III. The Bears' Pantry

Charles Jonkel Video

Lewis and Clark had a different kind of experience with bears. I think you have to remember the times, and the place. They were coming all day, every day, through the bears' pantry. They were going by buffalo jumps, they were going by log jams that had carcasses of buffalo washed into them from the spring thaw, and the bears were concentrated along those. And of course they will protect their food, just like we will protect our food, and our vehicle, our children. So, there they were, coming upriver, right up to their necks in grizzly bears. And these were bears that had dealt with native people, and I think they had their way with native people in a lot of cases. Of course, they didn't have good weapons, and if the bear wanted to take your meat cache, or whatever, unless you were well prepared, you were better to get out of the bear's way—and "Welcome to my food, brother." That sort of an approach.

Here were bears. It was their home. It was their food cache. Their young were right nearby, and the people they'd dealt with in the past were pretty much a pushover. This was the situation they were up against. Even so, I don't think the bears were exploiting Lewis and Clark. They were defending their food; they were defending their hunting area; or whatever. Or defending the area where their young were. So day after day, that's what they were walking into. Every day they'd walk into some other bear's food cache, or walking into a place where some other bear had her young. I think it was to be expected that would happen.

Of course, they were going by buffalo jumps, where . . . I'm sure the bears . . . just like when we had boneyards east of the mountains, where ranchers took all the dead livestock in the spring out to the boneyard. These were a hundred years old, and bears would come from up to a hundred miles to the boneyard. They knew where the boneyard was, they knew when there was meat there. Plus, they could smell it from probably 10 miles away.

I'm sure they did the same thing with buffalo jumps; I'm sure they did the same thing with log jambs. They knew where there'd be food. And the humans . . . had to travel on the water, and the water was where all the bears were. They, of course, had an agenda. They had to move on upstream. They literally had to fight bears, at times, going upstream.

The prairie was not like that, and I'd like to re-emphasize that. That was the highway, and it was the bears' kitchen, and storeroom, and it was inevitable they'd have a lot of trouble with grizzly bears. It doesn't surprise me at all.

It wouldn't be the case, now. You could still use that river. A lot of people do, and it's very enjoyable. But I think it was a pretty scary thing when they went down through there.