us.
Heavy, moisture laden clouds had lowered throughout the day, drenching us with a bone chilling rain during our descent from the mountain. Appearing easy from a distance, the mountain’s twisting ridges proved to be unexpectedly steep, muddy, and slippery.
Yet over the decades, we had climbed more difficult peaks and had hiked in worse conditions.
What had been different was that our Mount Leidy climb had been in prime grizzly habitat where posted warnings left no doubt about the risk we were taking; “Bear Attack! Are you prepared to avoid one?”
“Bear Activity increasing in this area!”
After Mount Leidy, we needed a shorter, less intense hike in better weather.
I found 9,704 foot Pilot Knob, southeast of Togwotee Pass on a map giving us the impression that the Continental Divide Trail crossed its summit.
However, instead of a trail stroll, the CD Trail was poorly marked and useless, meaning our hike involved confused off trail route finding in another prime grizzly habitat.
We couldn’t forget the words of an experienced hiking couple we had met the previous day when climbing Mount Leidy.
They had assured us that the posted grizzly warnings were not exaggerated. Showing us their ultimate defense, a potent pepper spray aerosol, they said, “You should have one!”
Circling around the little mountain’s backside, away from its chiseled, north facing cliffs, we entered a cluttered, shaggy forest. Moving warily, we remembered our 1996 descent from Glacier National Park’s Mount Oberlin, when rounding a forested bend, I saw a ponderous grizzly rear end 60 yards away.
Never surprise a grizzly; and we stepped back, waiting for him to move on.
Would the somber experience of that long ago Montana day repeat itself in western Wyoming?
After sniffing the forest floor, Lucy Chocolate Lab looked up, ears upright, eyes alert, body erect.
What did she smell and sense?
Did she know something we didn’t?
After zig-zagging uphill, over and around downed timber, we began climbing an open talus slope.
At least we had open views of the mountainscape and were less likely to be surprised by a grizzly needing to bulk up before beginning its winter hibernation.
Grizzlies are determined and powerful creatures; frighteningly so.
We had heard about a local rancher who lost a head of livestock to natural causes.
Using a bobcat, the rancher buried the carcass four feet into the ground. Shortly thereafter, grizzlies found the site and dug up the carcass. If they want something, they will get it.
Fortunately, no grizzlies were met in the dark Wyoming woodlands before we scrambled up a nasty ridge topped with wicked talus, impossible car-sized summit boulders, and fantastic views of the distant Breccia Cliffs.
While Kathy and Lucy waited on a flat, table sized boulder, I ventured another tedious forty yards to the base of those impossible summit boulders.
My old body could go only so far, halting where my head remained a few feet below the top of a huge, shark tooth shaped boulder.
The much-improved weather allowed us time aplenty to admire the splendid geology of the Breccia Cliffs where miles of linear and extremely vertical, compacted volcanic tuff walls stretched across the northern horizon.
The artistry of wind and water erosion had carved an array of pinnacles and towers atop a spiny 10,000 foot ridge towering above the realm of the wild.
One final grizzly country hike remained on our Wyoming Odyssey, an epic 3,700 foot elevation climb of 11,157 foot Whiskey Mountain in the Wind River Range, south of Dubois.
Believing that we had pushed our luck in grizzly land, we decided to purchase pepper spray only to learn that the Forest Service had bought every available can, save one, for firefighters twelve miles north of town.
We barrowed that final can, needing to pay only if we used it. Fair enough: we felt more secure.
Beginning in a high elevation sage and cactus desert, our excellent trail passed between two contrasting worlds.
Reminiscent of the sky scraping sandstone cliffs in southwestern Utah’s Zion National Park, golden sun baked walls towered above us on our right for two miles, Whiskey Mountain’s southern flank.
A day later, a local outfitter corrected my impression that this didn’t look like grizzly country, “Don’t think that way; they cover long distances and go anywhere.”
Ice age geology dominated the prehistoric landscape on our left where brooding mountains overlooked a tight, glacially polished valley with narrow, icy lakes. Never had I seen such close together, contrasting worlds. Never had I begun a day hike in the desert and ended up on an expansive tundra plateau, capped by a broad chip rock summit. After passing enormous talus boulders and an enchanting timberline, our marvelous high country views of hanging glaciers, shadowed ridges, and proud summits were absolutely sublime.
Moving steadily, we did not face the challenges of earlier Wyoming mountain hikes. The weather was superb and the haze free atmosphere was extraordinarily clear with no need to rush through this paradise. Instead of encountering a fierce grizzly, we savored our up close meeting with a large, engaging herd of bighorn sheep; probably the best way to end our journey in western Wyoming’s grizzly country.
Colorado’s high country matches western Wyoming in being a suitable habitat for grizzlies. Yet, grizzlies are believed to be extinct in Colorado. What happened and is it true? A much larger influx of people, combined with much more extensive mining and hunting activity, conspired to crowd out Colorado’s native grizzly population.
The last officially recorded encounter with and kill of a grizzly in Colorado was by a bow hunter named Ed Wiseman on September 23, 1979, in the South San Juan Mountains (distinctly separate from and south east of the San Juans between Ouray and Durango). The bear ran into Wiseman, knocked him down, and began mauling him. The grizzly died after Wiseman stabbed it in the neck and throat with a hunting arrow.
However, in the ensuing years, several outdoors people have discovered signs that grizzly bears remain hidden in remote sections of the South San Juan Wilderness. Grizzly hair fragments, feces, claw marks, and paw prints indicate that the great bear still lives in Colorado.
In 1997, after a summer hike up 13,172 foot Conejos Peak in the South San Juans, Kathy and I drove southward on Rio Grande National Forest Road 250, stopped at an obscure, west facing trailhead and saw an official signboard showing the dramatic difference between black bear and grizzly footprints along with the warning that there was unconfirmed evidence that grizzlies may still live in the South San Juan Wilderness.
In 1995, Rick Bass, a well known outdoor writer authored a book titled The Lost Grizzlies-A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado. It’s an exciting read, hypothesizing that the Colorado grizzly has learned the wisdom of remaining secretive and hidden for self preservation. Colorado may be a bit wilder than many of us realize.