Bear stories. Bear Legends. Bear Myths. Few tales of survival and death are more compelling than those dealing with the greatest of North America’s predators, Ursus Arctos Horribilis. The Grizzly Bear. From the cave paintings of ancient North American peoples and the tales of 19th-century fur trappers to today’s complicated relationship humans and bears share, bears are part of our history and legacy.
How do we explain our fixation with this great predator? It is a tale of codominance. Representing two pinnacles of the food chain, bears and people have long competed over territory and resources. Before the westward expansion of European settlers in North America, grizzly bears inhabited an enormous range. Their range once extended north from the frozen tundras of Alaska all the way south to Mexico, westward from the shores of California, and east across the great plains all the way to the banks of Hudson Bay. It is estimated that over 100,000 grizzly bears once thrived throughout this enormous range with a density of three bears for every 100 square miles.
Native American tribes held the grizzly bear in reverence, both out of awe and fear. Bears were rarely hunted, but when they were, hunters approached their quarry with the same amount of ceremony and preparation as they would when going into battle. There are 19th-century paintings of plains Indians taking on brown bears from horseback in a habitat that we no longer associate with grizzlies, the wide expanses of open grasslands in America’s heartland.
But, with the 1803-1806 expedition of the Corps of Discovery, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the untamed west was opened up to settlement and exploration by European-descended settlers. On their 1,000-mile expedition, Lewis and Clark encountered and made a note in their logs of 37 grizzly bears. It was in fact Lewis and Clark who first coined the term “grisley” bear. Some debate still exists whether they intended this to reference the bear’s appearance as having a grizzled coat, or as a reference to its “grisly” or “gruesome” behavior. Today’s spelling assumes that they were in fact referencing its appearance.
As 19th century Americans moved westward, they built homesteads, farms, and ranches. Much of the grizzly bear’s original habitat was overrun by humans, their cattle, and their horses. Grizzly bears were viewed as an unnecessary danger to both humans and livestock, and with no protections in place, they were mercilessly hunted into near extinction in the contiguous United States. Only in small remote patches of inhospitable wilderness did grizzlies find refuge, whose population was driven down from nearly 50,000 in what is now the lower 48 states, to a mere 600 animals or less. Even in California, once called the Bear Flag Republic, is now devoid of grizzlies, with its last known surviving bear having been shot and killed in 1922.
Today, grizzly bears in the lower 48 states number only 1,500 individuals approximately and are confined to a few small wildernesses in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. And, a small population of maybe 20 animals still exists in northeastern Washington State. Over 30,000 brown bears still live in Alaska and Western Canada, but the habitat of bears in the contiguous US has been reduced to a mere fraction of their once expansive range. Most live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the northern ranges of Montana, in and around Glacier National Park.
Night Of the Grizzlies
America’s National Parks at their inception were created not as we see them today, as wild places for people to visit and witness nature’s marvels. They were set up simply as a way to protect great wildernesses, to leave them untouched and as they always were. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, park visitors were few and far between. Most were very wealthy, able to afford to pay for mule trains, porters, and guides to help them navigate wild expanses of untamed land. But, this would change in the mid 20th century. Infrastructure was built. Trails were developed. And, inexpensive, lightweight camping and backpacking gear was developed that permitted access to the national parks by everyday folk. Attendance skyrocketed and suddenly humans and grizzlies were once again thrust into close proximity, which would come to a disastrous head in the summer of 1967 in Glacier National Park.
Our understanding of bear behavior today is still lacking a great deal. There is much we do not understand about these great animals. But we have learned so much since 1967. Back then, park visitors were known to feed wild bears, leave garbage out and open to wildlife, and littering was rampant. The result was that grizzly bears began to associate people with food and became fearless of humans, a dangerous scenario that wasn’t truly understood until two young women lost their lives in one fateful night. These two lives lost would become martyrs for our continued understanding of grizzly bear behavior and how to peacefully coexist with these great predators.
In the summer of 1967, Glacier had broken attendance records with over one million park visitors. In the 57 years of the park’s existence, since its opening in 1910, there had never been a fatal grizzly bear attack in the park, and many park employees and officials considered the level of danger from bear attack to be very low. But, this illusion would be shattered by two horrific bear attacks that took place in one night over 8 miles apart by two different bears.
