Reflections after a grizzly bear encounter: Thanks, Apologize, Accept


Wolf track in snow from Montana
Wolf track from earlier in the hunt. All photo credits: Jake Purlee

I was lost in a familiar area just north of West Yellowstone, Montana. It was a cold and eerie Halloween morning. I was on a greatly anticipated elk hunt with three friends. While I had archery hunted this area over the last couple of weeks in September and had come close to arrowing a mature bull multiple times, I hadn’t been able to get the job done.

Here I was on a perfect day for hunting except for the fact that the humidity level was 90%, which made for thick heavy fog and low visibility. Not only did the fog make it hard to see, but it also made getting turned around way too easy. The plan for this hunt was to work a ridge down to a meadow and glass the same hillside where I had spotted two bulls three weeks before. Instead, we missed the ridge and ended up on the other side of it and, just an hour into the hunt, wolves started howling all around us. I acted quickly since I had a wolf tag in my pocket and started cow calling, but they stayed out of sight. They weren't interested and their howls faded.

I looked down at my public/private land map on my GPS to figure out that we weren't far from the targeted ridge after all. We found the ridge and worked our way up it. The visibility got worse, but the excitement was still there. Finally, we got to the big meadow we wanted to glass, but we couldn't see very far in front of us. Shots were being fired fairly close, so we decided to drop down into the basin in the direction where we heard the gunshots. Once we got to a thick group of trees at the bottom, we ran into two hunters who were standing over a heavily used game trail littered with grizzly tracks. There were at least three sets of tracks both big and small.

An uncomfortable situation

We had a short conversation with the two hunters. One of them told us that there was a dead cow elk about a hundred yards from where we were standing that couldn't have been more than a week old. He said that the bears had been feeding on the dead cow and buried it. At that moment, I felt extremely uneasy. I told my group that we needed to get out of there so we turned around and headed back toward where we came from. The going was tough because of how many timber fall down areas there was, but we made it back up to the meadow. When we got back on top we all started feeling pretty worn out. The hike was steep and there was a foot of snow on the ground to add to it all.

Making it to the top of the ridge was a boost to our morale; the hardest part of the hike was over—or so we thought. After working up the ridge for a half mile we reached a boulder field. At this point, I was extremely vulnerable. I had my gun on my shoulder and my video camera in my right hand. Only one of the other three people I was with had a firearm because only one of them had an elk tag. He made sure to take his round out of the chamber due to the slick rocks in the boulder field.

Once we made it to the other side of the boulder field it was all downhill. We were only about two miles from the truck, anxious to get back to get a bite to eat and change out of our wet clothes. We got to a section of trail that was thick with pines. The visibility in the dark timber was so bad that we couldn't see 50 yards in front of us. I heard loud crashing off to my right and started yelling, “Elk! Elk! Elk!” I have jumped elk out of their beds while working a ridge too many times but this wasn't an elk. A split second later a big grizzly bear head peeked over the ridge in front of us with two 100-pound cubs behind it.

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“F***! No! Bear! No!” I screamed in terror as she started snapping her jaws and bounding towards my friends and me. Each snap sounded like an axe hitting concrete. I got behind my one friend who was armed and threw both my gun and my camera on the ground in panic after the bear spray. She was terrifying and extremely vocal, huffing and grunting. The person who had the bear spray shakily handed it to me without the safety on, ready to go.

I ran to my friend’s side to spray her, but, by then, it was too late: she had already bluff charged us once and was almost on top of us. My friend fired off a round and hit her right on the top of her shoulder, but she wasn't fazed. He fired two more shots as I was spraying, but the spray wouldn't go more than 10’ and, at this moment, she was at 15’.

Jake Purlee quote about grizzly bear attack
The spray was out in what felt like just a couple of seconds and the wind had pushed it back into our faces. It burned my eyes, lips, and nose like hell. We were all coughing and wheezing immediately. My friend then grabbed my .300 Weatherby and started firing. After he emptied it we ran back into the trees and he handed it to me, screaming for more cartridges. I reloaded and put one more in her head. It was then deathly silent.

Scene after charged by grizzly bear in Montana

The sow’s 400-pound body lay still. Teeth and claws showing. She looked so much smaller than when she was puffed and charging us moments before.

Unfortunate side after being charged by a grizzly bear
The unfortunate side of the grizzly encounter.

I started tearing up from a combination of bear spray and emotion. I could hear 911 on the other line. They told us to stay put until they could get hold of the Montana Fish Wildlife, and Parks Region 3 headquarters. It took about an hour for them to call us back. We were wet, cold, huddled around a fire, 100 yards from the kill scene, and shaken to the core. The call let us know we were okay to leave.

As it got dark, we made to back the truck. I prayed. I thanked God for my friends and me being alive, I apologized for the disturbance and accepted the knowledge I gained from Him that cold October day.

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