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Rules for Wildlife Encounters

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision that took myself, my daughters, my grandson and my soon-to-be son-in-law up to Glacier National Park for a day’s drive along the Going to the Sun Road. A good decision as far as spur-of-the-moment goes, we enjoyed our trip despite the grayness of the day, the snow on Logan Pass, and our lack of planning in bringing along anything like suitable gear for a day so cold and damp. We played on rock piles and along waterfalls, took numerous photos of bighorn sheep, visited with Jim at Glacier Photo, and tried to explain to Tyler why there were no glacier remnants close enough for him to touch.

Bighorn sheep were the only wildlife we spotted that day, and those weren’t even in the park - we cavorted with them on a gravel road not far from Thompson Falls. Late that night, (actually, early the next morning) after leaving Amy and me in Clark Fork, Misty and Brian spotted a cougar on Hwy. 200 near the Lower Pack. But Glacier itself revealed none of its storied wildlife to our eyes.

Of course, it didn’t need to, as we can see all the wildlife we want in the hills surrounding our home, which reminds me of my ‘rules for encountering wildlife in the woods.’

My rules are limited to just three particular animals - bear (either black or grizzly), cougars, and moose. These are the ones that worry me, the ones I’d prefer to see only from a distance - say, through binoculars a mile away. But anyone who spends some time in our woods chances coming upon either one of the three, and should be prepared for how to respond if that occurs.

Bear in mind, the animals have no interest in seeing you. If you make noise as you hike, you’re likely not to need to utilize any of these rules.

Rule number one: Bear (both griz and black) are the dogs of the forest world so, if you encounter one, you’re a dog, too and the lowest dog on the totem pole, let me add. So act like it. Don’t actually roll onto your back and pee on yourself (unless, of course, you simply can’t help it), but be submissive. Don’t look the bear (dog) directly in the eyes - lower your head, gaze off to the side, shrink into your body and slowly, slowly, back away. Don’t run, or the bear is likely to give chase and they can run much faster than you can. The message you’re sending to the bear is - “Hey, I’m nobody and I’m certainly not a threat to you so please, please, please don’t beat me up.” It’s the same message you would want to send to an aggressive dog should you encounter one.

Rule number two: Cougar, naturally enough, are the cats of the forest world and you treat an encounter with a cougar just as if you were a cat encountering another unknown feline. While you might not actually arch your back and hiss, the goal is to make yourself look big. The message you’re sending here is “Hey! Look at me! I’m huge and way too big for you to want to mess with.” Yelling, jumping up and down, waving your arms... these are all recommendations for how to react to a cougar encounter. If you have small children with you at the time, you’re told to put them up on your shoulders, making both of you bigger in the process.

Following this analogy process, for rule number three: Moose are the ‘crazy gunmen’ of the wilderness world. If a guy walked into MacDonald’s with an AK-47 and began to indiscriminately fire, your best bet is to hide, just as quickly as you can and, once out of sight, to keep yourself that way. This is excellent advice for dealing with moose, as, if you make ‘em mad, they can be a crazy piece of work that would just as soon kick the crap out of you as walk the other way. Be like a snake and slink out of sight.

Do I practice what I preach? Well, not really.

In the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ category, my sole up-close-and-personal encounter with a bear (not counting ones on my porch) happened to be with a mama and her cub while hiking into Iceberg Lake in Glacier Park. My friends and I had paused to catch our breath at a spot where the trail formed the upper leg of a horseshoe bend. In the curve of the bend was the spectacular Ptarmigan Falls, where we could see a number of people gathered to check out the view. Between lay dense, overgrown, brushy light forest and a tiny wisp of trail.

On the trail again, around the first curve, and Taneesha almost tripped over the bear cub sitting in the middle of the trail. Back to the open spot we went to think the situation out. “Make noise,” I said. “Let’s make lots of noise. Mama and her baby will move off.”

We proceeded back down the trail in a noisy fashion and I noticed a tree swaying in a non-existent breeze. “(Bad word deleted)!” I said. “Mama’s in that tree. Whatever you do, don’t run,” I added, right before Diana and Taneesha trampled me on the way back to the open spot in the trail. I’m not sure what I did because all I remember is laying on my back, and then being back at the open spot myself. I probably (don’t ever do this) ran.

