Feeding the Bears – A Trip Down Memory Lane

A black bear approaching a vehicle on the road in Yellowstone, June 1967. A common sight at the time, in the years before efforts were made to keep bears and humans more distant. Photo by Jonathan Schilling via Wikimedia Commons

A black bear approaching a vehicle on the road in Yellowstone, June 1967. A common sight at the time, in the years before efforts were made to keep bears and humans more distant. Photo by Jonathan Schilling [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Back in the early 1960s, my family took that quintessential American vacation to Yellowstone National Park. It was a memorable adventure and quite different from Saturday morning cartoon fare of Yogi, Boo-boo and Mr. Ranger at Jellystone Park.

You remember the drill – Yogi was on his eternal quest to filch picnic baskets, Boo-Boo was Yogi’s conscience, warning that “Mr. Ranger won’t like that,” and Mr. Ranger was never quite at the right place and time to catch Yogi red-handed.

Yellowstone Bear Cubs Movie from IMDB
Watch a clip showing a bear jam from Disney’s Yellowstone Cubs movie on IMDb

Back then, and with brain pans softened and addled by Yogi’s adventures, the American public fully expected to have picnic baskets stolen by Yogi’s cousins, and bears were happy to oblige. Peeling aside the crust that’s built up over my original Yellowstone memories, I remember tales that bears used to deliberately halt car traffic in the park – all the better to send the cubs scampering among Chevy station wagons and Ford sedans, begging for food.

Yellowstone sign warning of bears

Critter jams and especially bear jams were a big part of my first trip to Yellowstone. Bears fed on marshmallows and Fig Newtons, slipped through narrow openings in car windows, as kids squealed and Mom worried aloud.

All innocent fun, until in one bear jam, I learned the meaning of the saying, “God looks after fools and children.”

There were a man and woman in a Volkswagen Bug, right in front of us. Traffic wasn’t moving, and the bear activity seemed to be many cars ahead, so the couple grabbed a camera, got out of the car and trotted down the road for an Eastman Kodak moment.

Both doors were left open in the car.

Soon enough, a big brown bear emerged from the woods to investigate and crawl into the back seat, where he busily started excavating and rooting around for food. That little Volkswagen started rockin’an’ rollin,’ and that’s when the male driver came back.

He was mad. He was furious. He was nuts.

“Kids,” said Dad, “don’t watch this, ’cause it could get ugly.”

Well, of course we watched.

The driver of the Volkswagen started kicking the bear, hard, right in the keister. The bear, which could have destroyed the driver with a single paw swipe, had limited room to maneuver in the back seat of the Bug, so he left through the opposite door and kept on going.

I realized that I’d just witnessed a minor miracle – a fool who wasn’t eaten alive, as he well deserved.

Bottom line: Yellowstone’s critters are not brought to you by the folks who brought you Yogi or even “Bambi.” Wild creatures are really wild and will really gore, trample, butt, bite, claw or eat you if you get too close or too presumptuous.

It could be rationally argued that visitors shouldn’t be allowed to get out of the car until they’ve read Death in Yellowstone, Lee Whittlesey’s compilation of 300 deaths, or how people needlessly died by being boiled, scalded, drowned, gored, frozen, struck by lightning, knocked off a cliff, eaten by a grizzly, shot, murdered or run over by another tourist.

You can and should have fun here, be amazed, delighted and awed.

Just be careful out there. And don’t kick bears in the butt.


Brodie Farquhar is a freelance writer living in Lander, Wyoming. He is the contributing editor to the Yellowstone Journal.


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