Close Encounter: Black Bear Showdown

[Editor’s Note: Have you had a close encounter with nature? In this ongoing blog series, Nature Conservancy staff share their thrilling and unexpected encounters with nature. Read our stories – and then share your own!]

By Jay Pruett, Director of Conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Oklahoma

I was on vacation for about two weeks in the Canadian Rockies in July 2012. As the director of conservation for Oklahoma, hiking in Glacier National Park — the Crown of the Continent — was an opportunity to experience entirely different habitats and wildlife from what we have back home.

There was a river that ran by the lodge at which I was staying, and I walked on a trail along it, taking photos of a waterfall. One of my favorite pastimes is taking pictures of nature and wildlife, and I spotted a wildflower beside the trail. I squatted down to take some photos, and when I stood back up, there was a large black bear about 30 feet away on the trail.

Thirty feet — that’s like being at 1st and goal!

I have been within 30 yards of a mother grizzly with her three cubs — potentially a much more dangerous encounter — but this bear was really close. I stood up. When he saw me stand up, he stood up as well; to make himself look big, perhaps (it worked), or to get a better look at me.

I stood very still for a moment, and I knew I shouldn’t run. I tried to make myself look bigger by putting my arms out, and thought to myself, “If this doesn’t work, then I’ll start yelling.” But then the bear got back down on all fours. As it turned out, there was a small path that went off the trail we were on and up the hillside; he walked up that path instead of coming closer towards me.

My next thought was to get some photos, so I followed behind and off to the side of him up the trail for several minutes. He crossed a park road and headed up a valley. I stayed on the road to take pictures of him, and some rangers stopped with the crowd that was gathering. Both rangers said it was the largest bear they had seen in the park.

When I first saw the bear, my thoughts weren’t of panic; I knew not to act like prey. But it was an amazing encounter. We had happened upon each other in this moment of our normal — and very different — lives. I felt privileged to be meeting him in his habitat.

Seeing the bear transformed me from feeling like a visitor to the habitat to feeling like a part of the habitat. I loved watching him in this world that he knew, foraging, digging for ants. It wasn’t just the bear, but the bear in his whole environment that made for this incredible close encounter. I crossed from my little world of walking along taking pictures, into his world. Our planes of existence intersected each other for a moment, and I’ll never forget it.

[Image: The infamous black bear. Image source: Jay Pruett/TNC]

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  1. Loved hearing the good news. I was on the Salmon River on the Califonria side and on the other side of the river came a mother black bear and her two cubs. The cubs stopped when they spotted me as the mother (unaware) walked on ahead. The cubs came to the waters edge and looked at me curiously for a few minutes when suddently the mother returned running and looking around as she approached her young. She looked in the direction the cubs were looking (at me across the somewhat shallow part of the river). She stared at me and I stared and her and I didn’t move but I did say “love babies, love babies” in my sweetest voice. She took a few steps closer to the cubs and me. Again, I said “love babies, love babies”. She grunted as she turned and the cubs toddled off with her while they all looked back at me as if to say “bye, bye”. The cosmic vibration of the word “love” is recognizable to all living creatures, wouldn’t you say?

    1. I wouldn’t say that at all, it just makes you feel good.

  2. I had a similar a similar experience in Shenandoah National Park. I was coming down a steep, winding trail when I nearly ran right into a large black bear. It happened so suddenly. He seemed as startled as I. We made eye contact for several seconds and then he just turned and ambled off into the woods offtrail. What an experience!

  3. Black bears are for the most part herbivores and don’t see you as food. Black bears defend their cubs by shooing them up a tree and luring the antogonist away to another tree that she will climb. When black bears are scared, they climb up a tree to get away.

    On the other hand, a polar bear defends her cubs…by chasing you down and killing you….to feed you to her cubs.


  4. Bears have very poor eyesight and stand up to get a better smell and understanding of the situation and is not a threatening sign. We live south of Glacier and was appaled by your blog. Tourist, let alone a Director of Conservation, do allot of stupid things when encountering wildlife. Please do not encourage people to follow wildlife for the sake of taking pictures. Following a bear with cubs is very threatening to the mother bear. If up wind Bears can smell you from 2-3 miles. You should give them room to go their way and certainly do not follow them.

  5. i went fishing early one morning in june,2012.a regular spot just 40 yards from the road.5 mins. after getting there ,something caught my eye.i turned around,and there was a brown bear less then 8 feet away looking at me.either i scare him away ,or back into the water.i chose to back into the water.he came forward only a bit,then looked to my tackle bag.thats when i started backing up again across the stream and watch him going through my tackle bag.within the next month,we saw each other 3 more times,but never so intimately

  6. I love nature stories like these, but the people who don’t have the happy endings are not able to comment here, are they? Scary

  7. So after avoiding a potential attack, Jay decided to then follow the bear to take pictures. Not exactly the brightest decision, but a cool story nonetheless.

  8. I agree with Leroy’s comment. I think your title of this article sensationalizes this encounter. As a Director of Conservation in Oklahoma, visiting Glacier N.Park, where you knew black bears live, I’d hope you educated yourself more about them. One rule of bear country is to always make noise, be it humming, singing, talking, shaking a can of rocks, whatever, so the bear hears you coming & you don’t startle it. And following it for photos is just unnecessary intrusion of it’s territory.
    All for a photo. I briefly watched (feeling alarmed) a woman get out of her car in Jasper N. Park and walk closer and closer with her camera to a bear grazing by the roadside. all for a close up photo- and got out of there fast! Sounds grouchy but I feel that wildlife now has enough to put up with. In our area, black bears are too often shot because people can’t be bothered to secure their garbage securely enough and the bears get too close to homes. I was sitting on a friend’s deck when a black bear appeared out of a hydro transmission line clearing into the driveway, and the last thing I thought of, though I love taking photos too and took some from the deck with my zoom, was following it for a close up.

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