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Tea with the Grizzlies

by Richard LeBlond

In the early morning of Saturday, August 12, 1967, two young women were killed by grizzly bears in Glacier National Park. The killings took place in different areas but happened within a few hours of each other. It was the first time that bears had killed anyone in the park’s history, and the two incidents led to a comprehensive national review and restructuring of bear management on public lands.

Though the killings were not directly related, odds argued against purely coincidental events. Garbage was determined to have played a role at one site, and campers’ food at another. Lightning strikes were also considered as a possible influence. That night, more than a hundred “ground strikes” had been observed by fire lookouts in the tinder-dry park. By Saturday evening thirty separate fires had been reported, and crews were already fighting 13 of them. It was, and maybe ever will be, the most terrible day in Glacier’s history. (Those interested in learning more about the bear killings should read Night of the Grizzlies by Jack Olsen. A strong stomach is required.)

The months of July, August, and September 1967 were the driest in 53 years of record-keeping at park headquarters in West Glacier. By the end of the fire season, 35 fires had been fought and suppressed inside the park, with the number of acres burned greater than in the previous 31 years combined.

August 12 marked the beginning of a war. The park shut down its normal operations, and tourists were kept out. Most able bodies joined fire crews. Park wives and secretaries operated around-the-clock dining halls. The Forest Service supplied smokejumpers and aerial tankers (“retardant ships”), while the Air Force provided helicopters. Native American fire crews flew in from reservations as far away as New Mexico and Alaska. I was sent to a fire so remote we had to be flown in by helicopter and let off on a ridge top in Canada.

I had arrived in the park that May after successfully applying for the entry level position of personnel management specialist. Within a day or two after Saturday’s wholesale incendiary, I was assigned to the crew that would fight what became known as the Gardner Peak fire. It was in a remote wilderness very close to the Canadian border and the Continental Divide, above Upper Kintla Lake. There were no roads or human trails to the area.

The attack team consisted primarily of two Native American crews, one from Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico, the other from a tribe in Alaska. Each crew had the manpower equivalent of an army platoon, and was divided into squads. Although the hierarchy of the unit was theoretically based on government job qualifications, the actual hierarchy was based on tribal structure. Discipline is more easily achieved when the chief is the foreman. It echoed the contrived structure of the park’s own management, where the majority of supervisors — superintendent, division chiefs, and their assistants — were former World War II Army officers.

The Gardner Peak fire had started on the south slope of a mountain whose summit was in Canada. Because of the remoteness and difficulty of access, we were brought in by troop helicopters to the mountain’s summit, a flat-top ridge. From there we hiked down rocky escarpments, across unstable scree slopes, and through the fire itself to reach the unburned area below it.

The fire was only smoldering at the moment of our audacity, but red coals were launched as our boots scudded through the ashes. While crossing the avalanche-prone scree slopes, I wondered what I had gotten myself into, and in the coals I found out. As in war, the individual life had to cede its value to the cause.

Our first task on reaching the valley floor below the fire was to build a base camp. This included construction of a small landing platform for a two-person helicopter. The troop helicopters that had brought us to the top of the ridge were too big to service the base camp. The plan was to have the larger helicopters drop off supplies on the ridge top in Canada, with the smaller copter shuttling from ridge top to base camp. That plan went into effect the morning of the next day, and I was chosen to be airlifted back to the top of the ridge to assist in the unloading of the larger helicopters, and the loading of the smaller one.

The small helicopter lifted me to the nascent alpine supply depot about mid-morning. The pilot then flew off to the staging area closer to park headquarters after telling me he would return with the larger helicopters. He was gone a while, and then a while more. In fact, I did not see him again the rest of that day. I was at the verge of a strange interlude.

It was sunny and, for the duration of that day, I likely had one of the most spectacular views of anyone in the world. I was at the southern edge of Akamina Ridge, most of which is in British Columbia. Well above treeline, my companions were the neighboring mountains, Upper Kintla Lake, and small ridge-top glaciers sitting in their cirques. I had a lunch, and was dressed warm enough for daytime conditions in an area that freezes every night of the year.

While waiting for helicopters, I made short forays into the adjacent alpine habitats. An Alaskan would know this place well, with its ice-carved topography and gravel beds sparsely peppered with ground-hugging arctic plants. The day wore on to late afternoon, and I began to think of other things — about why the helicopters had not returned, about food, about nightfall, and whether I had been forgotten. Most of all I tried not to think about bears. Grizzly bears. It was only a couple of days after the horrors of August 12.

I was in what was more-and-more becoming part of primary grizzly bear habitat. In our conquest of the continent, we had driven the grizzly out of the plains and foothills and higher up into the mountains. It had reached the realm of the mountain goat. This top predator will even kill and eat a black bear.

The beauty around me began to fade, not only from the sun’s descent, but also from my predicament. I was without options. My fate was entirely in the hands — or paws — of others. I had no food, radio, weapon, or nighttime insulation and was probably the most frightened I had ever been. Would the grizzly find me warm or frozen? The value of my life seemed to have bottomed out.

I tried not to dwell on what had happened to the two young women who had been mauled and killed. But I had already seen the results of a bear mauling, on the face of a young man who had come into my office in West Glacier. He had been mauled by a bear when he was a boy, and his face looked like it had been put back together by Picasso. It was difficult to look at him, yet impossible not to, like passing a car wreck.

Even worse for my consideration was the face of one of the park’s naturalists. It had burned when a prairie fire he was fighting had quickly reversed direction. His face had been burned off, and he was now, in 1967, several years into its reconstruction from other parts of his body. He needed frequent surgery just to remove hairs growing inside the flesh that remained where his face had been. Even his ears were gone. Yet here he was, working every day and, in the summer, interpreting the park’s resources for the tourists. He had their rapt, morbid attention and might have been the best thing that happened to them that trip, whether they knew it or not. Because of his public exposure, he had to retell frequently the story of the worst moment of his life. I could not resist asking him, either. He told the story calmly. Three months into my park service career, I was growing up quickly.

Then the sun set, and I was truly and righteously afraid. I figured I could not possibly have been forgotten and for some reason had been abandoned. It must have been a humdinger of a reason.

And then I heard a low rumble in the direction of the Kintla lakes. It was the most beautiful sound, the engine of the helicopter that was bringing back my life. It was one of the larger copters, and it landed on the ridge top about a hundred feet from me. I thought it was going to pick me up and take me somewhere, but instead it had brought provisions. And what provisions they were — a sleeping bag, a tent, enough food to feed eighty people for a week, and the school teacher who was going to cook it.

We unloaded the helicopter, and it returned to its base of operations. The cook told me the cause of the delay was a logistical problem involving the food supplies, but he didn’t know what that problem was.

Among those supplies was a crate full of Lipton Tea. I later learned that after I had been airlifted to the ridge top, members of the Alaska fire crew went on strike, refusing to man the fire lines until they had their cups of tea. I was never able to confirm that the psychological adventures of that day were spawned by an emergency tea run, but the evidence suggested that I could have been among the strike’s collateral damage.

With what little light was left, the cook and I set up the tent, built a fire, and ate like kings. Next morning, the supply helicopters arrived early, and my life returned to normal on a ridge top in Canada that was apparently too high even for grizzly bears.

Copyright © 2014 by Richard LeBlond

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