Of Marmots And Men: Bear Scare in The Tetons

When all the dust has settled, when all the photos have been sorted, when all the stories have been told, the most memorable part of our Grand Teton National Park hiking adventures will be The Day My Husband Saw The “Bear.”

O'Neal's Col605 Bear Scare 7-15
Author Sally O’Neal in the Tetons.

The Bears of Grand Teton
Grand Teton National Park, located in northwestern Wyoming, is home to populations of both grizzly and black bears. During the peak tourism months of summer, the bears mostly stay out of the way of visitors, as the traffic on trails and around major lakes and other park attractions provides the wary omnivores ample warning of human presence. During winter, the bears are safely denned up in hibernation. But during spring, as they come out of hibernation, and fall, as they prepare for hibernation, bears can be a real danger to the unaware hiker as they roam the meadows and mountainsides in search of food.

When we arrived to visit the park in early May 2015, bear emergence was in full swing. Warning signs were everywhere, both literal signs posted in the park and not-so-subtle “signs” such as the fact that outdoor trash cans, even those in the upscale Teton Village well outside of the park, were the sturdy, metal, bear-proof variety with heavy hinged lids. The souvenir shops in nearby Jackson hawked T-shirts and mugs with slogans such as, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Except bears. Bears will kill you.”

Other Creatures, Great And Small
In addition to bears, the park’s mega-fauna include moose, elk, and bison, any of which can also be dangerous if startled or separated from its calf or its herd. Yet part of the joy of hiking the Tetons is wildlife viewing. So while we took the bear warnings seriously, wearing canisters of pepper spray on our hips and giving audible warnings (“HEY, bear!”) as we hiked, especially around blind corners and near noisy creeks or waterfalls, we continued to hike and to enjoy communing with nature. Besides the moose, elk and bison we were able to view from a distance during the course of the week we spent there, we were also treated to many sightings of coyotes, foxes, marmots, pikas, and birds of prey.

Moose tracks the size of dinner plates.
Moose tracks the size of dinner plates.

Close Encounters
But things got a little scary on a difficult 4.5-mile hike above String Lake. A relatively easy hike in high season, much of the route was covered in snow the day we hiked it. It was slow going, some places slick and treacherous, others so soft we “post-holed,” sinking in past our knees. After the first mile and a half, we didn’t see another soul. We did, however, see plenty of bear scat and moose tracks the size of dinner plates.

On a steep hillside, approaching a blind corner, we startled a moose cow. She was gaunt and scruffy, about the size of a horse. She was eating. She was less than 20 feet away from us, and had no interest in moving. We were too far from the trailhead to return the way we came, and the terrain was too steep to go around her. We waited her out, and eventually, she moved. There was no calf nearby, and we were safe, but even more vigilant.

Finally, we descended out of the snow. We had about a mile to go and were feeling tired, but pleased. The trail opened up a bit and flattened out. Visibility was better. To tell the truth, I was secretly hoping we WOULD see a black bear or two, safely in the distance.

I thought I got my wish when my husband suddenly said, “BEAR!” He didn’t scream it like a little girl, and he didn’t run, but he did start walking very briskly, Charlie-Chaplin style. I glanced where he had been looking, simultaneously saying, in a firm but calm voice, “MIKE. DON’T RUN….” As my eyes registered the furry orb a mere 15 feet away, head-high, I completed my sentence: “…IT’S A MARMOT.”

A BEAR-ly scary marmot.
A BEAR-ly scary marmot.

The Marmot of Truth
You might wonder how a 10-pound rodent could be mistaken for a 300-pound bear. This particular marmot was facing us, such that its shoulders and forebody appeared round, brown, and large, and its pale little face appeared, at a glance, to be the “nose” belonging to that basketball-sized “head,” its eyes the nostrils. I guess you would have to have been there, as the saying goes, but that little dude DID look quite a bit like a bear’s head poking over a rock.

I didn’t laugh—much.

Cruising on adrenaline from our “near-death experience,” we covered the last mile in record time and headed back to Teton Village for a much-needed adult beverage. We planned the following day’s hike in a little more populated area.

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Have any of our Guide Outdoors Readers ever come across something in the wild that they discovered later was not what it appeared to be? Any sightings of Bigfoot out there!

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