It has scared me for years. The thought of stumbling around a corner on a trail and seeing a 600-pound grizzly bear. Drooling at the sight, gazing intently, then thrusting at me, fly rod in hand. Killing me. Leaving nothing to show other than the cork of the rod, freshly gouged by claws of a beast, and a blood trail into the woods.
As I have worked in Yellowstone over the years and have researched bear activity all over North America, circumstances like that simply don’t exist. News sources portray that though like it’s a normal occurrence, but bears aren’t out to get us. However, you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And that is usually how attacks happen.
The general rule of thumb for hiking in grizzly country is to hike in groups of three or more. Always carry bear spray, and never run. The reason for not running is because a bear can run up to 40 mph. Translation: Usain Bolt can’t outrun a bear.
Carrying bear spray is your best chance at surviving an attack. Bear spray is essentially pepper spray on steroids and the bear must run through the deployed spray in order to get to you. Ask any hunter, most carry bear spray despite shouldering a high caliber rifle or even a heavily weighted bow. The reason being, should you kill a grizzly in self-defense, you might go to jail as they’re federally protected.
Lastly, hiking in groups of three or more allows and encourages conversation and noise. Startling the bear is the most common way of attacks, and should you hike with friends or family, talking should eliminate the element of surprise. With big groups, if a grizzly presents itself, you can look bigger, enticing the bear to go elsewhere with its attention.
So enter me: A Yellowstone tour guide, an avid trail runner, fly fisherman, and has seen hundreds of the native 800 grizzly bears that call the greater Yellowstone ecosystem home. Has no friends, family is either not in shape or interested, but still wants to trail run in the depths of grizzly country. Doing so alone because no one wants to go, all to access some of the prettiest and most remote bodies of trout water in the continental U.S. But ultimately, has an intimate fear of bears.
At a young age I learned that just because no one wants to go with you, never meant you shouldn’t go. So through all the solo endeavors I ventured out on, I also learned that if you don’t take steps towards fear, you’ll always turn around and run away afraid. And with years of driving past trailheads in and around Yellowstone, grinding my teeth at the frustration of my fear of bears, my step eventually came.
For the past year, I have researched high and low for a trail running pack that can carry fly gear comfortably without compromising comfort or the necessity of all the long distance running needs. I noticed that Simms was creating a flyweight collection, and a running pack was added to the kit.
Immediately after opening the box and ripping apart the plastic, I was frustrated. I opened the pack looking for them, scratched my head wondering if I purchased the wrong one, and even looked on their website and watched their commercial on YouTube. The straps for the rod carrier were missing. I thought they might have forgotten to load them into the package until I scrolled into the fine print on their website and noticed that they aren’t included into the purchase of the pack. What bullshit!
The sole purpose of me purchasing the pack was literally for the carrying system of the rod. And here I am at a trailhead, with a small creek slithering its way adjacent to the trail, and I can’t even try out the pack because Simms was too cheap to include the straps.
I did however muster the strength to shoulder my original running pack, leave my rod in the car, and just hit the trail for a couple miles. My first solo run in literal Yellowstone and instantaneously, evidence of bear was everywhere. Scat lay across the trail, huckleberry bushes were stripped clean, downed logs had been ripped open, and even a paw print. But my inner monologue was still tossing the coin about continuing on or turning around, and at that point, the phone got pulled out and music began blaring.
Playing music in bear country is a surreal experience. It’s as if it creates an imaginary shield while I run. My stress released and my focus went back to the beauty of the area; the creek teeming with insect and trout life, and the concentration of the breath. I run without music almost daily. I love the quiet sounds of nature and the deep meditative thoughts that come up while exercising. But in grizzly country, there is no hesitation. The more obnoxious the music the better. And with my sense of stress slowly winding down and my turn around spot ahead, a large brown object slowly moved through the forest in front of me.
My heart sank and my stomach turned. The mix of awe at its sight as well as fear of the unknown took over. The bear, unbothered, slowly meandered through the landscape foraging for berries and grasses. I was blaring speed metal when I noticed it, and to me surprise, it didn’t care for the music much either.
I slowly backed away while facing it, pausing the music, talking and saying hi to it, while trying my best to have a subtle but calm conversation with it. It looked up at me and almost sighed as if it was a cute girl getting approached by another guy at a grocery store. It continued on its way and eventually I said goodbye to it and turned around. Slowly jogging back when I felt it was appropriate to do so.
When you run, it triggers a response from the bear that you are prey. So I made sure that it kept foraging and faced away from me when I felt I should run. I looked back intermittently to ensure it wasn’t chasing or following me, and as usual, it wasn’t.
Bears are ultimately lazy. 80% of their diet is plant based and they sleep for four months a year. But that experience left me with nervous excitement for what is up ahead, and with the confidence from that experience, the next trail and the one after that kept showing up on my radar. And yes, I finally got that stupid strap that Simms failed to include with their pack and the casts also began in bear country.
Shouldering the pack and excited to begin my first run up into alpine territory, I finally had all the components to make for a great running and fly fishing experience. The weather was good, a creek cascaded down next to the trail for drinking water, and my excitement was through the roof. A lake laid waiting for my clumsy casts to native trout, and I actually have a pack that is designed by a runner and a fly fisherman. But that actually is incorrect.
After testing the pack and using it strenuously in terrain ranging from flat in low elevation, to extremely technical and high alpine, I joke that the pack was designed by a fly fisherman, but not a runner.
With what shot frustration through my veins at the absence of the purchase slowly turned into my nemesis. The straps and rod placement on the pack were clearly not designed by someone who runs. When you hike, the rod sits wonderfully either on the left or right side of the pack without so much as a worry in the world. Until you start running that is. The rod, no matter how tightly you strap to the side of the pack, will sway back and forth annoyingly rubbing up against your arm with each stride.
But with well over 100 miles of trail ran, countless chafing and rashes, and only a few bear sightings, I am pleased at the accessibility and stowage of the pack as a trail runner, despite the rod placement. I did learn to ignore the bouncing and rubbing and just take in the beauty of the landscape. Some of the trails and lakes I ran to seemed like a human hadn’t been there for years. Turns out I am not the only one with a genuine fear of bears.
With this new accessibility, I can carry anything from a two weight all the way up to a 10 weight as long as it breaks down into four pieces. And because of that, I can now access areas that I once needed multiple days, but now can do in a day with a trail running pack that can carry a fly rod.
I was able to access terrain this summer that would easily have taken several summers. But because of the pack and my training, I was able to get to water and fish while coming home and having a full course meal on the same day. It was spooky almost everyday, and the encounters with humans were almost as rare as actually spotting a bear, but the overall surroundings and the confidence it gave me swung the doors wide open for all the other trails I have yet to discover and all of the fish that are yet to be fooled by my fly.
With well over one thousand miles of trail in the park alone, and many more thousand just outside the park, I am certain that I will at least try and run and fish them all. Hopefully and excitingly with a few more conversations with bears, as long as they are all as peaceful as the first one. Just need to talk to Simms about that rod placement.
Article written by Sean Jansen @jansen_journals. Sean Jansen is a freelance writer for Flylords Magazine, and spends his time in Bozeman, Montana where he guides tours through Yellowstone National Park.
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