Years ago, when I first led a hiking and backpacking project for 4-H, I asked people of experience what was expected of me in leading this project given the wildlife in our woods. I was thinking in terms of the little hikers’ safety, and whether I should carry pepper spray, or something more powerful. A certain person looked at me with a grim face and said, “Well, you only have to be able to outrun one of them.” That was a joke, by the way, but I remembered that advice in my bear situation.

Using some creative pantomime, we managed to communicate to the hikers at the middle of the ‘U’ there was a bear on the trail between us and on they came. At that point we continued hiking, blissful in the knowledge that mama would have to eat her way through a dozen or so before turning her attention to us.

My encounter with a cougar also occurred while hiking with Taneesha - are you getting the impression that she attracts wild animals? She does. On this hike, we were trekking down the North Fork of the Bull River in Montana.

Animals don’t want to see you on their trails and will go out of their way to avoid you if they can hear or smell you coming. In this case, we were hiking alongside the water, which was high and roaring - the noise was so loud we could barely hear each other speaking. We came around a bend in the trail right at the time Mr. Cougar was jumping down onto it. He spotted us in mid-air, and had his eyes on us before even hitting the ground. Impaled by that gaze, I knew immediately that we had been classified as prey and all that remained was for Mr. Cougar to decide whether or not we were worth the effort. This is when yelling, waving your arms and making yourself look bigger comes in handy.

Instead, I took his picture. My hands were shaking and I not only didn’t bother to focus, I didn’t even manage to get the viewfinder past my breastbone. Picture taken and still, Mr. Cougar watched us. Growing braver, I got the viewfinder all the way to my eye, carefully focused the lens, and snapped another shot. And still he watched. Having succeeded in my goal of documenting this moment on film, I was ready for Mr. Cougar to move on. I completely forgot the ‘act like a cat’ rule. “Shoo, kitty,” I said, in a high, shaky falsetto I’ve never, before or since, heard issue from my vocal cords. “Shoo now.”

Why he left I don’t know but I’ve always suspected it was out of disgust.

I was on a bicycle the day I had my up-close-and-personal encounter with a moose. This took place on Trout Creek Road, which is located just past the bridge on Hwy. 200 that crosses the Pack River Flats - an area where moose are fairly common.

My plan had been to stop at a somewhat swampy area by the side of the road to get pictures of a family of turtles who liked to hang out on a sunny log there. The moose, as is their habit, was eating off the bottom and, with his head underwater, it was a minute or two before I noticed him. Despite being aware that moose tend to be bad-tempered and fast on their feet, and that this moose was no more than ten or fifteen feet away from me, again, I lifted my camera for a shot.

The click of the shutter sounded like a cannon going off in the stillness of the day and before I knew it that moose had lifted his head out of the water to stare directly at me, pure hate in his eyes.

God, he looked magnificent. And scary.

Immediately, I did my very best impersonation of a tree, which was somewhat hampered by the bicycle I had tangled between my legs. And again, I was lucky, deemed ‘not worth the effort’ by our local wildlife.

I was a tree for about ten minutes, which might be the longest time I’ve ever held still in my entire life. Eventually, the moose went back to feeding and I left the area as slowly and as silently as I possibly could.

That picture never came out, because I never thought to take the lens cap off the camera. There’s no pictures of the bear at Glacier, either, though you can visit our website and see some pictures taken right before and after that encounter. As for the picture of the cougar - well, you can see that on the website as well, though I have to admit, people tell me he’s hard to spot. All I can say is he was closer than it looks in the photograph, and much closer than I ever want to be to a cougar again.

In each of my encounters with local wildlife, I did the exact wrong thing, which makes me lucky to be sitting here, writing these words. If you find yourself heading out into the woods (especially if you go with wildlife-attracting Taneesha), don’t trust to luck. Keep your eyes open and make lots of noise. And if an animal spots you anyway, remember the three rules: be a dog for a bear, a cat for a cougar, and slink away like a snake for a moose. You might keep in mind a fourth rule as well - don’t stop for pictures.

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Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

bear, moose, cougar, wildlife, hiking, bighorn sheep, Glacier National Park

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Ptarmigan Falls Bear Sign

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