Of God and Grizzly
By Skip Tate
We’re halfway up the hillside when we first see the footprints. Grizzly bear. The dirt around the edges of the prints is still loose, not compacted by the recent rain, meaning the tracks are fresh. Meaning the bear is here. Somewhere. Somewhere close.
Your senses tend to sharpen in the wilderness. Your vision gets clearer. You smell the pines, the mud, the decaying leaves. You hear sounds that otherwise wouldn’t register. Your senses tend to sharpen even more when there’s a grizzly bear nearby. Your heart also tends to beat just a little bit faster.
“The Forest Service says you should wear a bell or talk or make noise so a bear will hear you and run away,” says Leon Chartrand, our group’s leader. “That’s exactly what we’re not going to do.”
We continue up the hill, slowly, stopping frequently to search for other signs—broken twigs, snagged fur, scat. As we emerge from the woods into a clearing, Chartrand puts an end to the search. We have, he determines, reached our classroom. Priorities prevail.
Chartrand is a visiting professor of theology and is leading 12 of us—10 undergraduate and two graduate students—in a theology course through the wilds of Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. The course’s focus is on experiencing nature as primary sacred and sacramental reality, something that isn’t going to happen sitting in Alter Hall.
[Watch an audio slideshow of the trip]
He pulls the group together and explains the day’s lesson, then sends us out to private spots in the area to craft a daily reflection paper. In more Jesuit terms, we are trying to find God in all things, and for the moment, at least for me, that thing remains the grizzly bear.
After a few minutes of trying to focus on the day’s lesson, my eyes and mind begin to wander up the still-uncharted hillside to the top of a ridge, where the bear is. I have to know what’s beyond it, so that’s where I go. I put down my notebook, pick up my backpack and begin walking up the hill.
The ridge, I discover, opens up to a large, open field dotted with patches of trees. Fresh bear scat litters the ground. Nothing stands between me and the woods that continue about 100 yards to the north. I stand there at the edge of the field, alone. I feel open, exposed, vulnerable. I look around but can’t see anything. But I can sense it. The bear is here. Somewhere. Watching. Watching me.
Grizzly bears have a notoriously ruthless and arguably unfair reputation. They tolerate wolves (and are mutually tolerated) but otherwise have no real enemies except for man. Mostly, they are solitary creatures that avoid contact with humans. The occasions where bears attack people are almost always for defensive purposes, either of themselves, their cubs or food. Our failed relationship came about not because bears started infringing upon our territory, but because we infiltrated theirs.
In the early 1900s, nearly 100,000 grizzly bears roamed the lower 48 states. Today, the number is reduced to less than 1,000. The 2.6-million acre Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park corridor in Wyoming’s northwest corner is as far south as the bear now roams. The numbers are higher and healthier in Alaska and the mountainous areas of Western Canada, but even those numbers—estimated at 30,000—are only a fraction of what they once were.
Seeking solitude or pursuing profit, we started building homes in the woods or at the edges of mountains, which brought with it an open invitation for unwelcome encounters. And encounters have happened. Chartrand can bear witness to that. While researching his doctoral dissertation, he served as bear biologist for five years for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, trapping, relocating or—in the case of those bears who became conditioned to believe that food could be found near humans—euthanizing them.
At one point, as we drove through Grand Teton National Park, he pointed out a home that a bear broke into and caused extensive damage as it rummaged for food. Among its take, he says, was a bowl of Jolly Rancher candy. After trapping the bear, the homeowners started feeling remorse, knowing the animal was facing death. They started questioning if it was the right bear, hoping Chartrand would relocate it instead of kill it. Knowing bears don’t change their habits and can be dangerous if they no longer fear humans, Chartrand had to wait another 12 hours until the bear emptied its bowels, at which point he positively identified it by the undigested plastic candy wrappers in its scat. The proof was in the pooping.
For those like Chartrand, though, the bear isn’t something to be feared, but to be respected and, in some ways, awed. That’s how he felt after his first encounter with a bear while backpacking in Glacier National Park. There was no confrontation, just a revelation. “Things made sense to me,” he says. “My place in the world. My sense of connectedness to the land. The sense that the world is much bigger than my ability to understand. It was a transformative moment.”
Now, his goal is to share that same feeling with others, to show the correlation between ecology and theology. So he teaches.
“To put it into a theological perspective, consider that we’ve long identified the notion of The Holy,” he says. “Two characteristics associated with The Holy are fear and fascination. Interestingly, there’s a correlation between the fact that people are drawn toward bears because of fear and fascination.”