Bear Crazy: The Story of the Search for 399
Some of you might be familiar with the TV program StormChasers.
It’s a reality show that follows a group of quirky geography geeks as they seek to drive their, essentially, homemade tanks into the path of tornados in order to gather critical research data – and, lets be honest, get close to what they love.
Having Jill, the resident geography geek, in our home means this show is must see TV.
But when I was visiting Jackson Hole in the spring of 2013, I had a real life experience that was eerily reminiscent of StormChasers. (Don’t worry Jill, I didn’t see a twister without you). Call it BearCrazy, the real life adventure that I can’t believe hasn’t been turned into a reality show yet.
Jackson, sitting on the southern border of Grand Teton National Park, is a melting pot of bear loving tourists, libertarian animal watchers, hyper-driven wildlife photographers, and bear groupies. Yes, there are such things as bear groupies.
And each of these quirky and decidedly awesome people have but a singular focus: find grizzly bear 399.
Now I’m no stranger to the chase for 399, with Jill and I having spent several days in hot pursuit of the national park’s matriarch. But I’m also more of a Yellowstone bear groupie, just knowing its resident bruins a bit better.
Yet, as I found myself in Jackson for a speech with the Murie Centre, I also felt the allure of finding the grand old bruin, who reportedly had just given birth to three cubs of the year (something she does with remarkable consistency).
My host for the event was good friend and colleague Jon Mobeck and being the good friend that he is, he kindly offered to drive me into the park in search of the bear. He had no idea what he was getting himself into.
You see, to my utter shock, Jon wasn’t a member of the 399 possy. Why live in Jackson and not watch grizzlies every day is beyond my comprehension, but to each their own, I suppose. (Yes, I realize I’m the odd one here.)
As we set north, I tried to prepare Jon for what was ahead of him. A beautiful grizzly, sure, but also some rather eclectic people as well. I’d tell you the back stories of each of our heroes, but I’d frankly need a book to complete the task and who has the time for that? (Well, me, so you might have to stay tuned for that one.)
As we pulled onto the gravel Pilgrim Creek road, there was a line of maybe fifty parked cars, with no one acting particularly excited. 399 had yet to be found, but the belief was she was in the neighbourhood. And if the bear was close, this group would wait her out. For days, if needed.
We added our car to the line of vehicles and prepared to join the wait, because trust me, waiting is half the fun.
You can stay put and stare into the trees, or you can join the gathering of people in what must be like kids waiting for their favourite sports hero to appear outside of a stadium.
Delirious excitement from those desperate for a look at 399 mingled with the aloof restraint shown by regular photographers so use to seeing the bear, they could take or leave the viewing (by which I mean take it, since they were spending an entire day camped out on a road).
And while the road had its perks (view of the Teton Range), it also had its drawbacks. Like dust. (Why do I always stake out locations on gravel roads?!) Like Mosqitos. (See previous comment.)
And it was hot. Really hot.
It was so hot, in fact, one lady decided the best course of action was to sit in her vehicle. With the windows up. With the A/C blasting. With the car running. For hours. Global warming be damned! (What really amazed me, aside from her complete lack of regard for nature or the people standing beside her vehicle, was that after six hours of waiting, she didn’t run out of gas.)
By sitting in the car, she missed the usual tall tales and ego measuring contests (You should have seen this one bear: Massive. 800lbs. If only I wasn’t photographing a cougar on the other side of the road, I would have had the photo of a lifetime!)
She also missed a local bear watcher trying to set Jon up on a date with a resident photographer. This may have been partially my fault and it might have resulted in Jon having to take a two hour “bathroom break” to avoid said photographer after what must have been the most awkward introduction in history. (“X, this is Jon.” Silence. Devious smile. “X, you like men, right?” Nudge. Silence. More smiling. “Jon, you’d like marry X, right?” Silence. Exit Jon.)
And she missed the Staples Man.
A gentleman, roughly in his mid-fifties, sporting a wicked combover, and visiting from Mississippi, decided to join of circle of eccentrics. Whenever a gap in the conversation would occur, he’d immediately try to fill it with pointless story after strange comment. But whatever, he liked bears, so he was family.
However, I think even families draw a like in what they discuss with each other.
When one member of our group offered his fellow sweaty compadres a root beer, the gentleman from Mississippi stepped forward.
“You know, I love pop. But I can’t have it. Nope, can’t drink it at all. Why? Because I just had my tummy stapled. If I drink that now, wooeee, don’t stand down wind! Nor, sir. That is some fowl smell I produce with pop. And the doctors tell me my staples might burst! My staples!” (If anyone reading is a Seinfeld fan, it was very similar to Elaine’s dingo outburst…but it wasn’t a joke.)
The stunned silence that ensued quieted even the constantly chirping uinta ground squirrels.
To fill the silence, the southern gentleman went on to share the play-by-play of the surgery (which was filmed and he had available on DVD, in case we wanted to watch), a description of what would happen if his staples burst, and ended the commentary on a, um, sour note with, um, a certain, unfortunate body function.
“Whoops! See, it does smell bad! I knew I shouldn’t have had that pop. Hopefully my staples don’t burst!” said the Staples Man.
This, my friends, is a TV show that writes itself.
But before anyone could process this strange, strange moment, everyone simultaneously received a text: 399 is out, down the road.
You’ve never seen what has now become 75 cars move so quickly in your life. And I swear they all did u-turns on a dime. Austin Powers this wasn’t.
Off we went, the mass caravan, to see 399.
And sure enough, one gravel road over, 399 and family is working her way toward the road, through a field of wildflowers. The only negative is that the sun has just set and darkness is setting in.
But spirits won’t be dampened. Everyone’s favourite bear is healthy and visible.
The line of cars has created a break for her to cross and everyone self-manages the jam to ensure that no one blocks her path or gets too close. This is a good jam.
399 moves forward. Some people are better positioned than others, having gambled on her exact route, and the grizzly family takes her cue and threads the needle by crossing in the opening. This is one smart bear and one bear very well equipped for dealing with people.
A day’s worth of waiting pays off. Staples Man was in the perfect spot and during his one day in the park, bested even the professionals. He’s weird, but he gets a hug for his efforts. In fact, it’s high fives and hugs all around.
Most of 399’s loyal followers have been up since 5am. Waiting. They’re bitten, burned, dirty and now equipped with stories that they’ll never be able to erase from their brain. But it was all worth it.
And tomorrow? Every last one of them will be back out to do it all over again.
That’s bear crazy and you can’t help but love it.
Tags: 399, ghost bear photography, grand teton national park, grizzly bears, national parks, nature, photography, simon jackson, storm chasers, wildlife photography, wyoming