A wise friend once said, “it’s not the odds, it’s the stakes.” Boy howdy, did this ring terrifyingly true in August of 2018 when my husband, 8 month old son, and I were out for a hike and had our first opportunity to use bear spray!
To backtrack a little, my husband and I are both adventurous and love spending time outdoors. My mom had planned a family vacation to a beautiful mountain valley home in Driggs, ID with the intention of spending time in the Tetons, Jackson Hole, and exploring that beautiful part of the country. We got up one morning on our vacation, loaded up the car, and headed up to the Grand Teton National Park, more specifically to hike the trail around Jenny Lake.
We had been exploring around town the day before in Driggs, talking to the locals, asking what the best sights were, hikes, restaurants, things to do, etc. when we were warned multiple times throughout the day that any hike, we planned on taking needed bear spray on every able-bodied adult.
Bear spray was not something we had considered, nor was it really a part of our normal outdoor gear and packing list. We found the ACE hardware in town, bought their last three cans: one for each adult. We figured the 8 month old was a little young for the “spicy sauce!”
We arrived at the Jenny Lake trailhead/Ranger station; families were taking pictures by the lake, generations were enjoying the outdoors together, boats dotted the lake, the weather was immaculate. My mom, husband, baby, and I embarked on the 7.1 mile hike around the lake. It was glorious, a moderate hike, not a lot of elevation, enjoyable for all of us, especially with a kiddo strapped to your back.
We took regular breaks, stopped to look at the incredible scenery, and were thoroughly enjoying ourselves. Shortly before reaching the halfway point, we stopped at an overlook that looked down on a mountain lake and small grassy area where a pair of moose were grazing. While we were taking a break, we fed the baby, had some snacks and water ourselves and then loaded up to continue the adventure. All the while, our bear spray was either carried in our hands or connected to our chest straps on our backpacks or the baby carrier.
The first bear
Upon approaching the halfway point, a large dock with a water taxi that would take guests back to the Ranger Station/Trailhead, there was a mama black bear and two cubs playing about 20 yards off the trail. Hikers were gathered, watching, observing, taking photos and videos, the Park Ranger was there ensuring that no one engaged with the wildlife; it was super cool seeing wild bears in their natural environment.
A sow with cubs is inherently dangerous–it is where we get the phrase “mamma bear.” And 20 yards is really close, but this was a national park bear that had seen tourists before, and this encounter was safe.
We watched the bears, enjoyed the view, and moved on. As we approached the dock, my mom decided that she was going to take the water taxi back and let us finish the hike. We dropped her at the water taxi, waved and smiled goodbye to Gammy as she disembarked, and then continued along the trail.
The second bear and the bear spray
We were probably about 150 yards past the water taxi dock, we needed to “visit the facilities” and swap the carrier of the little one. We took our turns running off into the woods and then regrouped… Then time stood still.
I had been carrying our son, and we were going to switch him to my husband. Our plan going into this, when we realized bear spray was a thing and we needed to be prepared, was that whoever didn’t have the kid was the “bait” if we were attacked by a bear and the other was responsible for literally emptying the can of bear spray on the “bait spouse” and the bear.
As I went to put the baby carrier on my husband, he just happened to look up and noticed a 150 pound black bear running down the trail directly at us.
Black bears are much less intimidating than grizzly bears, but they can still pose a threat to humans. Park bears that have frequent contact with humans can be a real problem if they become habituated to human hand-outs. And when one is running right at you, there’s not much time to act. Bears are surprisingly fast.
When my husband first said “bear, bear, bear” the bear was about 50 feet from us. By the time he reached down, picked up the bear spray, and deployed a three second burst, the bear was within 10 feet of us.
As soon as I heard him say bear, I grabbed my spray and started flanking left to counter spray from a different angle. The bear hit the cloud and made a 90 degree directional change down the mountain towards the lake.
Bear spray works
The bear spray had worked, just as advertised. But there was something we hadn’t planned on: blow-back. The bear, no doubt, was sprayed–but so were we.
We all got a dose from the cloud and after some tears, some coughing, the baby spitting up, and maintaining our composure, we loaded back up and got back on the trail.
As we continued pushing down the trail, we passed all kinds of hikers and warned them about our run in with “Mr. Bear” and told them to make sure they had their bear spray handy. Some laughed us off, others stopped to hear our story and make sure we were fine, and many told us they didn’t have bear spray with them and that it really wasn’t necessary.
Those were the folks we felt sorry for. Making noise became sort of a game to keep the bears at bay. We weren’t willing to have a second encounter and test the efficacy of our bear spray a second time the same day. Our son’s name is Lincoln. We marched along sing-songing, “big Lincoln, coming through!”
More hikers crossed our path, and our story had now begun to make its rounds. One couple said in response to our bear spray message, “wait, y’all are the family with the baby that got charged by the Grizzly!” We politely corrected them and continued.
A couple of hours later, we reached the trailhead. My mom was there with a stern faced park ranger who needed us to give a statement before departing for the day. We happily obliged, and then were told that bears sometimes come back to the site of the spraying to lick the ground.
At that time, the rangers can identify the bear to determine if it is a repeat offender and then deal with things accordingly. The rationale given to us was that humans like hot sauce on our food, but the minute you accidentally touch your eye you are no longer enjoying your spicy treat. Bears like the taste of the hot sauce after the fact; after all pepper spray is merely a weaponized food condiment. That nugget of knowledge is courtesy of my friend and pepper spray expert and trainer, Chuck Haggard.
Needless to say, food never tasted so good, and our adult beverages had never hit the spot more than that night. Knowing that the training, planning, and hours of “what if” conversations over the course of our relationship took over and we did what we had practiced and trained. As we came down off our adrenaline high, we started recounting the story and started really analyzing the situation.
When my husband and I train in self-defense and firearms together, distance is sometimes categorized by the size of our house. Is the threat “front door close,” “living room close,” “kitchen close,” or “bedroom close.” We surmised very quickly that the bear was “bedroom close.” A little too close for comfort, for sure.
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Ultimately, the skills and knowledge that we had trained for helped us in a situation that could have ended very differently. We had tools with us, knew how to carry them to be immediately accessible, and had the knowledge as to how to effectively deploy them.
Bottom line, bear spray works. We do not go camping, day hiking, or anywhere in the country/mountains/outdoors without it now. It is a less lethal and extremely effective tool that allowed ALL of us to go home to our families, be it to a beautiful mountain home or a warm dark bear den.