The Bear Who Crossed The Freeway

by Doug and Andrea Peacock
Patagonia.com Exclusive

A pale illumination creeps across the mountain meadow towards a wedge of moon just rising over the high peaks of the Gallatin Range. It is a few hours before sunrise, still cool in these early days of summer on the northwest corner of Yellowstone Park. At the base of a lodgepole pine, a grizzly bear looks out to the west. He lifts his head at the sound of a distant vehicle shattering the silence of the night.

The bear is a young male, having slept through five winters. He knows where he is going: some fifty miles southwest to the land where he was raised as a cub, a hazardous trip across major highways, open river bottoms and two small towns. To remain where he is would be precarious: it is the mating season for grizzlies. Three days ago, a larger boar attacked him and bit him viciously on the flank.

The bear rises from his bed and stretches. He moves down off the bench, across the sagebrush studded flat, toward the willow bottom and the road that runs along the river. He crouches in the tall sage while a lone vehicle passes, then breaks into a lope and dashes across the asphalt, down the grade into the willows. He pushes through to the river, wades across the shallows and continues loping all the way to the forest beyond.

Soon he is negotiating snow banks in the rolling uplands of the southern Madison Range. The high country is dotted with lakes now shedding their skin of winter ice. The grizzly, all 325-pounds of him, stops to feed; sedges emerge from the raw earth. He grazes, and then claws roots out of the snow-free ridges.

A creek tumbles west off the alpine shoulder. A hiking trail snakes along the drainage. The young male bear is accustomed to using these trails and avoiding the people who walk them. Humans don’t hike much at night.

The grizzly descends in darkness through the forest towards the open valley bottom. At dawn, he beds nearby under a pine tree, where he can look out on the valley. Vehicles race by on Highway 287; a few boats drift down the Madison River. He knows he must wait for all traffic to subside, until the dark, quiet hours after midnight. People shoot grizzlies on sight here.

The void of night sky casts no shadows. The bear wiggles under a fence leaving behind brown strands of hair on the barbed wire. He dashes across the highway, steps into the river and wades shoulder-deep around big boulders. He swims a swift channel and scrambles up on the riprap on the far side of the Madison River.

His journey will now lead him south another thirty miles. The grizzly crosses another fence line and enters the sheltering forest. He prowls past darkened cabins. He pushes on southward through the morning, passing over a divide. Tonight he will be back on the old homestead.

Now it is August. The five and a half year-old bear remembers all the old places, the good ones and the spot where a sheepherder killed his yearling sister. He turns west, away from a sheep grazing allotment, and lumbers up a long ridgeline. The bear knows the country opens up considerably before the Centennials dip down to where the twin roads of the interstate run. He has never traveled that far west but he has seen the country from the mountaintop.

The days are easy. He luxuriates in the berry brush and starts raiding squirrel caches for pine nuts. He lumbers west, traveling just below the steep cliffs of the continental divide. Occasionally, he hears the whine of an off-road-vehicle. Twice, he hears the distant resound of rifle fire. He is nearing the western edge of his mother’s home range. On the other side of the Table Mountains lies terra incognito.

One crystalline day, he looks out across the huge valley where the iron rails and twin roads run to the snowcapped peaks of the Bitterroot Range fifty miles west. There must be plenty of pine nuts in those mountains, berries in summer, and lots of grass and roots the rest of the year. Maybe there are other grizzlies, too. He will keep going. He will find a den on the other side of the valley.

The bear charts a route down timbered ravines and willow-bottomed creeks to the flats below. A light snow begins to fall. He starts out at dusk. The snowflakes thicken. He can hear a few trucks traveling I-15.

By midnight, the country levels out. The grizzly reaches the iron rails. The freeway lies on the other side. Only a vehicle or two pass by every five minutes but link fences make darting across the pavement impractical. Instead, the bear follows the tracks south into a basalt-walled gorge where no fences run. The railroad continues south but the small canyon turns west and runs below a freeway bridge to the country on the far side. Fresh deer tracks lead into the ravine. He follows the hoof prints.

The bear crosses under the freeway. He plows into the enveloping whiteness, the gathering drifts tugging at his hips, on towards the hills beyond. Before long the grizzly has entered a spruce forest. The drifting snow covers his tracks.

Excerpted from The Essential Grizzly: The Mingled Fates of Men and Bears by Doug and Andrea Peacock (Lyons Press 2006).

Click here to see a map of the bear's journey.