Where Trees Grow Too Close Together

How a Rocky Mountain trapper went face-to-face with a marauding grizzly.

Field & Stream Online Editors

The grizzly bear is believed to be among the few mammals besides man which commonly dies in its sleep. Winter takes it in the end, although its fate is not that of deer shrunk to skeletons by March, nor of bighorns drowned by avalanche. It may be that a bear nearing the end of life takes to its den early one fall, and pulling up winter for its funeral shroud, lies entombed there forever.

In the Rocky Mountain West, the grizzly has made its final stand in a handful of retreats: in Yellowstone National Park, in a slender finger of Canada's Selkirk Range that juts into Washington, and in the high country of northwestern Montana, principally Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Some grizzly researchers believe the last bear to grace this country will leave its skull in a den in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and that its bones will be finished by the rodents in time for our generation to be the voice of its history.

In the Bob Marshall Wilderness native trout teem in three forks of the Flathead River; green, transparent races of water that vein a vast roll of mountains where every other feature of land has been named for its bears: Silvertip Mountain, White Bear Creek, Grizzly Gulch.

This area used to be a favored hunting ground of timber wolves. A few can still be heard in its forests. It also was the winter haunt of pine marten trappers, just a few of whom remain.

The marten trappers were a colorful lot who defended individual creek drainages as vigorously as did the old, boar grizzlies that ransacked their camps. Like the bears they were victims of progress, finished four decades ago by Russian sable farms that exported domestic furs thickened in Siberia. Blackened scars where traps were notched into the trunks of trees blemish the older stands of lodgepole pine in the Bob Marshall to this day. Tiny log cabins the trappers built are less noticeable. Most have returned to the forest floor, although a scattering still stand, banked back into the sides of ridges for insulation. These "cabins" were little larger than coffins, and the trappers heated them with body heat. They remain as testament to a hard way of life that has all but disappeared from this country.

This is a story told by one of the last marten trappers. He is my age, 30, but already an old hand in the wilderness. He has run a trapline up the headwater tributaries of the South Fork of the Flathead River since he was 17 years old.

Shortly before I met him, the trapper had the misfortune of stepping on one of the decaying, nail-quilled bear doors that are strewn about various cabins constructed by the Forest Service for backcountry rangers. I had come into the Bob Marshall with a party of three to measure the spring snowpack for government records. We had traveled 90 miles by snow cat to the wilderness boundary, and gone on skis from there. The last 2 miles of the 20 we skied trailed the lopsided dinosaur waddle of snowshoe tracks. I knew whoever was up ahead had a bad left foot.

The trapper, hunched under the bulk of his pack, looked like he had journeyed to this place from somewhere considerably farther north. He had tangled hair down to his coat collar, a winter's growth of thin beard, a hawk nose. He was not a big man, yet his handshake brought blood to the tips of my fingers. His eyes, clear and green, moved as deliberately and as carefully as his speech, which sounded like that of an older man. "I don't want to make trouble for you," he said. But he said he had been on the bad foot for a week, and the pain which radiated from the deep puncture the nail made grew worse by the hour. The nearest passable road was still on the far side of a broad belt of mountains that avalanched frequently this time of year.

This was no small predicament, and the trapper well knew it.

Our party had the key to an outpost ranger cabin that sat over the river on a bencof timber, near the junction of the South Fork with Big Salmon Creek. We had to dig out the door through 3 feet of snow. The mattresses hung up under the ceiling in looping hammocks of rope. On the slab pine floor the mousetraps were all long sprung and the mice collected in them had rotted away, leaving minuscule skeletons, puffs of fur, and threads of tails.

We walked around inside like crabs on blistered feet, banking the pots for our supper. The trapper sat beside a big barrel wood heater, his boots and stag shirt dripping off 60-penny nails driven into the log center beam, his foot soaking in a dishpan of melted snow.

There is an unspoken code in the backcountry that no one broaches the subject of grizzly bears until a suitable interval has passed. To speak of the grizzly too soon is a sign of insecurity. We had pumped up a lantern going into that night. But the circle of light dimmed considerably before we heard the trapper's story.

He said that years ago, a grizzly bear stole an elk he had shot for winter meat. That fall he was guiding elk hunters for an outfitter who took a string of mules up the South Fork of the Flathead. The outfitter packed out Thanksgiving week, hurrying to beat the snow out of the mountains. He left the guide his best wishes. For the trapper it would be his first winter alone in the wilderness.

The bear raided the trapper's camp the following week. It took a beaver he'd left lying on top of a skinning table; stuck its head inside the tent flap to get it. It jerked the elk out of the tree where it hung nose up with a rope around its antlers. The trapper had slept through the night; he read the story in the snow in the morning. He followed bear tracks to the river. It was a grizzly all right, its long claws biting into the snow inches from the impressions of the feet. Under a heaping of branches the trapper found the torn, bloodied carcass of the spike bull elk. He caught himself staring at a heap of dung that spread a brown pillow in a pool of water isolated from the current of the river.

The bear had crossed the river and lumbered up a steep slope of lodgepole. An hour later, still following but long after the weightless feeling of his purpose had dissipated in fear and sweat, the trapper for one long moment let his mind float away from the odor that tainted the forest in the grizzly's wake. This time the sight was of his sagging tent, far below on the opposite bank, and in a clearing the reddened trough in the snow the bear had made dragging the elk to the water's edge.

