Staring Down the Barrel of Bear Spray

By Seth Grotzke

Running in the Rocky Mountains brings its own set of challenges. Sure, everyone knows that you have to prepare for guardia, rattle snakes, and grizzly bears. That is why we regularly run with water purification tables, a simple first aid kit, and bear spray. But the problem is when a solution turns into a danger. Namely, what do you do when you get sprayed with bear spray?

Now, to be fair, I didn’t actually get sprayed with bear spray. I was merely threatened. And had the perpetrator had an itchy finger, I probably would have spent a very painful afternoon re-evaluating poor life choices. However, I was not sprayed and therefore continued to make many more poor life choices…such as running in the Rocky Mountains.

We had been spending the month at the family cabin near Big Sky, Montana and I was attempting to get in a higher volume of miles for my first hundred miler. I would wake up early and run trails, eventually finding my way back to collapse on the door step and plead with my wife to never let me be so foolish as to run in the mountains again.

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My heart rate was nearly always in the emergency zone, partly because of the elevation gain, but mostly because I was convinced I was about to be attacked by a bear. A bird bursting from the bushes. Bear. A deer standing in the road. Bear. A breeze in the pine trees. Bear. For goodness sake, just taking a trip to the outhouse was heart rate training.

One early morning I ran up the canyon in the mist and drizzle and looped around an old logging road. I skirted a mountain lake and then took a single track to the top of the mountain to an old fire tower. I had seen no one all morning, mostly because I was running in a national forest, but also because the fog had gotten thicker and thicker until I could see only a few yards in front of my face at the top. It was a good thing there wasn’t a forest fire because the warden wouldn’t have seen it coming.

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The temperature had dropped while I had been running and I had dressed in everything I had, including a stocking hat, buff, jacket, and a ninety-nine cent plastic slicker which I found floating around in my hydration vest, fortuitously stashed there for some previous excursion. The end result, which was only later explained to me, had the effect of a thrift store ninja careening down the mountain, scaring small children and their parents, had there been any in such poor weather.

It was in this moment of my altitude-dropping, singletrack-stepping, plastic-slicker-flapping flurry that I spotted a lone hiker staring off into the mist. His stationary frame was silhouetted against the low lying clouds, a picture worthy of Ansel Adams.

I was left with a choice. Do I allow this hiker to enjoy his existential thoughts and pass by with the smoothest possible grace, floating past him with barely a whisper? Or do I yell into the wind, disrupting his thoughts and the wildlife which he is possibly viewing? If I had been able to see a realistic picture of myself, I really would not have had to consider many possibilities beyond yelling, or turning around and running back over the mountain.

As it was, I decided to continue my descent and discretely cough, signalling my presence without adding verbal pollution to the beautiful scenery. The problem was that my discrete cough came out more like a throaty growl after my many miles of running. Hearing what must be an enraged bear charging down on him, the hiker swung around with the speed of vigilante and reached for his canister of bear spray, itching to gun down any poor sop foolish enough to step within range.

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I could almost hear the saloon door creak and the tumble weed bounce past. The whistling melody of the old western filled my ears. I slid to a stop. My hands went up. I said my prayers. Staring down the business end of bear mace is life changing.

Thankfully he did not take after his forbearers in the wild state of Montana where “shoot first and ask questions later” was standard procedure until well in the 20th century. I was able to see another day. Apparently, his friend had been rushed by a grizzly just a few weeks earlier and he was still a little jumpy. After today, I was as well.

Returning home, I was nearly sprayed again in the face. This time by my wife who saw me in my horrendous outfit. I just can’t win.

Be careful. It’s dangerous out there.

All photos are the author’s own.

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