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Bear Spray Really Works

If I may anthropomorphicize a bit, I can’t help but wonder if this grizzly is admiring the beautiful color of the mountain bluebird, or just wondering if he could catch it
Grizzly Bear, Blue Bird, Grand Tetons

By Daryl L. Hunter

One fine spring afternoon while searching for grizzly bears in Grand Teton National Park, I spotted two grizzlies in a meadow west of the highway. Unfortunately, they were about two hundred yards away, too far for good grizzly pictures so I decided to close the gap a bit. I carefully approached to about one hundred yards, as that is the legal distance you can approach bears, and wolves in Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks. This opportunity excited me more than most, as usually our grizzlies are farther north where it is often impossible to include the Grand Tetons in the photos. I figured these bears were the three-year-old sisters the famous grizzly 399 had weaned the previous June.

One hundred yards is too far away for good bear portraits with a 400mm lens so I relegateing the grizzlies as elements of interest in the grand landscape. Grizzly portraits at this distance would never measure up. Scenics can be a challenge with a 400mm.

After shooting a bit I realized that if I shortened my tripod legs and shot verticals from near the ground, the trajectory of my lens could include the tops of the northern Grand Teton peaks. I got down by the ground and shot away for a bit, happy with what I saw. The lighting was tough because there was an overpowering amount of bright snow on the peaks, and to expose dark backlit subjects is always tricky, but I was photographing grizzlies in front of the Grand Tetons and I couldn’t be happier.

Many grizzly bears that frequent the roadways of Grand Teton Park and Yellowstone are very used to seeing people, usually people standing up with cameras and spotting scopes and they rarely pay them a bit of attention knowing they are neither a food source nor are they a threat. The bears who ignored me while I was standing, looked over at me down on the ground and all the sudden I no longer looked like a roadside gawker or photographer, I was on the ground, possibly resembling something that might make a tasty lunch so they slowly started walking in my direction, not in a threatening way but a curious one.

Two Grizzlies investigating  dinner

Well, time to get out of here! I grabbed my tripod and purposefully started walking backwards. When being approached by carnivores it is important not to look alarmed and running is suicide because things that run from predators by default must be food or else they wouldn’t be running. It is important not to act like a prey animal, it triggers the predator’s instinct to chase – it is important to not trigger the instinct to chase! It can also be helpful to carry on the same activity that you were doing to appear relaxed so I continued shooting as I calmly backed my way out of a possibly dangerous situation.

I walked backwards a bit, I took a few more shots and they were still coming toward me although still in an unthreatening way. Although I once again resembled a tourist on the side of the road, despite my lack of a road, the grizzlies insisted on checking out what was once on the ground but was no longer. I figured I should get my bear spray ready just in case. I armed the bear spray and hung it on my right index finger just in case they had an undesirable change in attitude. I then took a few more pictures as I resumed my backwards exit strategy.

The grizzlies were in no hurry but they were still coming my way. I was still firing off a few shots so I figured; I am still taking photos so I should re-extend my tripod legs so my photos would be clearer. As I moved my left arm up to extend the tripod legs held in my right hand, the hand that also possessed the index finger where my bear spray precariously dangled, I accidently hit the bottom of the pepper spray can, it discharged and blinded me in my left eye – damn it!

Nearly panicked now, I quickly assessed the situation and realized it was time for me to expedite my backing the hell out of there. Still keeping my wits despite being blinded in one eye, I hastened my pace, and quit taking photos; I quit watching the bears as watching where I stepped with my remaining eye and not stepping in a badger hole had a brand-new importance.  While retreating from the bears I didn’t ponder my pain or blindness, as when I am in emergency mode there is no time for such folly, there is only time to react in a purposeful way. Soon, I was safely back to my car.

Hmmm, what’s that over there on the ground?

Upon reaching my car I marveled how, not only did my eye burn like crazy, I couldn’t even open it. I had a bottle of water in the car, and it took fifteen minutes of rinsing my eye before I could even open it. I also had a six-inch red spot around my eye for following three hours. I have no idea what would have happened had I blinded myself in both eyes.

I learned a great lesson in the escapade. Bear spray works really well. I also learned after reviewing my photos that these weren’t the habituated sub adults of famous sow 399 who were raised by the roadway between 2006 and 2008 I assumed they were. These were a couple of bears that I didn’t know and they were a courting pair, most likely, bears that weren’t used to people. Had I suspected; otherwise, I might have kept a little more distance. Grizzly assumptions can get you into trouble.

Until now, I had been rather dubious of the efficacy of bear spray even though I had heard of the study done in Alaska that reported bear spray had 95% efficacy whereas guns only had 65%. I now know that if you get the bear in both eyes he won’t be able to see nor open his eyes. I have much more confidence in bear spray now.


Other Grizzlies I have known

11 thoughts on “Bear Spray Really Works

  1. The pictures were worth it! Glad you only got one eye, and that you had a bottle of water to rinse with! Hope many people read this so they understand the importance of remaining CALM and backing away, NOT turning and running.

  2. What a great story!!
    I love the picture of the bluebird with the grizzly!

    • Daryl Hunter says:

      Heidy, this remains one of my favorite photos even though the grizzly bear is a bit soft. I didn’t know the Blue Bird was there until I got this photo up on the computer – it was like a Christmas present 😀

  3. Paul Lueders says:

    So how long of a lens do you need for a good grizzle portrait?

    • Daryl Hunter says:

      Paul, here I was using a 400mm and it was a bit short although I still got a shot. I have since bought a 500mm but that is still to short for portraits. You really have to be able to get within 40 to 50 yards to get a good portrait, to do that requires luck and it helps when you can do that from you care which is possible in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National parks.

  4. Paul Lueders says:

    Thanks for the info on lenses. I had a somewhat similar experience with bear spray, but not as severe as yours. I was shooting some elk in Yellowstone last year, and my spray went off just an itty bit. The wind carried it back into my face. That darn stuff burns like hell.

  5. Jenn Grover says:

    I am also a believer! I accidentally discharged my bear spray into my face in Yellowstone. It was clipped to my belt when I was loading my chuck box into my Jeep. The corner of the chuck box caught the spray and somehow managed to remove the safety and rotate it towards my face. Unaware of what happened, I was alarmed by the hissing sound and as I looked down towards it, it got both of my eyes. I can confirm how potent it is. I wandered to an adjacent campsite where a man there assisted me to the utility room in the bathroom and I was able to rinse my eyes for about 15 minutes. I cannot tell you how awful I looked after the event. Needless to say, I spent the afternoon finding a shower at the Old Faithful lodge and washing the clothes that had the spray on them.

  6. So glad you’re still with us!! Great story and photo!!

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