The Perils Of Growing Up Wild

On the evening Friday, June 6, the first day of my most recent trip to Yellowstone National Park, after the sun had set and the light was fading fast, I came upon a grizzly sow and cub along the Gibbon River.  I was very happy to see them, but my delight was tempered by the fear that I was seeing the mother of triplets – and that she was down to one cub.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed watching and photographing the duo.  Given the lack of light, the photography conditions were less than ideal, as are the results.  But, because they illustrate a story, I am sharing them.


She’s a young mother, and seems a bit, well… clueless.  Seeming, even, at times, to lose track of the cub.

“Where’s my cub?”

grizzly cub playing with mama grizzly


“I’m down here, Mama!”

grizzly sow on fallen log with cub standing up under log

“Oh!  There you are!”

grizzly sow on fallen log looking down at cub beneath log

grizzly sow on fallen log reaching down to cub below the log

Eventually mama and cub disappeared from view into trees.
The next morning I returned to that area in hopes that they might be back in view.  They were!

I watched them from along the road across the river.

grizzly sow and her cug

When they started to amble down toward the river, I predicted that they would cross the river and come up the near bank and cross the road right where I was standing.  So, I walked back to where I had parked my car in a pullout and got in the car, then pulled down the road, stopping short of where I predicted they would cross the river and, ultimately, the road.

grizzly sow with cub trailing behind her

Mama bear entered the river without pause and proceeded across, while her cub hesitated on the far shore.

grizzly sow entering river with cub remaining on bank

grizzly cub on river bank

When mama bear was about halfway across the river, the cub emitted a rasping barky yelp.  Mama bear turned back and encouraged him with a huff.

grizzly sow encouraging cub to follow her into river while cub hesitates on river bank

The cub tentatively entered the river, beginning his perilous swim across.

grizzly cub swimming river - only head above water

While mama bear was able to walk through the river, the cub had to swim.

grizzly sow wading river while cub swims behind her


About halfway across the river, the cub got caught in the current and emitted a squeal of distress, at which mama bear turned to look back.

grizzly sow looking at cub being swept downstream in river current

The cub continued to be swept downstream by the current.  Mama bear stood for a better look.

grizzly bear standing up for a better look at her cub being swift downstream by current

Then she charged into the river.

grizzly sow rushes in to river in which her cub is being swept downstream in current

There are no photos of the following moments for two reasons:  1)  I didn’t want to photograph the loss of the cub.  My heart was in my throat.  2)  My view was soon obscured by trees along the near shore in the bend of the river – in the rapids.

I drove down the road to the pullout downstream, wishing so very hard that I’d see a rescue and not a cub lost.  Somehow, the cub made it to shore.  I can’t tell you if he managed it on his own or if his mama rendered assistance.  I saw them emerging from the trees and heading up the bank.  I drove back toward them, then pulled over on the opposite side of the road and remained in my car for the following photos.

The cub was visibly trembling and I could hear him whimpering – cold?  tired? scared? hungry?  All of the above?grizzly bear sow and cub on shore after perilous river crossing

He huddled close to mama and emulated her in taking some mouthfuls of grass, only to spit them out.  I hoped she’d nurse him, not just for my viewing pleasure, but also for his comfort.

grizzly bear cub seeking comfort with mama after a perilous river crossing
But, no, she ambled around, nonchalantly, seemingly unaffected by her cub’s evident distress.

grizzly bear sow

What’s a cub to do if mama won’t give him a “hug?”  Hug a tree, I guess.

grizzly bear cub hugging the end of a fallen log

With each passing moment, he seemed to recover from his ordeal and gain confidence.

grizzly bear cub hugging fallen log and looking back over his shoulder

grizzly bear cub exploring his surroundings

After a few minutes, the bears came right down to the opposite side of the road and mama was munching on grass.  No photos of that as I was busy – cars were approaching and the bears were right on the edge of the road.  I was busy vigorously waving out my window for the drivers to slow down or stop.  One other vehicle had stopped when I first spotted the bears and watched for a few minutes, but they had left before the river crossing.  So, from then until this point, I had been the only observer.  The noise of the first hard braking truck’s arrival prompted mama bear to decide it was time to exit the roadway, and the pair went up the steep bank and over the ridge into the timber.  While I was sorry to see them go, I was glad to see them departing the hazards of river and road.

I never saw them again during my 9 day visit, though I looked for them every day.  I hope that cub survives the learning curve of a mother that several photographers and bear watchers have surmised is inexperienced at motherhood – a supposition that I can’t argue with.   As I had feared when I watched them, this is, indeed, the mama grizzly bear that came out of hibernation with three cubs.  How the other two were lost I don’t think anyone can say for sure.  I haven’t heard of any eye witnesses.  Based on what I witnessed, and knowing that they’ve been crossing back and forth across that river, which has been swollen by snow melt runoff and precipitation at times, I can certainly theorize that the other two suffered the fate that this cub so very nearly did.

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