Bears are necessarily a part of the ecology of any forest. They are a game animal, a tourist attraction, and contribute to the overall balance of nature. Bears can also be classed as a necessary evil. They do more damage to Forest Service buildings than fire, all the elements of nature, and other vandalism combined.
No building for human inhabitance is immune from their attack in the forest. About 1955, a bear broke into the Big Prairie combination building. He upset and wrecked all the furniture, including the stove, broke the door off the refrigerator, threw the typewriter through the window, and destroyed everything in the line of food. At the same time, a bear entered the Ranger's dwelling and thoroughly wrecked the place. After ripping up the upholstery on the overstuffed furniture, he also went into the bathroom, cut his paw in breaking the mirror, and got blood all over the place.
In the back country you can leave a clean, orderly cabin in the morning and return at night to find it in shambles. You never know when you approach a cabin—left unoccupied for even a short time—if you will find it inhabitable. More money has been appropriated and spent on repairing certain cabins in the South Fork, due to bear damage alone, than the original cost of the buildings. Much money is required each year to replace signs destroyed by bears. It seems almost impossible to build something, within the limits of Wilderness construction, to prevent bear damage. Barricade the windows and doors, and they will come down through the roof. A special effort was made to make the Pendant cabin bearproof. But the first season, after the cabin was finished, a bear entered by tearing out one corner of the building. Perhaps we wouldn't like it either if someone established a homestead in one of our favorite fishing areas.
Those of us who have spent many years in the back country do not consider bears particularly dangerous animals, but we do know that no bear can be trusted. People have suffered from unprovoked bears. A sow with cubs is the most dangerous. A wounded bear is always dangerous. Many hunters have been mauled or killed by bears that they had wounded. About 1957, near Basin Creek in the Upper South Fork, a young man shot and wounded a grizzly. Then the hunter's gun jammed. He was severely mauled and later died.
In 1928, Ralph Thayer (now retired, living in Kalispell) was locating trail alone in Canyon Creek, just east of the present site of the Big Mountain ski area. As he approached a large windfall, a grizzly came over the log. Thayer started to climb a nearby tree. But the bear grabbed his leg in her teeth and pulled him out of the tree. He fell on his back on the bear's back, rolled off, and the bear continued to chew his leg. Ralph still had his cruiser's axe in his hand and was laying on his back. He was able to strike the bear on the end of the nose with the flat side of his axe. The bear, slightly stunned, released Thayer long enough to permit him to climb a tree to safety. While up the tree, Thayer saw the sow had a cub with her. The sow and cub finally went away, and Ralph came down. With much difficulty and suffering he made the 8 miles down Canyon Creek to the North Fork road, where he was picked up and taken to Kalispell. He fully recovered.
About 1913 Chance Beebe, who later became a successful Government hunter and trapper, was in the North Fork with a man named Link. They were staying in a cabin near the Canadian border. One day Beebe left his partner in the cabin while he went out to check his trapline. When Beebe returned a few days later, he found Link's body out in the yard; he had been killed by a bear. The details of the circumstances surrounding this case were never determined. No one knows to this day just what took place at this lonely cabin.
It is unusual for any bear to eat its human victim. Many a hunter has had the exciting experience of returning to pick up an elk or deer he had killed the day before, only to find a grizzly bear has taken possession. The hunter may find this especially embarrassing should he be in an area closed to the killing of grizzly bear. The first elk that I killed in the South Fork (1929) was badly chewed by a bear the first night.
Bears are sometimes involved in amusing incidents. One time, in the late 1920's, we were working trails and living in a tent on the Middle Fork of the Flathead. Occasionally, we had seen a large brown bear near camp and were concerned about the possibility of having our camp wrecked while we were out working. One morning, while we were eating breakfast, we saw this brown bear near our wood pile. Someone suggested that we feed him some cayenne pepper we had in camp. We took two large hot cakes and put the four ounces of this hot pepper between them and stuck the hot cakes together with honey. We placed this concoction out on a log and watched the bear locate it by the smell of the hot cakes and honey. After one sniff, a big grab and about two swallows, it was gone. He started to smell around for more. We watched him a few minutes and had begun to comment that the fun was over. All at once the bear swung around, reared up on his hind legs, stroked his belly a couple of times with his paw, and then dropped down on all fours. All we could see was a brown streak going over the mountain amid the crashing of brush. We were camped at that location for some time after this, but we never saw any more of the big brown bear.