He had just gained the ridge when he turned to look back. In that moment the bear, which must have been lying in the shintangle, rose to its height. The trapper later recalled that when the bear put its nose on man scent the hair of its thick neck rose like a cat's. And he had heard the hissing of his own hair as it stood against the crown of his hat.

Then in an instant the bear was down on fours, bulling through the matchstick lodgepole and gone out of sight over the ridge. The trapper never hesitated. He turned and ran, dodging through the close trees in the thicket, coming off the mountain in a flood of adrenaline to lurch against the river and stagger to the giddy safety on the opposite bank. He sat down, sucking air. His Springfield rifle was held in gripped fists, at the ready, forgotten at his moment of opportunity.

With little forethought and no real experience the trapper had set out to kill a grizzly bear. "It was the rug," he would say. "I'd always wanted a grizzly bear rug." And a little of the morning's instant courage lingered even after retreat, a thrilling, insane urge to bend once more to the tracks.

But it had been foolhardy to take a bear to task in such tough country. The trapper knew it. He faced the fact that whatever return of confidence he enjoyed with the sun up and the bear gone would desert him utterly at the close of day.

Downriver an old plank shed had weathered the snows of too many winters. There were the remnants of a corral; a few crossed logs deteriorating over the cleared ground. The trapper had this shed in mind as he heaved at the corpse of the elk. Even with its hindquarters eaten the elk was a burdensome animal which hugged the snow as the trapper worked. It took hours to move it to the higher ground. He finally dropped it outside the shed's solitary window, a black, square hole that had been crudely barred with twisted strands of barbed wire in an attempt to keep out the bears of a former era.

Quickly the trapper retraced his steps to the tent. He packed his backpack with food, sleeping bag, lantern. He had a side of bacon for cooking grease and he packed it. Upon his return to the shed he pried a nail from a plank of wood, and stepping on top of his elk for height, nailed the bacon outside and just over the top of the window.

He figured to fire on the bear soon as it stood up to take down the bacon.

It was either a brave or foolish thing to have done. But at the time the trapper felt certain the bear would return, if not that night the next, and it would keep returning until one of them was dead. He dreaded this uncertainty as much as he feared the bear.

The shed itself offered little protection against a grizzly bear. The trapper had to prop the door with axed sections of a lodgepole snag just to keep it from falling in the wind. Inside, he sat on a cut stump, facing the door. He drank coffee he made over a fire built on earth exposed by some charred floorboards. There were blackened rings where others had built fires inside this tinderbox. It was not something to make a practice of, but the trapper knew how desperate men could be in this country.

The stars came out; they shone through the window and separations in the shed walls. He thought the stars were peculiarly beautiful, remembered precisely how they had appeared to him. He fell asleep looking at them.

When he woke up the stars were gone. The night was black and the river which murmured him to sleep, despite the coffee, had a new cadence he sought to place. The window over his head was a solid square. It was blacker than the room. The trapper did not move once his eyes opened; nor did he take his eyes from the window. Breath, not wind, blew in through the window, and the trapper, wide awake, felt his body break into sweat.

He had fallen asleep with his hand on his rifle but the trapper did not dare lift it. He feared that the slightest movement on his part would trigger the bear, there all along, so close he could have touched it with an outstretched arm.

Many minutes passed. Then abruptly the tiny shed flooded with starlight and the trapper heard a heavy dragging noise as the bear moved the elk away at the close of day.

Downriver an old plank shed had weathered the snows of too many winters. There were the remnants of a corral; a few crossed logs deteriorating over the cleared ground. The trapper had this shed in mind as he heaved at the corpse of the elk. Even with its hindquarters eaten the elk was a burdensome animal which hugged the snow as the trapper worked. It took hours to move it to the higher ground. He finally dropped it outside the shed's solitary window, a black, square hole that had been crudely barred with twisted strands of barbed wire in an attempt to keep out the bears of a former era.

Quickly the trapper retraced his steps to the tent. He packed his backpack with food, sleeping bag, lantern. He had a side of bacon for cooking grease and he packed it. Upon his return to the shed he pried a nail from a plank of wood, and stepping on top of his elk for height, nailed the bacon outside and just over the top of the window.

He figured to fire on the bear soon as it stood up to take down the bacon.

It was either a brave or foolish thing to have done. But at the time the trapper felt certain the bear would return, if not that night the next, and it would keep returning until one of them was dead. He dreaded this uncertainty as much as he feared the bear.

The shed itself offered little protection against a grizzly bear. The trapper had to prop the door with axed sections of a lodgepole snag just to keep it from falling in the wind. Inside, he sat on a cut stump, facing the door. He drank coffee he made over a fire built on earth exposed by some charred floorboards. There were blackened rings where others had built fires inside this tinderbox. It was not something to make a practice of, but the trapper knew how desperate men could be in this country.

The stars came out; they shone through the window and separations in the shed walls. He thought the stars were peculiarly beautiful, remembered precisely how they had appeared to him. He fell asleep looking at them.

When he woke up the stars were gone. The night was black and the river which murmured him to sleep, despite the coffee, had a new cadence he sought to place. The window over his head was a solid square. It was blacker than the room. The trapper did not move once his eyes opened; nor did he take his eyes from the window. Breath, not wind, blew in through the window, and the trapper, wide awake, felt his body break into sweat.

He had fallen asleep with his hand on his rifle but the trapper did not dare lift it. He feared that the slightest movement on his part would trigger the bear, there all along, so close he could have touched it with an outstretched arm.

Many minutes passed. Then abruptly the tiny shed flooded with starlight and the trapper heard a heavy dragging noise as the bear moved the elk away