One of the sad ironies of the tragedy is that the two women who were attacked by separate bears miles apart that night were friends. Julie Helgeson was a 19-year-old college student from Minnesota and was spending the summer working in the laundry of East Glacier Lodge. Also 19 years old, Michele Koons was working at Lake McDonald Lodge near the park’s west entrance. That weekend the teens would be going hiking and camping, as many of the young seasonal park employees did every weekend. Michele Koons and a group of friends had invited Helgeson and her boyfriend, Roy Ducat, to join them on an overnight hike to Trout Lake. But, Helgeson and Ducat had just visited Lake Trout the weekend before and instead chose to head out to Granite Park Chalet. Ducat and Helgeson also invited a friend, Paul Dunn, to join them on their hike to Granite Park Chalet. But, he instead chose to join Michele Koons and her party at Trout Lake. It is strange to look back at it now and consider that no matter Dunn’s choice, he would be encountering an attacking grizzly bear and the tragedy that ensued.
It was known at the time that grizzlies had been frequenting Granite Park Chalet, and park rangers suspected that the bears were being fed. In that same summer of 1967, park rangers visited the chalet to investigate and were shocked to find that the managers of the chalet had been dumping food and trash into a “viewing area” in an attempt to lure in bears for guests to observe. The chalet managers were given a stiff warning, but no enforcement occurred. Rangers discussed with their superiors and amongst themselves that this was a tragedy waiting to happen, but no official report was made. As for Helgeson and Ducat, on that evening of August 12, 1967, they would be walking right into this dangerous scenario, completely unaware of the danger that awaited them.
That weekend the chalet was overflowing with guests, and the couple was forced to camp outside at a campsite that was being developed about 500 yards from the chalet. The couple learned of the bears feeding in the area upon arrival, but the feeding site was on the opposite side of the chalet and down a small ridge. They were undeterred and set up to sleep in their sleeping bags under the stars.
The two fell asleep next to each other and slept undisturbed for several hours. Then, in the early morning hours, around 3 am, Roy Ducat awoke to hear Julie Hegelson whispering to him, “Play dead.” All park employees were given this life-saving advice when beginning work in Glacier National Park, as to what to do if attacked by a grizzly bear. This would prove to save his life. The bear initially bit Ducat but moved on to Hegelson whose survival instincts did not permit her to play dead. That attack would prove more severe and Hegelson would later die from her wounds.
After the attack, Ducat made his way towards a group of other campers for help. The other campers were able to signal the staff and guests of the chalet by screaming and flashing the S.O.S. signal with their flashlights. A naturalist guide staff at the chalet called other rangers by radio and a daring nighttime helicopter mission was organized to fly to Granite Park Chalet for a rescue. Ducat was evacuated and would recover from his wounds.
Earlier that afternoon, eight miles away at Trout Lake, Michele Koons and four friends had arrived at the lakeside campground after an alarming encounter with two hikers. The two hikers were on their way out, very agitated, saying that they had been chased up trees by a menacing grizzly bear. They warned Koons and her party of the bear activity in the berry patches around the lake, but the group of young campers decided to press on and set up camp at lakeside regardless. This would prove to be a fatal mistake.
The bear that had chased the two hikers up trees would turn out to be an aging female, emaciated and starving. At the time, the “pack it in, pack it out” philosophy had not been widely adopted by park visitors, and the lakeside campground was littered with discarded trash and food. This cache of unwanted refuse had turned into a lifeline for the aging bear. This information was of course unknown to anyone at the time.
During the afternoon, the campers were sitting around their campsite, frying up rainbow trout they’d caught earlier in the day when something big came ambling from the woods. “There’s a bear,” said Michele. The bear fearlessly strode into their camp, flushing the five friends from their food and equipment. They ran down the gravel banks of the lake to a safe distance and watched the bear ravage their bags, consuming all their food. The bear then disappeared back into the woods.
The group was beyond alarmed and discussed whether or not to head back. But, the sun was setting. Furthermore, to get back to the trailhead, they would need to traverse the berry bush patches where they feared there were more bears. They decided to stick it out. The group moved camp down the beach, built a large bonfire, and attempted to barricade the campsite with fallen logs, but to no avail.
It was in the early morning hours when the bear returned. No one knew it at the time, but just as Julie Hegelson was taking her last breath at Granite Park Lodge, a second bear was attacking Michele Koons and her group of friends over eight miles away, an unprecedented coincidence, or perhaps an inevitability created by humans’ carelessness and lack of understanding of bear behavior.
