One of the cameras had died. Since I have the longest legs, I was given orders to hike back to the truck, which was two miles away, to swap it out for a new one. The rest of the crew (Steve, Ryan, Dan and Dom) would continue filming for the show. We were getting great footage of the now infamous sow and her three cubs. It was a bit unnerving leaving the party, but with radio communication and a couple cans of bear spray, I summoned the will and headed back down the hill singing “Here I am, Mr. Griz” the whole way.
Fresh camera in hand, I returned to the meadow where I had last seen the boys. They were not there, but a pile of gear was. I drank some water, put on my puffy jacket, found my binos and settled in against the pile of backpacks to have a look around. The late afternoon light was making the fall-colored hillsides glow and I was sure I’d find more critters in no time.
All of that beautiful, I-love-my-job, soaking-it-in stuff was cut short when the yelling started. I jumped to my feet and zeroed in on where the sound was coming from. There was more yelling and then a shot. I didn’t need anyone to tell me at that point what was going on 300 yards up the hill. The crew had been charged. I was pulling the bear spray from its holster as I watched Momma bear crest the hill above me. (It’s funny, even as I write this story months later, the adrenaline starts to flow and my pulse increases. I hope this memory continues to stay vivid for a long time.) At this point, there were about 100 yards of grassy meadow and 200 yards of fir-covered hillside separating the sow and me.
The sow and her cubs didn’t look like four grizzly bears running down the hill at that moment. It was more like one big, brown, unidentifiable fuzzy mass trailed by three smaller brown fuzzy masses; all mowing down fir trees as they barreled along. But my bear identification problems were soon solved when she stopped about a third of the way down the hill and then stood on her hind legs to have a look around. When I saw her do this I thought, “Great, she’s heard me yelling. Now she’ll see me waving my arms and take her kids away from trouble.” Nope. Instead, it seemed as if she had honed in on the lanky Latvian and was now following a chalk line to my position. Bear spray in hand, with the safety mechanism removed, I continued to yell and talk, assuring her she wanted no part of me.
She stopped again, this time almost at the toe of the hill, to have another look. Mere seconds had gone by since I heard the gunshot, but already it seemed like ten minutes. As she was staring me down again, I took notice of her ears. Ryan had told us earlier to watch the ears of these bears to determine their demeanor, which is similar to horses: perked-up ears mean curious and attentive; pinned back ears mean pissed-off bear. Her ears were laid back so flat that I barely knew she had any to begin with.
After another scan of the meadow, she continued towards me. Bear spray has an effective distance of ten yards. I picked out a rock ten yards in front of me and decided that if her snout crossed that rock, I’d hit the trigger. I remember thinking, “Damn, ten yards is close.” She continued to advance with her three brown blobs in tow. At twenty yards (or maybe thirty), she veered and took her crew out of the meadow and consequently out of the basin.
I sat down. Up the hill I saw Steve waving. I took a deep breath. The unsolicited adrenaline injection ripped through my veins. I stood up, but my legs were a bit too shaky to walk yet. It felt good to be alive and well.
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