Narrator: Hi there, this is Jennifer Jerrett. I’m the host and a producer for Telemetry, the science and issues podcast for Yellowstone National Park. Thanks for joining us. A couple of notes on the story you’re about to hear: it describes an event when a family of four encountered a grizzly bear and it contains details that some people could find disturbing. If you have little ones, you might want to preview this episode before sharing it with them. Also, the family members who are generously sharing their story with us request that we all respect their privacy, so we will only be using first names and we won’t share any additional information about the family or the incident.
Eric: It’s not the kind of experience you expect to have in life…
Eric: ...but I can remember in that moment thinking, “This is a pivot point. And this could change our lives forever.”
Narrator: In the summer of 2018, Eric, his wife Emily, and their two sons Owen and Lincoln—both under the age of 16—visited Yellowstone National Park. It was their first time. And while planning for their trip, they learned about bear spray. Bear spray is an aerosol canister containing highly-concentrated hot pepper spray. It’s used to stop aggressive or charging bears. The idea is that if a bear is charging you—coming at you—you blast a big cloud of pepper spray toward the bear’s face. When bears go into that cloud, they typically make a beeline to get out of there.
Narrator: Eric says that his family isn’t super outdoorsy, but he describes themselves as “serious dabblers.” They love to get out and hike. The family decided to rent bear spray, but Eric says that honestly, he thought it was a little silly. None of them expected to use it. When you rent bear spray in Yellowstone, there’s a video that you watch. Eric says that—again—he was a little nonchalant about it. I mean, the idea of actually running into a bear just seems so unreal, right? But he watched anyway and went through the practice scenarios in his mind. He clipped and unclipped the safety a few times. The rest of the family waited in the car.
Narrator: Eric and his family headed out to a popular trailhead. And what happened next, well, we’ll let Eric tell you that in his own words. Here’s Eric.
Eric: It just seemed like a normal hike, right? We were just having fun…
Eric: We were talking. We definitely weren’t making any effort to be quiet and I don’t think we were very quiet. My younger son had gotten the new Pokemon game, so I’m sure it could very well have been like, “Oh, I’ve managed to get this Pokemon and he has these powers.” That kind of thing could easily have been what we were talking about. There was a good bit of that on the trip.
Eric: And so we went maybe a half-mile. And that’s really where it happened.
Eric: I think it all happened really fast. I mean, it was so fast. And that’s one of the things that nothing could have really prepared you for, because it wasn’t like “Oh, see it 100 yards away and get prepared,” this was totally different.
Eric: I heard a crash. I looked. The bear just crashed at full speed. Crashed out of some underbrush. The bear was vaulting out of the underbrush at us at a sprint…
…And it was already quite close. It was coming at us full speed at 25 yards away.
Eric: You know, you see animals in the zoo, or you see them on TV and you really don’t get at all how powerful they are.
Eric: That first second, everybody sort of reacts instinctively. My instinct was to stand my ground, right? That’s what I had been told. Don’t run from the bear, stand your ground. For Emily and Owen, the first response was to sort of jump back and I think they got behind trees. And Lincoln, our younger son, naturally enough just started running.
Eric: They tell us now with brain sciences, that you have all these separate systems that your consciousness sort of coordinates, but they’re all kind of running independently. And you could sort of see that happening because my brain was doing all kinds of different things at once without necessarily coordinating them. So I was at the same time pulling out bear spray, while trying to yell to Lincoln, “Don’t run! Don’t run!”, while analyzing the situation, while trying to move in the right direction.
Eric: Because Lincoln ran, the bear went after him. So very quickly the bear was past me and it’s tackling Lincoln.
Eric: And at that point…seeing…I mean, there’s a part of you that just instinctively responds as a parent. That says “Your child’s in danger!”
Eric: So I start running toward the bear.
Eric: Meanwhile I’m still trying to get out the bear spray and get it ready. I know I’m still yelling something. I don’t know what I’m yelling. Emily starts running toward him as well and she doesn’t have a weapon. There’s nothing really that we can do to a bear, but you have to try. And the bear’s on top of Lincoln. And the size difference and the power of the bear…You know, things could get really bad really quickly.
Eric: So we’re both running toward the bear. It’s on top of Lincoln. I’m running over and I’m getting close. The bear turned toward me…
…and, I don’t know, I didn’t hear a noise, but maybe it groweled, I don’t know, but it had its mouth open like it was going to come for me next.
Eric: And honestly, at that point, I think my mind was in a place where if it was going to keep coming and get me instead of Lincoln, that’s better.
Eric: But yeah, then it turned toward me and started coming.
Eric: …And I was very close to both of them at that point.
Eric: The bear was about two to three feet away. So I had three feet. And that’s when I managed to fire the spray off.
