Dr Ann Tonge, a GP in Peasedown St John near Bath, recalls a close encounter while on holiday in Yellowstone National Park.
The middle page spread on bear awareness in the Yellowstone National Park guide was clear.
‘If you encounter a bear; stand tall, look downwards and back away slowly whilst speaking gently to the bear. Whatever you do don’t run!’
It sounded like pretty straightforward advice from the comfort of our lodge cabin, although I wondered how easy it would be to follow if the occasion demanded. I felt reassured by the fact that, although there are an estimated 600 grizzly bears and 500 black bears in Yellowstone, sightings are rare and attacks even rarer.
So it was that on the second day of our holiday in Yellowstone, my husband and I set off confidently in bright sunshine on a back country hike to the top of Mount Washburn. The walk had been recommended to us by one of the Park rangers as a great hike with awesome views.
After about forty minutes we met a group of Japanese walkers coming down the trail in a state of some consternation. They had just seen a bear disappearing into the forest undergrowth.
‘How big was it?’ we asked.
‘About two feet tall,’ they said.
That didn’t sound too big, and as it was no longer in sight we decided to carry on. We took the precaution of making plenty of noise as we walked to keep any bears at bay.
The trail became steeper and eventually turned into a series of zigzags up the mountain. After another thirty minutes of walking we stopped at the end of a switchback to take some photos of the fine views emerging below.
At this point we were vertically above the spot where the bear had been seen earlier. We returned to the path and noticed another pair of walkers coming up the lower zigzag. Suddenly we saw them stop in their tracks and start to wave their walking sticks in the air, shouting unintelligibly, whilst backing off down the path.
Then we saw it. A two hundred kilogram light brown-coloured grizzly bear, emerging from the forest and heading up the vertical slope directly towards us. It was now only about fifty metres away.
I felt a huge surge of adrenaline rising from the pit of my stomach and yelled ‘Run, over the edge, quick!’
All the ‘straightforward’ advice on what to do in case of bear encounter deserted me and the fight or flight response kicked in. We both careered headlong down the rough slope in the direction of the two walkers on the path below and landed breathlessly in an ungainly heap behind them.
At least I had reasoned, in my panic, that there might be some safety in numbers. The bear meanwhile had continued up the hill and we were now fortunately well out of its way.
The two other walkers, who were Canadian and not unused to bear encounters in their country, calmed us down and told us the whole story.
The small bear seen earlier by the Japanese walkers was in fact a cub, which the Canadians had seen crossing our path whilst we were admiring the view. We had then walked along the upper zigzag whilst the mother was following her cub from below.
We had therefore unwittingly put ourselves into the unenviable position of coming between mother and cub – a mother bear can become aggressive towards any perceived threat to her cub.
Fortunately for us, in this case following the instinct to run and get out of the bear’s way fast had paid off. We continued our walk safely to the top of the mountain in the company of our newfound Canadian friends.
And the moral of the tale? Read the instructions. But follow your instinct.
Dr Ann Tonge in Yellowstone National Park Dr Ann Tonge in Yellowstone National Park Off duty
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