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Cabinet grizzly 'thrills' hikers

| August 31, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

Three hikers had the most thrilling five seconds of their lives Friday afternoon when a grizzly bear charged them in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.

That's how long U.S. Forest Service wilderness ranger Charlie Clough estimated the incident lasted. He and two Wisconsin residents were on a trail through a huckleberry patch between Upper Geiger Lake and Lost Buck Pass when a sow grizzly and its 2- or 3-year-old youngster appeared about 100 feet ahead of them.

"They were both just woofing," said Clough, who was third in line behind a woman who was leading and her husband. "They came down the hill right at us, with the sub-adult flanking the sow."

The woman slipped and fell, and the sow jumped right over her.

"The bear's feet must have fallen within a foot or two of her body," the ranger said. "This bear was 6 feet from me. She was a big sow. She came right in front of me and immediately spun, did a 180, and went right over the woman again.

"Then they woofed again and bounded down the trail below us. They took two big bounds and stopped not more than 20 to 30 feet below us. I couldn't see them. I wondered if she just took the big cub to get it out of harm's way and was going to make another pass at us."

No one was hurt. In fact, neither bear even touched the hikers.

The woman got up, Clough said, and he gave them instructions.

"I said, 'Let's talk. We gotta talk. Don't anybody run.' Then just like that the bears went off again — boom, boom, boom —150 to 200 feet down the hill. They were galloping and expelling air with each step they took."

The man and woman, who were on their first hike in Montana, had planned to go to the pass. Clough told them to forget it, saying, "We need to get ourselves out of here now as safely as we can."

With Clough leading and holding a can of pepper spray, they retraced their steps. Unfortunately, the trail curved down and then bent 90 degrees to the right toward the last place the bears were seen.

"We were calling out 'hey bear,'" Clough said, "but not too loud so it wouldn't sound like a threat."

Hearts pounding, they continued down to the Lower Lake without seeing the bruins again. Clough said there was no time to be scared during the brief encounter.

"The way it impacted me was that it was a busy, busy time," he said. "Your brain is doing some kind of processing that we don't normally do. It didn't really hit me until we started walking down the trail."

Ironically, the man had been describing for Clough a grizzly bear encounter he'd once had with his son in Alaska. That was just a minute or so before the Montana bears appeared, said Forest Service trail crew supervisor Jon Jeresek.

The Forest Service closed the trail above Lower Geiger Lake, and it remained closed as of Monday.

"It was a precautionary thing," Jeresek said. "We expect it to be a short-term closure."

A wildlife biologist was completing a helicopter survey of mountain goats and bears in the Geiger lakes area Monday. Depending on what he saw, or didn't see, Jeresek said the Forest Service might re-open the trail by week's end.

He added that the trio did everything right. They were talking among themselves while going through the brushy area, and once the bears were on them they didn't run. To do so would have triggered the bears' chase response, he said.

Clough said it was fortunate that the woman stayed on the ground.

"If she'd have gotten up, she would have been in the bear's trajectory," said the retired school teacher, who spends summers patrolling trails for the Forest Service. "I've lived here all my life and this is the only encounter like this I know of in the Cabinets as far as recreational hikers."

He and Jeresek emphasized the good huckleberry crop this year, saying bears are busy gorging themselves where the berries are fattest. The primary elevation where they're feeding now is from 5,000 to 5,500 feet, they said.

"I think that's why we have had relatively few nuisance complaints this year, because black bears are up higher feeding on berries," Jeresek said.

Clough noted that traditional estimates pin the Cabinets' grizzly population at 12 to 15 bears. He believes there are more than that.

"To my knowledge, in the upper Geiger basin, this makes the fourth or fifth grizzly sighting in the last 15 to 16 months," Clough said. "Based on what I've heard of the sightings, they were not all the same bear."

The bears' speed left the biggest impact on the hikers, he said.

"They could have caught a house cat. Kids bandy about the word 'awesome.' This was truly awesome."