On Aug. 13, 1967, 42 years ago, everything changed for the grizzly and everybody managing the national parks where the bears live. It’s a well-known tragedy – two young women killed and partly consumed by two separate grizzly bears in two separate locations on the same frightful night, all so expertly chronicled by Jack Olson in “Night of the Grizzlies,” which might be the best-selling outdoor book ever.
I was in college at the time, spending my summers working on a trail crew in Glacier National Park. The park usually pulled us off the trails in August to fight forest fires. That’s what I was doing on that night, sitting in a fire camp on Apgar Mountain a few miles away from Trout Lake and Granite Park, the sites of the fatal maulings. All of us on the fire crew were huddled around a campfire straining to listen to bits and pieces of broken transmissions coming over our fire radios, trying to figure out what was going on, but knowing it was bad.
That is, in part, why I’m so interested in the yet-to-be-titled documentary coming soon from Montana PBS. In it, producers plan to revisit the darkest night ever in the first 100 years of Glacier Park, the bear management profession and friends and family of two young women who didn’t need to die.
One thing that happened after the first two deaths caused by grizzly bears in any national park south of Canada was a seemingly endless series of magazine articles, books and Grade D films, all painting the grizzly bear as a bloodthirsty, man-eating beast. It was even suggested that the federal government kill all the bears to make the parks safer for people.
Would this documentary be another dramatic re-enactment that does little but lessen public support for allowing the great bear a place to live?
It isn’t really a re-enactment, co-producer Gus Chambers answered when I asked that question, but more of a “look back” at what happened. “We’re not really re-enacting anything.”
He explained that, unlike most documentaries, this one will be “90 percent still photography,” both new photos and rarely seen snapshots taken by the survivors of the attacks overlain by audio drawn from recent interviews with survivors and other key figures in the attacks and the aftermath.
“We’ve interviewed all the principal people,” he explained, “and we’re trying to handle the situation as delicately as possible. They only agreed to do it because we convinced them this wouldn’t be a sensational show. The interviews of the survivors are dramatic enough.
“It’s only dramatic because the events were so dramatic,” he continued. “We’re trying not to cause more fear of bears. That’s the last thing we want to do. Lots of people have contacted us, and they’re worried about our intentions, but we’re being as careful as we can be. We’re going to make sure nobody is the culprit, especially not the bears.”
This is welcome news for people like myself who have closely followed the tenuous relationship between bears and humankind. The grizzly tends to generate drama by its very existence and has done so ever since Lewis and Clark formed the national image of the terrible big white bear of the American West.
Two-hundred years later, the image still belies the facts. Anybody who has studied the situation knows that the chance of getting killed by a grizzly bear in Glacier or any other national park is so remote that it can hardly be statistically calculated – at least compared to real threats like falls, hypothermia and drowning, all of which claim so many more park visitors.
“This is about bears and how bears need to be bears,” Chambers assured. “People weren’t letting bears behave like bears back then.”
Stay tuned for more on the upcoming documentary, which is currently scheduled to air in February or March next year.