The Right Coast

January 20, 2004
So you'd like to be eaten by a grizzly bear
By Tom Smith

Bear activist Timothy Treadwell, (lately) of Malibu, California has been eaten by a grizzly bear, along with his girlfriend, whose bad judgment apparently extended to both men and bears. This interesting article in the ever entertaining Outside magazine tells the story well, if perhaps too sympathetically. Treadwell took the Walt Disney approach to bears, thinking that he could bond with them, sort of brother to brother, sort of like the Lion King, only with bears. And now he's part of the Circle, the Circle of Life.

His last meal, he being the main course, was captured on videotape, don't ask me why. He died reasonably well it seems, yelling at his soon to be second course companion to save herself. To no avail.

The rangers arrived later, and shot one of the bears feasting, though whether it was the one who killed them, who knows. It only took 11 shots from the rangers probably .40 caliber to bring the 1000 pounds of highly evolved, highly intelligent predator down. When the rangers came back to look at the bear carcass, all that was left was the head. Other bears, thrifty souls that they are when it comes to meat, had eaten him.

I find grizzly bears fascinating. I spent a summer in Alaska almost 20 years ago now and had a couple close encounters with grizzly bears. When I was there, there was this really stupid debate between the tree hugger types who argued that you should never go armed into the bush, because then you would be over-confident, and the bears would sense your arrogance, and thus your chances of getting attacked would be higher. The more sensible view was that you should carry a .45 magnum, which would at least give you a chance if Mrs. Grizzly decided she deserved a break today and you were the closest thing to a Big Mac.

The closest call I had came at the end of a 9 day trek around the Muldrow Glacier I went on with my now wife and a very British fellow I knew slightly at Oxford and ran into quite by accident on a bus coming out of Denali National Park. Walking out along the edge of the glacier, down Gravel Creek, we stumbled across a bear eating something, probably a caribou. The bear was standing up on his or her hind legs, batting away carrion birds trying to get a piece of the action. A wonderful wilderness moment. We decided to give the bear a wide berth, and so climbed up the scree onto the glacier itself, maybe 25 vertical feet to our left. That's when the bear walked away from his kill and climbed up on the glacier too, blocking our planned route of exit. Bears may not be able to talk, but they are very good at what they do, which is kill large mammals and eat them. At this moment, I breathed a silent prayer, which went like this: "Sh@#, F*&%, Sh@#, F*&@, F#@%!!!!!" Just to be clear, this was classic predatory behavior by the bear. Whenever anybody tells you about bears' natural curiosity, their desire to explore their world, etc. etc., remember you are listening to a hamburger with legs. The nose up in the air is not a sign of a bear thinking "Ohhhh, maybe it's a new friend, what a wonderfully diverse universe I live in!" A better translation would be "Mmmmmmm! Meat! Meat!" Think of how you feel when you smell the Weber working on a filet mignon and you haven't eaten since breakfast. Now picture the filet dressed up in a little backpack and booties. That's you.

We decided to get off the glacier. Unfortunately, whether out of sheer panic or my natural clumsiness, I decided stupidly I could glissade down the scree we had just climbed up, my having forgotten that it was frozen solid to the ice. This was remarkably stupid, as I had just climbed up it. Of course I tripped and did a full somersault coming down into the creek bed. I looked up just in time to see Jeanne attempt the same manuveur. She also fell and tumbled. That neither one of us broke anything probably saved our lives. I put down Jeanne's following me to loyalty. She later told me that she was thinking that just because I had fallen did not mean she could not pull the descent off we ease. Richard the Lion-hearted gracefully picked his way down. Then, and this is the important thing, so did the grizzly bear.

We were in what long-time outdoorsmen call "a pickle." I had no idea how to get past the bear. Then Richard came up with the following idea. He said he had read somewhere that grizzly bears hated rock and roll. He suggested that he lead us out, marching style, as we all followed his lead singing Elvis Presley's classic "Blue Suede Shoes." I am not making any of this up. Still dazed from my fall, and naturally curious as to whether I was soon to die a horrible death, and that before or after I watched my best friend get devoured alive, what could I say, but what the hell. I didn't have any better ideas. Richard started singing the tune in a surprisingly credible Elvis imitation. The boy could sing! We joined along as best as we could, marching right at the 1000 pound monster. The bear stared at us for a moment, as if to say 'WTF is this?!' then scampered back to his caribou or whatever it was. We marched all the way into the valley of the river, and saw no more bears until we were safely on the bus back to the ranger station. Richard went on to be a master at one of England's great public schools. You can see why they had an empire.