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Home » When a Grizzly wakes you up: tales from the trail

When a Grizzly wakes you up: tales from the trail

I’ve discussed this encounter a bit already in my article about how being close to a few bears finally helped me process and get over my fears. But, today, I’d like to take a second and fully share the story of waking up to a grizzly bear walking through my campsite. 

Falling asleep in bear country ain’t easy

Photo of the Paintbrush Divide sign, elevation 10,700, in Grand Teton National Park

It was a long day of hiking – a little over 15 miles and 4,100 feet of elevation gain to go up Paintbrush Canyon and down the other side into Cascade Canyon. The elevation was pretty tough, because we’d landed just 36 hours earlier and hadn’t had a ton of time to adjust. It was getting very dark by the time we hit our campsite; needless to say, we were exhausted. 

But there’s a funny thing about fear: it’ll keep you awake better than any caffeinated beverage. I have always had trouble sleeping in bear country, because that’s when I feel the most vulnerable. Such was the case that night, when, despite one of the most tiring hikes of my life, I was wide awake, listening to every sound out of sheer terror. There are hundreds of bears in the area, and having seen a few already, I was properly freaked out.

I’m not the bravest person out there. 

I eventually did fall asleep, thanks in small part to my decision to get a second sleeping pad, but I woke up every 20-30 minutes throughout the night. Sometimes to the sound of my wife or friend shifting in their sleeping bags, sometimes to the sound of a chipmunk, and other times simply because my hip was killing me. 

But at about 5:30 AM, I woke up for a completely different reason – the one I have dreaded for a long, long time. 

Waking up to a nearby Grizzly

Green tent at a campsite in Grand Teton National Park

I never saw it, but the sound was pretty unmistakable. Alongside the sound of slow and heavy footsteps, a low, rumbly half-growl every second or two. It was a grizzly bear for sure. Not an angry, territorial, or aggressive grizzly, but a grizzly nonetheless. 

Within 5 seconds I was sitting up in my tent, clapping as loudly as I could, my bear spray sitting in my lap. My wife, who was asleep next to me, did the same and started yelling, “hey bear!”. A split second later, our best friend Tony was awake in his tent, too, clapping and shouting along. The bear heard us, and it seemed to start moving further away. We kept up the chorus for a solid 7 minutes before we decided to quiet down and listen for any more movement or growls.  

We didn’t hear anything, but we decided to keep making noise just to be sure. We were all pretty scared, so we kept on clapping and shouting ever-more abstract things like:

  • “See ya later bearhouse! Catch you on the flippity flip!” (an Office reference)
  • Singing “I’m just Ken” from the Barbie movie
  • “This juice ain’t worth the squeeze!”
  • And pure gibberish, just to keep making noise.

Around 6 AM, we got real quiet again to see if the bear was still around. It was dead silent for a bit. Then the grumble-growl resumed. This bear was still nearby – and we had no idea why! On we went, shouting and clapping until around 6:30, when we were finally convinced the bear was gone. 

I poked my head out of the tent, just to be sure – no animals in sight, and the sun starting to come up. With that, it was back to sleep for another 45 minutes or so, trying to reclaim some of the Z’s that were forfeited during our “encounter” with the unseen grizzly. 

Dig deeper: The best bear sprays

A fretful morning after

We all got a little more sleep as the sun rose, but our rest was sufficiently ruined, and we were each a little shaken by what had happened. When we finally got out of our tents, we were more cautious than we’d ever been. Had an outsider been there to see us, we would have looked absolutely pathetic – dead-eyed goobers in their mid-20s, too scared to do anything but hold onto our bear spray and look around a tiny campsite. 

I went to the restroom; so did Mary and Tony. A few minutes later, we were getting changed to get the day started. Tony saw something moving close to our campsite – I turned around to see a silver fox no more than 10 feet from us. It was, after a wild and slightly terrifying night, a pretty magical thing to see. 

Silver fox standing on a rock in Grand Teton National Park

We didn’t see any bears for the rest of the backpacking trip, nor at any other point for the remainder of our time in Grand Teton National Park – and boy was I glad that we didn’t. Later, while browsing Reddit, my wife found a story from some backpackers in Yellowstone who had a very similar encounter!

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