THE RECENT publicity surrounding a local man who was mauled by a grizzly bear in Grand Teton National Park reminds us of what an amazing force the grizzly has been in the history of the American West - even though we have progressed in recent years to Smokey Bear wearing a ranger hat.
The great silvertip grizzly, the scourge of mountain men and cowboys, was thought to be the most fearsome critter on the North American continent.The first English observer of the bear was probably Henry Kelsey of the Hudson's Bay Fur Co. In August of 1691, he and his Assiniboine guide pitched a tent at the mouth of the Nelson River in western Saskatchewan.
Kelsey wrote in his journal that he saw "a great sort of a bear which is bigger than any white bear and is neither white nor black but silver hair'd like our English rabbit."
Later, the two men ran from two grizzlies that had something else in common with the rabbit - "swiftness of foot." From a clump of willows, Kelsey allegedly killed both bears with a flintlock musket.
In 1804, Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to chart the route to the Pacific Ocean. One of their bear encounters, according to their journals, occurred on June 14, 1805. Lewis was pursued by a grizzly that "ran open-mouthed and at full speed upon him."
Lewis saved his skin by jumping into the river. He said, "These bears being so hard to die rather intimidates us all. I must confess that I do not like the gentleman and had rather fight two Indians than one bear."
Nearly all the explorers that traveled West after Lewis and Clark attested to the bear's ferocity.
There are numerous accounts of mountain men encountering grizzlies, the most famous one being Jedediah Smith, who came face to face with a grizzly near Thunder Creek, Wyo., in 1823.
According to Jim Clyman, a companion, the bear took nearly all of Smith's head in his mouth, "close to his left eye on one side and close to his right ear on the other and laid the skull bare to near the crown of the head."
Afterward, Clyman, who said, "This gave us a lisson on the charcter of the grissly Baare which we did not forget," sewed Smith's scalp and ears back on with a needle and thread. Smith, who also suffered broken ribs, resumed his journey. In March 1824, he made the first westward crossing of South Pass.
Some accounts are undoubtedly apocryphal, such as Malcolm Clarke's Montana encounter with a bear. It is said the bear lifted his scalp, knocked him down, worked him over on the ground and then left him for dead.
Allegedly, a friendly American Indian saw the dying trapper and pasted the unhinged scalp back in place with spittle and chewing tobacco.
Hugh Glass, another trapper, is said to have survived a terrible mauling at the forks of the Grand River in 1823. Glass endured close combat with the bear and then was left for dead.
When other mountain men, among them Jim Bridger, saw how lacerated his body was, they dug a grave for him. However, he was still breathing, so they waited, thinking he could not be moved. He refused to die, so they left him. But he eventually came to, and crawled 100 miles on his hands and knees, foraging as he went.
In spite of the numerous man-bear encounters, reports of bears devouring their human victims is rare.
Some people who have been close to a bear's jaws have sworn that the human odor offends the bear, which could explain why few people attacked by grizzlies are killed on the spot, much less eaten.