Welcome to Bear Country

One woman’s firsthand experience.

Words and photos by Ellie Manny

Last fall, I was riding a yellow horse through the burnt-out hills of the high country and we came upon a grizzly bear. He was an old man, a shambling ragged-eared veteran of the woods, and he was traveling off to the side of the trail that we followed, parallel to us but moving at a slower pace, so that after a few minutes, my horse and I overtook that bear and left him behind. He never missed a step, and neither did we.

I had seen him before, and he was a good bear. Most bears are, when left to their own devices. They’re like people: it’s rare to come across one who’s bad from the very beginning, bad from the inside out. Most bears want to be left alone. True, a grizzly bear’s existence is heavily dependent on the blood of others, but it’s generally not human blood they’re after. Put yourself in a bear’s shoes: Would you rather go up against the smallest, weakest elk in the herd, or, given all that you know about the evils of mankind, take on a whole human being?

These days, things are not so simple. Bears know people not only as a threat but also as a food source, especially in high-traffic areas where decades of ignorant tourist behavior has given way to a generation of Nuisance Bears (as they’re often called).

So what it comes down to, as it does in every relationship, is respect.

Know that there are still places in this world where a lone man shouldn’t venture on foot, not if he’s looking for a guaranteed outcome of not being eaten for breakfast. Know that it’s still possible to be part of the food chain in a highly literal sense, and take this opportunity to ponder your own mortality, because that’s what it means to venture into bear country.

Use your common sense. Should you find your common sense to be in short supply, follow the rules:

  1. Carry bear mace
  2. Keep your food locked up and/or out of reach
  3. Don’t travel alone

Most of the time, bears are not around, and when they are, you’ll most likely see them in retreat. But here’s the thing: sometimes, they’re going to give you trouble, and there’s no way of knowing when that might be. They are wild animals. All any of us can do is our best: we can do our best not to give bears a reason to come sniffing around, and we can do our best to respect their space. We can do our best to defend ourselves, should we become their target. We can do our best to know the risks that we take.

When I saw that old bear last October, we were 20 miles from the nearest road, the kind of country where people are the rarest of visitors. Up there, the grizzly bears have got us outnumbered, and that’s a fact that can be observed simply by taking a few hours’ ride and counting how many you see. I have seen a bear crouched over the carcass of an elk dragged up on a creek bank, yellow teeth tearing flesh from fur, and I have seen them from every distance as I’ve ridden through the bare white spines of the trees. I have followed my horse’s switched-forward ears, the puffing breaths taken through the nose, and seen a bear’s pale-yellow face in the instant before she vanished through the trees, her two cubs trailing behind her.

There is no greater privilege than to have seen these things, and the cost of having seen them is knowing that when I went into that wilderness, I agreed to play by its rules.

Ellie Manny is an amalgam of sorts: a modern cowgirl meets westerly vagabond, if you will. She can cook a mean couple of scotch eggs (or several dozen if the job calls for it), has a voracious appetite for literature, and knows a thing or two about horses and mules. Ellie and her lovely four-legged companion, Cjeta, currently live in the back of the Taco-Mama, their delightful little Tacoma. You can most likely find them watching the sun dip below the Tetons from a near-perfect perch.