Etiquette in Grizzly Country

Dec 12, 2022 | Grizzly Bear Resources

Westward Expansion saw grizzlies mindlessly exterminated with no regard to the bear’s relationship to life or land. Today, in the contiguous United States, their population has “recovered” to roughly 2% of their historic population. This population remains confined to a mere 1% of their natural range. Now, they exist primarily within the protections of national park boundaries and the wilderness areas that surround them.

What this means, for nearly all of us, is that entering into grizzly country is strictly voluntary. It’s a choice and we have to be honest enough with ourselves to know whether or not we are prepared to accept the maturity, humility, and responsibility that goes along with making that decision.

To enter into the Earth’s last wildernesses is to ask for something that we’ve lost. It is to search for the part of ourselves that we eliminated when we eliminated the wilds.

How do we re-enter the home that we have forsaken? How do we return, asking for wisdom, from the species we have slaughtered and condemned? How do we go back to these places asking for something—whether it be forgiveness, connection, or the piece of our souls that we have found to be missing?

If we choose to enter into what remains of the grizzly’s range, it is our responsibility to make our trips about the wilds, about its inhabitants, about the bears themselves. It is not our place to impose. The entitlement and consumptive comforts that we have become accustomed to in our indulgent societal realms have no place in the bears’ last wildernesses. We are to be the guests, the ones who tread lightly, the ones to volunteer concessions so the inhabitants need not concede to us.

Put another way, going into grizzly country is not about you. It’s not a thrill or a rush, not a novelty, not an opportunity to capture content that will make you look cool online, it’s not an experience to collect so you can boast at dinner parties. Our responsibility when we enter the wilderness is to humble ourselves, to listen and learn, to expand our perspectives and awareness. When we leave, it becomes our responsibility to honor the wilds by becoming its protectors—its advocates, educators, and allies.

“We live in a world of boundaries. We, as humans, usually decide the terms of these boundaries and we cross them when we want to. [The] grizzly bear—America’s largest carnivore—woke me up to the fact that this place is not, and cannot be, ruled by our terms only.”
– Louise Johns, “Seeing With Heart.” TEDxBigSky.

There is no single set of operational guidelines for remaining totally safe in grizzly country. Being in grizzly country isn’t totally safe. But neither is driving on the highway or being on a school campus or exposing yourself to the chemical and social toxins of our modern world.

Bear spray, while it can certainly be effective in critical situations, is not a comprehensive safety plan. All too often, people assume that because they have bear spray with them they can ignore the rules of wilderness etiquette. Rather than relying on bear spray to get us out of trouble, our goal should always be to prevent situations in which it would be necessary to use bear spray.

Perhaps our greatest practical obligation for keeping both ourselves and the bears safe while in grizzly country is to take responsibility for our food, trash, and other attractants. Every piece of trash, everything with scent gets sealed in its own bag and secured in a tree away from my camp. Everything you pack in gets packed out—no food items get buried, no shaking the last crumbs of cookies or chips on the ground, no keeping food in your tent.

Any bear that learns to associate humans with food or opportunity is a dead bear. That means concessions on our part. Grizzlies or no, it’s an important life practice to learn to be okay without everything you want or think you need. I almost never cook in bear country. I bring dry foods: nuts, trail mix, protein powder, nutritional bars, etc. If I lose a few pounds or have some hungry nights as a result, so be it. That’s part of the trade. We don’t get to have everything we want in the backcountry.

If you’re not willing to accept that trade, stay in a motel. Go on day hikes and eat your big, greasy, hot meals when you get back into town. That’s a decision I make not infrequently. I’ll be far quicker to congratulate someone who owns up to being unprepared and stays in town than I will someone who went into bear country when they shouldn’t have.

If you are backpacking or overnighting in grizzly country, picking a safe campsite is of critical importance. Before picking a site, walk around and look for trails, bear scat, food sources, watering holes, anything that might suggest regular bear activity in the area. If you find signs of activity or anything than would naturally draw a bear to that site—a ripe berry patch, for instance—find a different place to camp. Look for places that aren’t easily accessible and that don’t offer natural resources. I like to back my camps up into dense stands of trees or deadfall away from game trails and water sources.

“Never camp in a place where bears feed, travel, or bed; this is perhaps the most important safety decision you make in grizzly country.”

– Doug & Andrea Peacock. The Essential Grizzly. “Epilogue: Practical Considerations In Grizzly Country.”

These responsibilities fall under the jurisdiction of intuition and common sense. When you’re sharing the wilderness with an apex predator that needs enough calories to gain hundreds of pounds of body mass before returning to hibernation, it’s wise not to create opportunity. Additionally, it’s important to note a bear’s innate curiosity. It’s not just food that will bring them into camp, it’s anything scented. Detergents, colognes/perfumes, cosmetics, toothpaste, coffee, etc. If you smell attractive in bear country, you risk attracting a dangerous kind of attention.

