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Grizzly Bear, Blue Bird
Grizzly Bear, Blue Bird

Bear Spray Really Works

A grizzly bear checks out a bluebird beneath the towering Grand Teton in Jackson Hole Wyoming
Mountain view

One fine spring afternoon while searching for grizzly bears in Grand Teton National Park, I spotted two grizzlies in a meadow west of the highway. Unfortunately, they were about two hundred yards away, too far for good grizzly pictures so I decided to close the gap a bit. I carefully approached to about one hundred yards, as that is the legal distance you can approach bears, and wolves in Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks. This opportunity excited me more than most, as usually our grizzlies are farther north where it is often impossible to include the Grand Tetons in the photos. I figured these bears were the three-year-old sisters the famous grizzly 399 had weaned the previous June.

One hundred yards is too far away for good bear portraits with a 400mm lens so I relegateing the grizzlies as elements of interest in the grand landscape. Grizzly portraits at this distance would never measure up. Scenics can be a challenge with a 400mm.

After shooting a bit I realized that if I shortened my tripod legs and shot verticals from near the ground, the trajectory of my lens could include the tops of the northern Grand Teton peaks. I got down by the ground and shot away for a bit, happy with what I saw. The lighting was tough because there was an overpowering amount of bright snow on the peaks, and to expose dark backlit subjects is always tricky, but I was photographing grizzlies in front of the Grand Tetons and I couldn’t be happier.

What is that lying down out there

Many grizzly bears that frequent the roadways of Grand Teton Park and Yellowstone are very used to seeing people, usually people standing up with cameras and spotting scopes and they rarely pay them a bit of attention knowing they are neither a food source nor are they a threat. The bears who ignored me while I was standing, looked over at me down on the ground and all the sudden I no longer looked like a roadside gawker or photographer, I was on the ground, possibly resembling something that might make a tasty lunch so they slowly started walking in my direction, not in a threatening way but a curious one.

Well, time to get out of here! I grabbed my tripod and purposefully started walking backwards. When being approached by carnivores it is important not to look alarmed and running is suicide because things that run from predators by default must be food or else they wouldn’t be running. It is important not to act like a prey animal, it triggers the predator’s instinct to chase – it is important to not trigger the instinct to chase! It can also be helpful to carry on the same activity that you were doing to appear relaxed so I continued shooting as I calmly backed my way out of a possibly dangerous situation.

Grizzlies comming at me
Coming at me

I walked backwards a bit, I took a few more shots and they were still coming toward me although still in an unthreatening way. Although I once again resembled a tourist on the side of the road, despite my lack of a road, the grizzlies insisted on checking out what was once on the ground but was no longer. I figured I should get my bear spray ready just in case. I armed the bear spray and hung it on my right index finger just in case they had an undesirable change in attitude. I then took a few more pictures as I resumed my backwards exit strategy.

The grizzlies were in no hurry but they were still coming my way. I was still firing off a few shots so I figured; I am still taking photos so I should re-extend my tripod legs so my photos would be clearer. As I moved my left arm up to extend the tripod legs held in my right hand, the hand that also possessed the index finger where my bear spray precariously dangled, I accidently hit the bottom of the pepper spray can, it discharged and blinded me in my left eye – damn it!

Nearly panicked now, I quickly assessed the situation and realized it was time for me to expedite my backing the hell out of there. Still keeping my wits despite being blinded in one eye, I hastened my pace, and quit taking photos; I quit watching the bears as watching where I stepped with my remaining eye and not stepping in a badger hole had a brand-new importance.  While retreating from the bears I didn’t ponder my pain or blindness, as when I am in emergency mode there is no time for such folly, there is only time to react in a purposeful way. Soon, I was safely back to my car.

Bear spray, keep it with you around Yellowstone
Bear spray, keep it with you around Yellowstone

Upon reaching my car I marveled how, not only did my eye burn like crazy, I couldn’t even open it. I had a bottle of water in the car, and it took fifteen minutes of rinsing my eye before I could even open it. I also had a six-inch red spot around my eye for following three hours. I have no idea what would have happened had I blinded myself in both eyes.

I learned a great lesson in the escapade. Bear spray works really well. I also learned after reviewing my photos that these weren’t the habituated sub adults of famous sow 399 who were raised by the roadway between 2006 and 2008 I assumed they were. These were a couple of bears that I didn’t know and they were a courting pair, most likely, bears that weren’t used to people. Had I suspected; otherwise, I might have kept a little more distance. Grizzly assumptions can get you into trouble.

Until now, I had been rather dubious of the efficacy of bear spray even though I had heard of the study done in Alaska that reported bear spray had 95% efficacy whereas guns only had 65%. I now know that if you get the bear in both eyes he won’t be able to see nor open his eyes. I have much more confidence in bear spray now.

The Grizzly Gallery, click through ~



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