All bears are not alike. What one will do under certain circumstances has no bearing on how another will react if treated the same way. I have had small mother bears charge me while I was on horseback because I was too close to her cubs. Then, at other times, I have chased mother bears away from their cubs. However, I advocate doing nothing to a mother bear and her cubs except to leave them strictly alone. I am afraid of all bears and give them as wide aberth as possible. I have had to kill two bears while I was still in my bedroll sleeping out in the forest.
Some bears are quite smart. According to a story told by a crew at Schafer in 1938 (Schafer was then just a tent camp), they were having some difficulty in keeping their bacon away from the bears. In itself, this is not unusual. They put a long pole over a pivot in a fashion similar to a child's "teeter-totter." One one end of the pole, they attached a box for the bacon. On the other end, they attached a box of rocks, heavy enough to keep the bacon in the air. The box with the bacon in it had a rope attached; this enabled the crew to pull the bacon down when they wished. It worked good. They thought they had solved the problem, until a new bear came to camp. He would climb up the inclining pole and, as he passed over the balance point, the bacon box end came to the ground. The bear would then jump to the ground and immediately the heavier rock box dropped to the ground, raising the bacon up again. After several attempts of this kind, the bear left. Now, the men were more sure than ever that their contraption was a success. But the bear had not given up. He returned with another bear. The second bear stole the bacon out of the box as the other bear brought it to the ground. Of course, the bears got into a fight, but they had the bacon.
"Casey" Streed (a retired Forest officer, now living in Whitefish) told me this story. "Casey," Harold Duffy, and a CCC boy from Brooklyn called "Spud" were working out of the old Emery Creek cabin in the lower South Fork. There was a bear that came around the cabin occasionally and sometimes chased the three into the cabin. The fellows looked upon such antics, by a comparatively small bear, as amusing and put up with it.
One evening "Casey" went out to empty the garbage and this bear started toward him. "Casey" let out a yell and started for the cabin with the bear close behind. Harold and "Spud," hearing "Casey," rushed to the open side window to see how things turned out. As "Casey" and the bear made the porch, at the end of the cabin, they both leaned out of the window for a better view around the corner of the building. The bear immediately reversed himself and suddenly appeared under the window from which Harold and "Spud" were leaning. Harold jumped back and pulled the window shut on "Spud's" neck. "Spud," who thought the bear had him for sure, was pulling back so hard trying to free himself that Harold couldn't open the window. "Casey" said when he got into the cabin that "Spud" was pulling so hard his neck was stretching and it looked as if he might pull his head off. The bear moved on and everything turned out alright. Harold Duffy said later that he didn't think any bear would attack anything that was uttering such bloodcurdling screams as the CCC boy with his head stuck in the window.
Les Darling (now retired and living in Columbia Falls) told this story at Spotted Bear a few years back. Chasing smoke one time, Darling said he came down an open ridge and ended up face to face with a grizzly bear. Darling immediately turned and started down the side of the mountain and encountered another bear. He reversed his direction of travel again and met a third bear. At this time he realized he was surrounded by grizzly bears, coming at him from every direction. About this time Les realized he had talked himself into a position of impossible escape. He hesitated and one of the boys asked, "What happened?" Les said, "They ate me up, right on the spot."
In a more serious vein, let's keep in mind what General Mathew B. Ridgeway said in 1958, after he had spent some time in the Bob Marshall Wilderness with his wife and 9-year-old son. He said it was the safest place in the world for a family to vacation, with only one drawback, the possibility of an attack by an unprovoked bear.