Eric: But there was one moment, less than a second—just a beat—where it seemed like that might not stop the bear because it was still coming. And I thought, “Oh, it’s too enraged. It’s too late. It’s too close.”
Eric: But then it
took a breath and just recoiled.
It just recoiled visibly back and ran off.
Eric: So Lincoln got up and he had been clawed in the back, and I guess it went into the muscle and it wasn’t bleeding a whole lot. Which was good because that’s what I was worried about. So Lincoln started stumbling down the trail, and I was behind trying to have the spray ready because I still had half of it left. but Lincoln really couldn’t walk. His legs were too weak from the adrenaline. It was just too much. And so he kept wanting to stop and we were like “No! We cannot stop. We need to keep going.” So I ended up carrying him and so yeah we just kind of beat a very hasty retreat down the hill as fast as we could.
Eric: We got back down to the car and we could see that he had some punctures, some bleeding. But overall, it seemed like he was in pretty good shape, but of course, obviously we needed to get medical care. And they checked him out and you know, he knew he was okay, and being taken care of properly. And so, yeah, I think it was a few hours for him to kind of get over that initial catharsis, but then he felt a lot better already by that afternoon.
Eric: He was really brave…I mean, this is one of the scariest things that can happen, right? This goes back to kind of the primal human dangers that we would have faced in the plains of Africa or whatever, right? And so he faced down that danger and came out of it okay mentally, came out of it okay physically. I think that’s really impressive.
Eric: We all know that there’s lots of ways that life can deal you bad fortune, but this was not one of the ones we had ever anticipated, right?
Eric: It’s trite I guess, but it does remind you to appreciate your family in a more tangible and real way. That we need to realize that things are fleeting. But honestly, I mean, was it traumatic? Yes. But on the other hand how fortunate do we feel? There’s so many ways that things could have gone wrong, so you have to feel really blessed, right? That we had the right equipment we needed and we were able to use it.
Eric: And that’s a nice feeling to have, really. To appreciate how lucky you are.
Eric: Take seriously when they say you really ought to have some bear spray with you, is the number one takeaway. Yes it seems like: “It’s crazy,” “It’s not necessary” “I’m just out there for a little while,” but like I said, we were less than a half-mile up the trail, so we weren’t in some distant backcountry, you know. You don’t know where it could happen. You don’t know when it could happen, so just go ahead and get the spray, take the video seriously.
Eric: You don’t have to obsess about it. It doesn’t need to become a fear, but think a little bit about what you’ll do if the unexpected happens. Practice taking the safety on and off a little bit. Put it in a place where you can get to it because, yeah, I had so little time that looking back on it, I am kind of surprised that it all came off.
Eric: The whole situation was probably eight seconds long from beginning to finish.
(the following is cut to start and finish in eight seconds)
…the bear coming out of the brush…
…then the bear on top of Lincoln
…and then the bear turning and coming at me very close
…and using the spray.
Eric: Things could have gone worse in so many different ways…We could have forgotten it in the car, I could have dropped it, fumbled it, somehow not been able to get the safety off or shot it the wrong way or something. It’s like my mind wasn’t even focused on that and yet it was happening kind of automatically, so it was surprising. And I think mentally stepping through it a little ahead of time probably really helped a lot in being able to do that.
Eric: And I should say one of the rangers said, “You know, that was much better than if you had had a gun, because if you had a gun, you’d have to shoot just right or the bear would be wounded and even more angry. Whereas the spray is pretty effective, it’s a big cloud, you can’t really miss.”
Eric: …I mean, we were rare. But my gosh, to have something you can do to save your loved one? So yeah, why not have that little bit of insurance so that if the worst happens you can do something about it. Because how helpless we would have been otherwise. We didn’t think we’d need it but we’re just so grateful that we had it.
Eric: I should mention that the rangers found that there was a cub, which kind of explains why the bear attacked. Defensive, you know, defending its child. The thing we didn’t think about was that this is a wild park and the animals are living their own lives. And that’s something that we love and appreciate about the national parks, but you do have to approach it with a certain degree of respect so that you can stay safe, but you can do that in way that this remains a really natural and wild space and not like a zoo. And that’s something that we learned from this whole incident.
Narrator: While the likelihood of experiencing a bear attack in Yellowstone is very low, the park recommends that people take precautions. Hike in groups of 3 or more. Make noise. And by noise, I don’t mean little jingle bells tied to your backpack. I mean noise, like yelling or calling out to alert any bears to your presence. The classic one a lot of us around here use is “heeeeeey beeeeaaar!” For real. I know—it feels dumb. Do it anyway. Especially while hiking through thick brush or forest regrowth. And when hiking over hills or in other blind spots along the trail. If you do encounter a bear, don’t run. Stay in a group and stand your ground. Finally, take bear spray with you every time. And know how to use it. For more information on how to stay safe in bear country, visit go.nps.gov/yellbearsafety.