Grizzly Encounter

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Expedition Wild: Grizzly Encounters premieres Monday April 26 at 9P et/pt.

By Eric Bendick

It was a bright and sunny winter morning at the Montana Grizzly Encounter, nestled high in the sparkling snow-covered mountains above the Gallatin Valley of Montana. The better part of the last three hours had been spent filming the beginning of an event that had taken months, if not years, to finally come together.  It was the first introduction of two of the Encounter’s bears, Brutus and Jake, both large charismatic male grizzlies, the true “stars” of the upcoming “Grizzly Encounters” episode – part of the ongoing Expedition Wild series hosted by Casey Anderson

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For many reasons, this particular morning had an “epic” quality about it.  Maybe it was the fresh snow from the night before, the stunning beauty of Montana in winter, or the perfect filming conditions with no wind.  But more than likely, the air was simply charged with the excitement of the rare meeting of these two “big unknowns” – literally, two beautiful, unpredictable, mesmerizing giants.  But would this introduction be remembered as the birth of a friendship or the clash of titans?  No one knew for sure.  All of us, at one point or another, have been the new kid showing up on the playground – but that story has a thousand possible endings; we just weren’t sure which one would materialize.

The morning shoot had gone smoothly, almost perfectly; Brutus and Jake were eased into the situation gently, separated by an electric fence buffer zone, where they could see each other comfortably without getting close enough to act out any aggression.  And, during this first, incremental “baby step” they had not displayed much behavior that raised the alarm.  All signs pointed to a successful introduction.

On the surface, a grizzly bear is not a complicated creature.  It has basic needs, environmental, social, psychological, that are not so different from many other mammals.  And throughout the last two hundred years, scientific research has explained more and more of their behavior – illuminating many of the mysteries behind hibernation, social hierarchy, and complex foraging skills.  However, the more we learn about grizzlies, the more questions we seem to uncover.   As I’ve begun to recognize, from watching bears in the wild and from conversations with people who know bears, like Casey, is that, just like humans, bears have distinct individual personalities ranging from bold to bashful.  And depending on the situation bear behavior can become extremely difficult to predict.  It was this X-factor, personality, which would be tested today as Brutus and Jake finally came face-to-face for the first time.

But with the bears back in their dens and the buffer zone being dismantled, suddenly, the sun disappeared.  An incoming cold front brought the wind up and snow began to fall in swirling, menacing squalls; the mood was definitely changing just as we were preparing to bring the bears out for their “moment of truth” as Casey called it.  It suddenly became the “moment of truth” not just for the bears (would they fight?), but also for the crew (would we get the shot we needed?), and for the show (what would happen if something went haywire?) as a whole. 

This was not the first moment, in my work as writer, producer, and occasional DJ for Grizzly Creek Films that I had felt my adrenaline surge.  In fact, to many of my family and friends, the work we did on a regular basis, backcountry filming of grizzlies on Alaska’s Kodiak Island, building a waterfall for Brutus in our backyard, and filming a pack of wolves on a fresh elk carcass in Yellowstone, was certainly a little “different” than the norm. But we seldom have moments to reflect on the work we do – we are too focused, too busy problem-solving, and too determined to let anything stand in the way of producing the show.  But, suddenly, here we were, all of us, almost in a state of suspended animation, as if someone had pushed a giant “pause” button on this moment itself, knowing the consequences of success or failure in this instant were going to be huge.

So, with the snow swirling, the radio crackling, three cameras running, and Casey and the crew poised for action, we gave the signal to release the bears.  We all took a deep breath as they crested the hill and Casey said in a calm, unhurried voice “there’s no turning back now” as the Jake and Brutus locked eyes and approached one another.  You will have to watch the show to find out what happened next! Words don’t do it justice anyway.  Suffice it to say that this was yet another moment working for Grizzly Creek Films, like many since and many still to come, that will stay with me forever.