The bear first went for Paul Dunn. He was half-wrapped in his sleeping bag due to a stuck zipper, a coincidence that would save his life. He sensed the bear, and he swung his arm around violently, startling the bear. The animal recoiled long enough for Dunn to scramble up the nearest tree. He began calling out to his friends, warning them “It’s back!”
In an interview with PBS years later, Dunn recalled the attack. He said from his treetop perch, he was telling his friends not to play dead, but to run and get out of the situation any way they could. All of his friends did this, all except Michele Koons apparently. She was bitten, and would eventually die from her wounds, just as her friend Julie Hegelson had, just moments before over eight miles away.
The remaining four campers spent the night in treetops, waiting for sunrise. Upon daybreak, they sought help from park rangers who evacuated them from the area and set out to recover the body of Koons. In the immediate aftermath, both bears would be put down, autopsied, and confirmed to be the offending bears. But, the legacy of Glacier Park’s night of the grizzlies would live on.
That night in 1967 was one of tragedy, and many people called for the eradication of grizzlies from Glacier National Park as a result. But, the true legacy of that night is our enhanced understanding of bear behavior, and how those lessons have taught us how we can peacefully coexist with grizzly bears.
Glacier National Park would go on to create new policies on how to deal with bears that would eventually be adopted by all U.S. National Parks where bears live. The first was to separate bears from trash permanently through the use of bear-proof trash cans and dumpsters. Feeding of bears by visitors or park concessionaires was outlawed with grave consequences. Strict viewing distance limitations were enforced, and slowly but surely, bears forgot the association of humans as food sources. And since then, new technologies have been developed, such as bear sprays and other deterrents, as well as electric camp fences which further deter curious bears.
Today, bear behavior is one of the most intensely studied subjects by scientists, rangers, and researchers in U.S. national parks. And people from around the world come to Yellowstone, Teton, and Glacier with hopes of glimpsing one of nature’s greatest predators, a true giant, and a miracle of evolution. Today, bear attacks are few and far between in the U.S., primarily due to the policies that were developed in response to the deadly attacks and loss of life that occurred that night in 1967 in Glacier National Park, a lasting legacy left behind by the loss of two young women in the prime of their lives.
For those who wish to see and photograph grizzlies in the wild today, it is crucial to be well educated on bear safety, and if possible to utilize the services of experienced bear guides. Here at Backcountry Journeys, grizzly bears are one of our biggest draws, and we pride ourselves on being up to date and well trained on how to safely view and photograph these magnificent animals. We run trips deep into ‘bear country’ in Alaska, in places like Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks, as well as to Yellowstone, Glacier, and Grand Teton National Parks in the lower 48. If photographing big grizzly bears is on your bucket list, we at Backcountry Journeys can safely get you close enough to these bears for some incredible photographic opportunities. With years of combined experience in bear country, photographing grizzlies is one of our favorite pastimes. We can show you the best techniques to get that jaw-dropping shot of the biggest of brown bears.
Bears captivate our imaginations. Creation stories, legends, and myths are filled with images of great bears in many cultures, especially those of Native Americans. It is one of the greatest tragedies that the grizzly bear was nearly eradicated from their historic range in the lower 48 states, but slowly, we are working to rectify this.
The study and understanding of bear behavior are crucial to maintaining the conservation of grizzly bears. And a deep respect for their power and ecological importance is the most important ingredient in a peaceful balance between humans and grizzly. Unfortunately, there are those who lost their lives in the quest for this deeper understanding and peaceful coexistence, both human and bear. To them and to all those who devote their lives to protecting and studying these animals, we express our endless gratitude for preserving one of nature’s greatest masterpieces, the indomitable grizzly bear.
New Departures: Glacier National Park in Autumn
Today, we’re happy to announce an exciting addition to our ever-popular Glacier National Park in Autumn tour!
Dates are set for a ‘hiker’ version of Backcountry Journeys’ fantastic autumn Glacier National Park itinerary. While we’ve always offered both versions on our summer Glacier departures, we’re excited to add a ‘hiker’ version for autumn 2021 & 2022.
- ‘Hiker’ Trip Dates
September 13th – 18th, 2021
- September 12th-17th, 2022
Not sure which suits you best, give us a call!
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man, he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as a video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See the most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com