For a more comprehensive set of guidelines to keep you as safe as can be reasonably expected in bear country, I’d highly recommend you read Doug & Andrea Peacock’s book The Essential Grizzly: The Mingled Fates Of Men And Bears. The book’s epilogue in particular lays out a set of pragmatic practices to follow that Doug learned through years of experience living in the Rocky Mountain backcountry with grizzlies:

“Don’t travel into grizzly country reeking of bad karma or old tuna fish. Once out there, be alert. Forget about scenery and try to see from the viewpoint of the animal…the only species of animal that tries to get by in the wilderness without interspecies tact or communication is the human critter.”

– Doug & Andrea Peacock. The Essential Grizzly. “Epilogue: Practical Considerations In Grizzly Country.”

More and more I find myself wishing not to encounter a grizzly when moving through bear habitat, primarily for their own sake. The self-satisfaction of visually observing a bear is not worth breaking their patterns of living or interjecting unnecessary stress and uncertainty into their environments.

When moving through bear country, it is my goal to move like a ghost. To be anonymous. To be the one who passed through but didn’t stay. A trace scent. The reason a squirrel chattered or a raven croaked. A snapped twig. A whisper. And then—an absence.

The practices of treading lightly, of leaving no trace, are directly beneficial to us. They temper our minds to allow for our own insignificance, they teach us how to yield, to let ourselves be the ones who aren’t validated or treated with exception. By learning to move as bears move, we are reminded that we live and die just as all life lives and dies—that we exist within nature, not apart from it. These are a few of the lessons that bear country will give back to us if we humble ourselves enough to receive their wisdom.

“Estranged from death, we fear everything that might bring it. Yet we might learn from the caribou who does not fear the wolf…Caribou evolution did not lead to escaping their fate as wolf meat but to an appropriate offering at a suitable time.”

-Doug & Andrea Peacock. The Essential Grizzly

I recently put this ethos into practice near the eastern border of Yellowstone Park. I had crossed Soda Butte Creek and was working my way up a steep ridgeline, the far side of which drops into Amphitheater Creek—a roadless and trailless box canyon in the park’s backcountry. I wanted to climb my way up above a tributary that runs off the northern slope and opens into a deep bowl of blown out granite about halfway up the mountain. Once above the tributary, I’d look for a position that would offer a clear observation point of the granite bowl and the flats that stretched out across the river valley far below.

The squirrels and gray jays regularly betrayed my position as I worked up the ever-steepening slope. I kept tabs on my body—never letting myself get so winded that my breath over-powered my other senses. When I paused to catch my breath, I made a habit of looking, listening, smelling the wind, of being still. I scanned for sign—prints, scat, marked trees, day beds, digs, grub-logs, etc. It’s important to pay attention to the sign around you to gain a better understanding of where you are and who else is there with you.

I’m regularly awed by how rich the biodiversity of the forest is as well as how frequently and dramatically it changes from micro-climate to micro-climate. To walk through a forest is to walk through worlds. The bears know this. This is all the bears have ever known.

The mature forest near the mountain’s base transitioned into a recovering fire zone on a steep section of slope. A sea of evergreen saplings had grown up just over the height of my head. Visibility was severely limited. The old-growth trees that survived the fire acted as my beacons. I moved from one ancient tree to the next, using the open ground at the base of their trunks as places to spot my next move. About three quarters of the way up the slope the ground started to roll off onto a hidden shelf. A few game trails with fresh deer prints and bear scat ran along its perimeter. I knelt and inspected. The scat was fresh and the trails were recently used.

To move through the shelf of young trees would require that I waded through them, arms out, head down, effectually blind to what lay in front of me. Before moving any further, I bent down and found a dry stick about an inch in diameter then climbed up on top of an old, dead-fallen log. I took the stick in both hands and snapped it. The crack rang out. A second later, I heard a response: the dull snap of a branch breaking into the earth under the weight of a footfall.

I have no way of verifying that it was a grizzly that snapped that branch. I never saw anything; I couldn’t see anything. But visual verification in that instance was unimportant. Rather than crashing through the forest like I had a right to be there, grizzlies had taught me to act like a guest. It was their power and my knowledge of their presence that gave me pause. It was the bears who reminded me of the inhabitants whose home I was travelling through. It was my awareness of being in grizzly country that reminded me of my humility and motivated me to move up that mountain without either putting myself or the bears in danger—and whomever broke that branch and moved off the shelf ahead of me got to do so without being spooked or stressed by my trespass.

These are the kinds of interactions with the wilds and their inhabitants that I value the most. These are the communications that remind us that wilderness etiquette is comprised of little more than respect and common sense.

Author bio: Douglas Balmain is a writer and independent researcher who has spent extensive time in the Rocky Mountain grizzly country of Wyoming and Montana. His work is focused on exploring human consciousness, relationship, and environmental restoration.