Ursus Horribilis In Extremis

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Far more implausible to me, though surer of documentation, is the saga of Hugh Glass, the doughty Scot who survived a terrible mauling at the forks of the Grand River in 1823. Old Hugh, an advance man for William H. Ashley’s beaver trappers, apparently ran afoul of a she-grizzly out foraging with her cubs. By most accounts, it was combat at close range: Hugh with a long knife, the bear with five on each paw. Later, two companions (one, according to some chroniclers, being the young Jim Bridger) discovered Hugh’s torn and lacerated body beneath the dead bear. The mountain man was still breathing. Figuring that Glass was too far gone to be moved, and with only a few hours of life left in him, the two trappers tended his wounds as best they could, dug a shallow grave nearby, and waited for the end. But Old Hugh refused to die. Finally, fearing for their own lives in such hostile country, the two bid a last farewell to their unconscious comrade and hurried away to catch up with the rest of the Ashley party. Soon thereafter, Glass regained his senses. Racked with fever and pain, he saw the open grave, realized he had been abandoned, and vowed to have revenge on the deserters. Thus motivated, the indomitable Scot proceeded to crawl a hundred miles on hands and knees, grubbing bugs and roots and the carrion remains of wolf-kills along the way, until he reached a tributary of the Missouri. And from that point he floated by log the remaining 150 miles to Fort Kiowa. Eventually, Old Hugh confronted the two trappers, but the embers of his rage had cooled by then and he let them go. Perhaps it was enough for Hugh Glass that he had survived.

No doubt the Glass saga inspired less reliable tales of dread encounters betwen men and bears. In his classic volume The Grizzly Bear , William H. Wright concluded that much of the lore of the last century was sheer fiction. As Wright perceived it:

“[T]he old hunters and trappers, however well meaning they may be, are not to be relied upon for information that is worth much from a scientific standpoint. I well remember the first one I ever saw. He was an old, grizzled fellow, all covered with scars, which he claimed were the results of his encounters with grizzly bears, mountain lions and Indian arrows.… He maintained that he had shot grizzlies that had gone a mile or more after receiving several mortal wounds, and that, when finally overtaken, they were found to have plugged up the bullet holes with moss to stop the flow of blood.… [0]f course, we must not mix up the entirely distinct acts of lying and ‘stuffing the tenderfoot.’ When a man can neither read nor write, and lives most of his life alone on fresh venison and flapjacks, he is entitled to some amusement.”

Still, dread encounters, however embellished in the telling, were common. Before the introduction of the breech-loading Sharps rifle in 1848, Western rovers were armed with muzzleloaders. Even in the hands of a crack shot, these were pitifully inadequate tools to turn against a grizzly. The Kentucky long rifle carried by Lewis’ men had an effective range of only seventy-five yards, and it took thirty seconds to reload. In that time, a charging grizzly could cover nearly three hundred yards. Consequently, as reconstructed by Andy Russell in his book Grizzly Country , “what started as a grizzly hunt often dissolved into a spirited foot race for the nearest tree.” Russell further points out that a grizzly’s heartbeat is relatively slow; that, as a result, the animal “takes a long time to bleed out even when struck in the heart.” Thus, he adds, the hunter with a muzzleloader, even after shooting a bear through the heart, sometimes was “desperately mauled or killed” a moment later.

If any Western state was ever grizzly country-and more than a few once were—it was California. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, bears by the thousands roamed the High Sierra and lesser mountains along the coast. The Los Angeles region, for example, swarmed with bears. Trapper Andrew Sublette tangled with one grizzly in a canyon behind what is now Santa Monica and later died of his wounds. And historian Horace Bell, reminiscing in 1881 on his earlier days as a back-country ranger, recalled that “grizzly bears were more plentiful in Southern California than pigs.”

That the grizzly lasted as long as it did in California is something of a miracle, for nowhere else in its once wide domain was it pursued, baited, tortured, and slain with such unremitting human savagery. The Spanish vaqueras made a grim game of snaring a bear with their rawhide reatas, then dispatching the snarling animal with lances.