By DAVID REESE, MONTANA LIVING
Even after hiking 6,000 miles and seeing over 1,000 bears in the last six years, Tim Rubbert still gets a charge out of seeing grizzly bears.
"Every time I see one, it's like seeing your first one," he said.
Rubbert is a bear naturalist and photographer who is passionate about grizzly bears - watching them safely from a distance, studying them and photographing them.
Rubbert has dedicated his life to learning more about bears, and teaching others about them.
He was involved in a bear mauling in Glacier National Park in September 1993, with friend Jim Cole. Rubbert and Cole were hiking in the Fifty Mountain area when they surprised a sow grizzly that had been sleeping in the bushes just off the trail. The grizzly charged, attacking Cole, who was hiking in front of Rubbert. The bear went for Cole's head, taking out a large patch of scalp. When Cole put up his arm to protect himself, the bear bit Cole's wrist, breaking it, and took another bite at Cole's hip. Fortunately, Cole was wearing a camera bag on his hip, which protected the bear from seriously injuring him there.
It was then that Rubbert stepped in and hit the bear with pepper stray. The bear fled.
Since that incident, Rubbert has perhaps been one of grizzly bears' greatest allies by helping to educate people about safely hiking in grizzly country.
He tries to educate people about bears, to dispel the myths that bears are carnivores waiting for the next human meal.
"The bear we encountered reactly simply in self defense. Bears aren't monsters," Rubbert said. "It's humans doing stupid things that get them into trouble."
He gives free slide shows and leads weekly interpretive hikes during the summer at Whitefish Mountain Resort, educating people about living and hiking around bears. For people wanting to learn more about black bears and grizzly bears, Rubbert's interpretive talks are a great place to start.
Rubbert, a tall, lanky man with bushy grey beard, strides down the Danny On trail at Big Mountain, a long camera lens dangling from his neck and pepper spray at the ready on his hip.
Rubbert's personality seems a bit of a mix between Steve Irwin, the late TV personality from Australia, and a Montana mountain man.
Walking near a large patch of horsetail, a whispy ground cover that bears love to eat, Rubbert stopped suddenly to point it out to the other hikers. "Just look at that stuff! Man oh man you can see why the bears have been in here!" Rubbert said excitedly. He was referring to several black bears that have been seen in the Big Mountain village area in the last few weeks.
On his weekly hikes on Big Mountain, Rubbert gives people clues into how to avoid a close encounter with a bear. He looks at things like ravens flying overhead, which could indicate a carcass nearby, something that might attract a grizzly bear. He'll also show you the many kindsof foods to look for, from huckleberries, to biscuitroot and dandelions.
At the beginning of Rubbert's interpretive hikes, he takes participants through the Big Mountain Education Center at the Summit House. There, people can see black bear and grizzly bear taxidermy mounts that give you a general idea of differentiating between the two species. He describes grizzly bears as having a "two-unit" head, where the snout and the rest of the face are quite distinct. A black bear, meanwhile, has a "one-unit" head, Rubbert says, where the snout and the face blend together.
Rubbert is accompanied on the hikes by Trina Starker, an activities coordinator on Big Mountain. Starker helps explain to people the different kinds of flora found along the Danny On Trail.
"The hikes are a chance to get a small taste of everything that's out there in nature," Starker said. "We try to give people a whole view of our environment. People find the littlest things amazing to them, things that we might take for granted.
"It's a good reminder of how wonderful everything really is here."
When trying to figure out if you're in grizzly country, Rubbert helps people look at other natural clues, too, like the amount of food available. Kneeling on the trail, Rubbert examined a patch of glacier lillies, a favorite food of grizzly bears. The lillies are a telltale plant, about six inches tall with bright yellow flowers. On hikes in Glacier National Park this spring, Rubbert has already seen diggings of glacier lillies, which would indicate that a grizzly bear has been present. On one hike, Starker and Rubbert discovered an old stump that a bear had recently torn apart, looking for ants.
Aside from Rubbert's educational information about bears, the Danny On Trail in itself is a wonder to behold so close to town. The trail winds through shadows among old-growth timber and along high alpine mountainsides that in the winter are a skier's playground. The trail crosses tiny streams that flow down the ski slopes among the wildflowers.
RUBBERT has had to use pepper spray on a bear only one time since his 1993 attack in Glacier National Park. "That tells you something about the true nature of bears," he said.
Rubbert says there are only two instances where pepper spray should be used on bears. The first is when a bear is charging. The second is on a bear that, for instance, is in camp and won't leave.
While grizzly bears are dangerous when encountered with cubs, it's black bears that have caused more injuries and deaths in the United States, according to Rubbert.
A professional photographer, Rubbert has about 5,000 images of grizzly bears and black bears, from Glacier National Park to Denali in Alaska. The images show the bears in their element, from hanging out on the driving range at Iron Horse golf club in Whitefish, to a sow grizzly dragging a bison carcass into the trees in Yellowstone National Park.
Rubbert tries to hike at least 100 miles a month in Glacier National Park. Even in winter, he can be found searching for mountain lion kills in the North Fork of the Flathead. Grizzlies that don't hibernate will find the kills, and Rubbert tries to be there to photograph them.
He has only one more hike in Glacier National park to complete before he can say he's hiked every trail in the park. Funny thing is, after five years of doing his interpretive hikes, he's never seen a grizzly on Big Mountain. He remembers the first day that the Walk in the Treetops suspended bridge tour on Big Mountain, opened a few years ago. There was still some snow on the ground when Rubbert climbed aboard the hanging boardwalks. When he got off the boardwalk, he found grizzly tracks in his boot tracks.
"If I'd just looked down I would have seen him!" he said.
He finds grizzlies where he can. Sometimes in his backyard at his home south of Whitefish.
"I just want to learn as much about the grizzly as I can," he said. "The power that grizzlies project is something awesome. You make a connection to what real wildness is all about."