Into the wild

Building natural selection into your family vacation
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What could be nicer than a family trip with all three kids just before they head off to college and my wife and I become empty nesters? This, at least, was my thinking when I signed up for a three-​day, two-​night pack trip into Yellowstone Park this summer. Ride in on horseback, do some fishing, and be in nature.


It seemed like a great idea until I started researching grizzly bears. I’ve had a realistic fear of them since 1984 when I was driving through the Canadian Rockies. During a brief, roadside “pit stop,” I noticed a tree shaking 50 yards away. Out stepped a huge grizzly, and ready or not, I was back in the car. During a 1991 trip to Glacier National Park, my wife insisted on blithely sunbathing, covered in sweet-​smelling suntan lotion, by the stream where I fished. After about three casts, we were back in the car. In all, I’ve seen four grizzlies, and I don’t need a closer view. The animal’s Latin name says it all — Ursus Horribilis.

I can tell you, however, that whatever documentaries you’ve seen or stories you’ve read, your apprehension of grizzlies matures when you’re weeks away from sleeping in a tent in their domain. I had kept my concerns submerged until late June, when I told a friend about our upcoming trip. “Oh, I had some cousins who did that,” my friend said. “And they were eaten by a grizzly.” That’s when I started surfing grizzly-​related web sites.

By the time this issue comes out, our trip will have just ended, and so this column will either be my last or just so much pre-​trip anxiety. Probability favors the latter; the chances of being mauled or eaten are tiny. And there’s a lot you can do to avoid death. Be careful with food, be alert, get pepper spray, be armed, etc. But doing everything right is no guarantee you won’t end your days in a grizzly’s stomach.

On July 8, a grizzly killed a Yellowstone hiker; the first in 25 years, but the third in the area in just over a year. Days later, kayakers rescued a woman being chased into the water by a grizzly. Fun, fun, fun!

And the old joke — you don’t have to outrun the grizzly, you just have to outrun the person next to you — loses its humor when you’re surrounded by your wife and kids.

By now I’ve read quite a bit — how to recognize the meaning of grizzly posture, which pepper spray is best, which weapons are best, etc. If a bear charges, stand your ground. Don’t run. Do this, do that. If there’s a moment of truth, will I remember any of it? Yes, the Internet is a great thing. You can read and read until your nice family vacation becomes a survivalist ordeal.

Here’s my favorite passage, under the heading If a Bear Comes Into Your Tent: “This is the worst possible situation. It very rarely happens, but there are a few documented cases. A night attack usually comes from a predatory bear. If you act like prey, you become prey. Once more, don’t panic, run, or scream, but don’t remain calm. Instead, fight back with everything you have. Don’t lie still in your sleeping bag. Don’t play dead. Use the pepper spray. Make loud metallic noise. Use an air horn. Shine lights in the bear’s eyes. Temporarily blind the bear with the flash of your camera. Use any deterrent you brought with you. Unload on the bear with everything you have. Anything goes.”

As they say, anticipating vacation is half the fun.


Douglas Heuck

A journalistic innovator, Heuck has been writing about Pittsburgh for 25 years, as an investigative reporter and business editor at The Pittsburgh Press and Post-​Gazette and as the founder of Pittsburgh Quarterly. His newspaper projects ranged from living on the streets disguised as a homeless man to penning the only comprehensive profile in the latter years of polio pioneer Dr. Jonas Salk to creating a statistical means of judging regional progress that has led to similar projects across the country. Heuck’s work has won numerous national, state and local writing awards. His work has been cited in the landmark media law case “Food Lion vs. ABC news.”

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