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Night of the Grizzlies – Friend-Shaped Fiends

Bears might be the cutest apex predator. Their ability to rip you limb from limb seems secondary to how cuddly they look. People are always getting too close to these fluffy eating machines.

Adult grizzly bears can be 2.5 m (8 feet) long and weigh over 400 kg (900 pounds). They are capable of reaching speeds up to 56 km/h. Grizzlies are omnivores, and will quite literally eat anything.

That's exactly what the philosophy was in post-World War II USA. Bears are friends, and should be treated as such. Bringing them snacks and inviting them to picnics was not only common practice, it was actively encouraged by park rangers.

There's only one way this sort of behavior ends. This is the story of Glacier National Park's Night of the Grizzlies.



1960s – Safety is for Commies


The “Greatest Generation” was busy being disappointed in their counter-culture loving spawn. Money and jobs were plentiful. By the middle of the decade, the U.S. was firmly locked into what is known in the West as the Vietnam War.

Pollution wasn't really a concept yet. Nature was just this vast, unkillable, punching bag. People wouldn't bat an eye at littering, or even industrial waste being dumped.

That's why, when the National Parks Service in the USA started working on pumping up their visitor numbers, things were bound to turn ugly. Hotels, chalets, and cabins were opened to the public.

People flocked into the National Parks. The more the people came, the more they encountered bears. At first things were fine, the bears were wary of humans. People had nearly driven the bears to extinction not too long before.

After a period of peaceful interactions, the bears started to learn things about humans. Hotels would dump their leftover food specifically to feed the bears. Campgrounds were littered with discarded food and other trash. Some parks even set up bleachers (seating) around dumpsters. Guests could sit and watch as the bears came in and raided the trash.



Slowly, through a process known as Classical Conditioning, the bears came to associate humans with food. When this happens, animals lose their fear of humans. We have food for them, thus we are the easiest food source. It's animal arithmetic.


Julie Hegelson


Up until the early morning of 13 August 1967, park rangers at Glacier National Park classified their Grizzlies as a 0.5 out of 10 on the threat scale. They just couldn't believe that a bear would do anything even remotely rude.

Julie Hegelson was 19 years old, and working at the East Glacier Lodge for the summer. She took a break from work to go hiking with her friend, Roy Ducat. They walked through the spectacular Highline Trail to spend the night at the Granite Park Chalet.

The chalet was full of guests, so Hegelson and Ducat decided to sleep under the stars. After dinner, the pair stayed up a while chatting before crawling into their sleeping bags. Neither of them had any reason to fear. Nature was perfectly safe and in no way would a person ever come to harm in it.

Midnight saw an ursine visitor meander into the campgrounds. The beast was searching for snacks. It woke Hegelson up, and she in turn woke Ducat. Advising him to play dead.

The Grizzly Bear wandered over to the two teens. It started batting them around. They were knocked out of their sleeping bags within minutes. That's when the bear bit into Ducat's arm. He suppressed his screams.

The bear left Ducat and took a bite of Hegelson. She also kept her screams in. Unfortunately for her, the bear thought she was the more delicious of the two. It started dragging her away. That's when she screamed:


“Someone help us!”

Ducat ran to wake the other campers. He was bleeding profusely from his thoroughly chewed arm. The panicked campers summoned a ranger and a helicopter.

Roy Ducat was airlifted to a hospital. The ranger in charge of searching for Hegelson, delayed the search for 2 hours until another ranger with a rifle arrived. He was concerned that the bear might hurt someone else.

Led by the armed ranger, a group set off to find Hegelson. The trail of blood was easy to follow. Downhill they went, and eventually came upon Julie Hegelson lying facedown.

One of the campers was a doctor, and he attempted to stabilize her. Julie was badly mangled and partially eaten. Though still alive at the time, she wasn't long for this world.

They carried her back to the chalet, where a helicopter would soon arrive for her. Julie Hegelson died soon after they reached the chalet. Her wounds too severe. Julie's final words were:


"It hurts."

Michele Koons


Earlier that same day, Michele Koons (19) went on a hike with a group of her friends. Koons worked at the West Glacier McDonald Lodge. Her group hiked out to Trout Lake, where they were planning on spending the evening.

Shortly after arriving and setting up camp, the group was attacked by a Grizzly Bear. They fled and waited for the bear to the food they had been cooking. When the bear was done, they returned and moved their stuff to the beach.

There they settled in for a night under the open stars. Sleeping bags arrayed around the campfire in a big circle. One has to imagine there was some apprehension following the earlier encounter with the grizzly.

4:30 am, one hour after Julie Hegelson's death, a large grizzly bear entered the circle of sleepers at Trout Lake. It bit one of the boys and clawed him across the chest.

The campers woke up and scattered into the trees. Everyone except Michele Koons. The zipper on her sleeping bag had gotten stuck as she frantically tried to escape.

Her friends called to her as she struggled. The bear sauntered over and tore into the sleeping bag. It got hold of Koons and dragged her away. Michele Koons' final words were chilling:


“He’s got my arm off. Oh God, I’m dead.”

Her "friends" waited in the trees for 90 minutes before climbing down and fleeing to the nearest ranger station. There they found 2 sleepy rangers, who at first refused to believe their story.

The rangers were well aware of the events at the Granite Park chalet. Hearing the story of the Trout Lake attack seemed a bit far-fetched to them. Bert Gildart, one of the rangers, said this about the story 50 years later:


“We were all a little spooked by this time. Here’s a bear that’s pulled a girl out of a sleeping bag. What kind of a creature is this?”


Leonard Landa, the other ranger, left with Koons' friends to check out the campsite at Trout Lake. Gildart rushed up the trail after them. Once at the campsite, they spread out to search for Michele.

They found what was left of Michele Koons. Her remains were airlifted out of the park.

Gildart and Landa were feeling torn up. They went out the day after the attacks to find the bear. It didn't take them long, in fact, the bear found them.

At 4 am, nearly 24 hours after Michele's horrific death, Gildart stepped out of their patrol cabin. He came face to face with the bear, a big, mean-looking demon of humanity's creation.

Gildart called for Landa to bring the rifle, which he did just in time. The Trout Lake Terror charged at the rangers with a guttural roar. Landa had no time to aim. He fired the rifle and the demon collapsed at their feet.

Later that day, a forensic investigator came. Gildart recalled this:


“They had a big knife. They slit the stomach of this bear, and a big ball of blonde hair came out.”

Conclusion


The Night of the Grizzlies was a true horror, but not a surprise. Today we know that hand-feeding wild predators is a recipe for disaster. We learned it from tragedies like this.

Glacier National Park's rangers were well-aware that there were problem bears in the areas of Granite Park and Trout Lake. The bears had harrased people there before.

Jack Olsen, the author of Night of the Grizzlies, summed it up in his book:


“It is pure coincidence indeed that two grizzlies chose a few hours of a single night to take two victims who had much in common, but it is no coincidence at all that the year in which this happened was 1967, and place Glacier Park.”

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