“Bet she is. It’s going to be trouble, REAL trouble.”
“Yep. It’s Saturday.”
And with that the two park rangers quickly ran to their vehicles, spinning tires as the rubber struggled to catch on the dry dirt road. Dust clouds billowed in the warm October air and the 12 or so of us that were left stared at each other in bewilderment. Finally someone said—“She must be headed to the highway!”
The “She” in question is a gorgeous, golden grizzly affectionately known as Blondie. Officially she’s Bear #793 of Grand Teton National Park, one of the legendary grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek. And, yes, the term affectionate can be used in the same sentence as Grizzly!
We spent several hours watching Blondie as she traversed back and forth over the open meadow near Pilgrim Creek. She was looking for food—and lots of it. With winter approaching, she needs over 20,000 calories a day for hibernation fat storage. Finding food is not just a necessity; it’s life or death critical.
Holding her nose high, she’d breathe in searching for some secret scent that only she could recognize. AHH, there it is, her body seemed to say, and off she’d go to the source. In three seconds her claws would dig a hole deep enough for her nose, face, shoulders and almost half her 300-pound body. Then, with her rear-end pointed skyward, she’d inhale whatever delicacy she discovered and soon be off again. It was mesmerizing.
And now, she’s headed west to the highway, but not just any highway. Blondie’s path is taking her straight across the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Parkway, the MAIN transportation artery through Grand Teton National Park. “Bear Gridlock” is about to commence.
By the time we reach the highway the park rangers have the growing crowd somewhat under control—even though you can’t see Blondie yet. RVs, trucks, SUVs, cars, trailers, motorcycles are parked with all wheels off the road and the white line showing. Most drivers have NO IDEA what they are waiting for; they just know that something must be about to happen. And the drivers passing through slow to evaluate the situation. Actually that very thing is one of the main behaviors in the park—The Stop/Don’t Stop Dilemma. You are driving down the highway and you see a parked car, what do you do? Ask what’s going on? Check to see if any cameras are out (Cameras are a sure sign you need to stop.)? Go ahead and stop just in case? Continue on and regret that you didn’t stop? This vehicular dance of indecision can block traffic for miles.
So, here is the scene, a long single line of vehicles snaking down either side of a wilderness highway with drivers continually parking or leaving as they make their stop/don’t stop decision. The east side of the highway is lined with all the drivers and passengers of the parked vehicles and EVERYONE is looking to the east with high powered lenses, binoculars or just plain bifocals. And the traffic slows to a crawl as the rangers try to keep all the human participants safe from their fellow humans; no need to even consider bear danger at this point.
And then, suddenly, the subject of all this consternation arrives. Blondie ambles through a grove of Aspens about 200 yards from the highway and the cameras start clicking. She continues sniffing the air, digging her holes and eating her fill. It’s amazing watching her lumber toward us. Impossible to believe that with very little effort she could cover the distance to us in about three seconds and have enough power to slash through every person there—a disquieting thought and reminder that in nature’s beauty, danger is always present.
As Blondie’s traverse takes her toward the crowds, crowds she is seemingly oblivious to, people and vehicles must be moved. After all, this is not just Blondie’s habitat; it is her home! In all things, SHE has the right of way. And, the park rule is you must maintain a 100-yard distance from bears.
Then, as vehicles are parking and re-parking, she suddenly turns west, following her nose across the highway. Her claws click when she pads across the asphalt and “Bear Gridlock” is now total. Traffic and people stand still—a little bit in fear, a little bit in curiosity and a whole lot in wonder, awe and respect. After all, how often do you get the opportunity to admire up close and personal one of the greatest predators on the planet—in her native habitat? Blondie’s very presence should humble all of us watching into a respectful attitude of honored guests in her home.
What is it about the natural world that commands such awe and wonder? Perhaps it’s something as simple as Blondie’s single-mindedness in her quest for food, which appeals in our complicated over-“optioned” world. Or, perhaps it is the amazing way that all of nature fits together like a handcrafted puzzle—with even the bits that are ghastly and gruesome having a defined place. Perhaps nature reminds us that there is a master craftsman in charge that is loftier and more omnipotent than the human spirit.
Blondie’s escapade continues on the other side of the highway with little thought to anything but the siren call of food. She reminds me of the joke about why the chicken crosses the road—or in this case, “why did the grizzly cross the highway?” I am sure, if asked, Blondie would simply reply, “What highway?”