Fifty years ago this weekend, an unimaginable night of terror unfolded in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Shortly after midnight on August 13, 1967, a grizzly bear dragged a 19-year old woman, Julie Helgeson, from her sleeping bag and mauled her. She died four hours later at 4:12 a.m. This was the first fatality from a bear attack since the park officially opened in 1910.
Then, less than a half hour later, it happened again. Eight miles away, around 4:30 a.m., another grizzly dragged another 19-year-old woman, Michelle Koons, from her sleeping bag to her death.
Jack Olsen, at the time a senior editor for Sports Illustrated, provided the definitive account of this double tragedy in his 1969 book, Night of the Grizzlies. In 2010, Montana PBS aired a documentary titled Glacier Park’s Night of the Grizzlies, which featured interviews with living survivors of the attack, as well as with park officials and hikers who played a role that fateful night.
On the 50th anniversary of these fatalities, there are two lessons we do well to ponder.
Stewarding Creation Well
Both attacks were the result of bad stewardship. By 1967, the grizzlies of Glacier were used to scavenging food out of garbage dumps and messy campsites. They’d become habituated and lost their fear of human beings.
In the mid-1960s, hikers trekked to the Granite Park Chalet to view grizzly bears—nightly visitors because staff dumped garbage and leftover food at a site within view of the building.
Hikers Roy Ducat and Julie Helgeson planned to stay at the chalet, but it was full, so they headed to a spot about 500 yards away. Shortly after midnight, they were attacked. The grizzly eventually dragged Helgeson down the dark flank of the mountain where rescuers later found her. She died after doctors staying at the chalet tried to save her life.
Eight miles on the other side of a majestic mountain peak, Trout Lake had its own garbage problem. Hikers left behind trash and unused food, so bears treated the area like a feeding ground.
When Michelle Koons and four other friends arrived at Trout Lake late in the afternoon, it didn’t take long for a grizzly to appear. The group debated hiking out, but it was late in the day. Shortly after 4:30 a.m., the bear returned and attacked the campers and dragged Koons away.
“The incidents that night were the catalyst for the move into a whole new era of grizzly bear management,” recalls Jack Potter, chief of science and resources management in Glacier National Park. “We could no longer stand by and either actively feed or allow garbage to be left out for grizzly bears.”
Bert Gildart, a former park ranger in Glacier, remembers flying into Trout Lake a few weeks after the fatal attack. He and another ranger picked up about 17 burlap sacks of garbage left behind by campers.
Whether they realized it or not, park officials took seriously the “creation mandate” in Genesis 1:26 for humans beings created in the image of God to “rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” In fact, policies implemented in both Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks following the “night of the grizzlies” have limited grizzly attacks mainly to surprise encounters rather than predatory aggression.
Of all people, followers of Jesus Christ should take the lead in caring for God’s creation. This care takes a variety of forms—conserving, recycling, restoring, and protecting. Perhaps we shy away from these tasks because they’re complex, controversial, and frequently politicized. Consider, for example, the response to the U.S. government’s recent delisting of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Since 1975, grizzlies have been classified as a “threatened species” under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Some who care deeply for the environment believe this is reasonable. Others are outraged. Taking Genesis 1:26 seriously doesn’t land one on a particular side of the issue, but it does demand attention to such questions.
As Christopher Wright says, believers must “bear witness to the great biblical claim that the earth is the Lord’s . . . and must care for the earth as an act of love and obedience to its Creator and Redeemer.”
Still, no amount of wise stewardship and management can render creation a danger-free zone. People still drown, slip off cliffs, get hypothermia, and even face bear attacks. This leads to a second lesson from the night of the grizzlies.
Creation’s Future Freedom
Last fall, I fly fished for a couple days in Yellowstone National Park. One morning, I came across a fresh set of grizzly tracks. Thankfully, I had no bear encounter. But a week later, two fly fishers a few miles from where I’d been stumbled into a grizzly bear and narrowly escaped when it charged them. The danger remains.
Whenever I spend time in grizzly country, I follow the standard safety protocol. I make noise, pack out my garbage, avoid going alone, and carry bear spray. Then I ask God for safety. When I pray for protection, I do so mindful that everything in the outdoors is not all right. I long for the day when “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). The grizzly bear isn’t the problem. Creation’s subjection to frustration is (Rom. 8:20).
But one day, God will make his blessings known far as the curse is found. The prophet Isaiah describes creation enjoying the glorious freedom of the children of God:
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea. (Isa. 11:6–9)
Looking back 50 years on the “night of the grizzlies” prompts me to look forward to the day when the Lord’s Messiah reigns—and brings the peace and safety that presently eludes our grasp.