There is something both magical and terrifying about grizzly bears to me.

In fact, if I could choose any one particular gruesome death-by-animal, it would definitely be a grizzly. Sure, there are a few other animals that can hold their own against a squishy-fleshed hiker, but none that bring the sheer crap-your-pants panic factor that a grizzly does when you encounter one on the trail.

I searched for over a month in Alaska and it took two trips before I was rewarded with one such moment last year. I stood eye to eye in God’s country (reachable only by boat or plane) with nothing but 15 meters of air between myself and a curious grizzly. Fortunately, he had eaten his fill of salmon and lumbered off after a few tense minutes leaving three of us in cardiac arrest and with bragging rights to last a lifetime

While others were tying ridiculous bells all over themselves and their dogs, and strapping on fire-extinguisher sized bottles of pepper spray, I was rubbing salmon oil over my body and hiking alone after midnight (in the perpetual daylight) hoping to attract some attention. Yes…I am that bad at attracting bears.

Given my lack of luck in the finding-bear-adventure department, I know that my chances of spotting one in Yellowstone are probably pretty slim. Just in case, we decided to take a swing through Bear Country USA today. Essentially you pay by the car load to drive through a reserve where lots of otherwise hard to spot animals are roaming free. Zoos aren’t exactly my thing, but this was interesting enough to enjoy for a couple of hours.

We drove at a snail’s pace (with no fence between us and them) right past huge elk bulls, buffalo, wolves, and a huge assortment of other animals mixing and socializing unnaturally. It was all fun and games until we rounded the last corner and came to what should have been the highlight of the attraction…

The bears.

I couldn’t believe my eyes and almost threw my camera down in shock. Sitting just 10 feet away from the car was a giant, lumbering blob of brown fur scratching its oversized belly and smiling at us. Was this disgusting, humbled, pitiful site once a real grizzly bear? I’ll never know. This thing was the epitome of harmless and cuddly, not the beast that will hopefully one day consume me in an epic battle. For a moment, I had hoped that it was fake and mechanical, like something Disney would produce…but when it sneezed my fears were realized — this was a real grizzly.

Why wasn’t he waiting in ambush for unsuspecting tourists? Why wasn’t he raising hell with the elk? Why wasn’t he growling and threatening to flip over our van and consume everyone inside? I wanted to smack him in the jaws and say, “get a hold of yourself…snap out of it!’

To make matters worse, around the “grizzly” was a pile of half-eaten hamburger buns. Not only had they subdued this horrific creature of my destiny, they had turned it into a vegetarian. [shudder]

We quickly stepped on the gas and went off to find an animal that was less appalling to the senses. All in all, once I forgot about the “grizzly” the place was very enjoyable. I spent most of my time watching the young black bears play and climb trees.

This is why you shouldn’t climb a tree if being chased by a black bear. Good survival note!