Jorn Vangoidtsenhoven was walking down a rutted U.S. Forest Service road just minutes from where he’d parked his camper near Spread Creek when curiosity drew him into potential peril.
“I’d just come back from a morning in the park,” he said of the Oct. 11 early afternoon incident, “and I was thinking I’d just walk around.”
Because Vangoidtsenhoven walked through the frontcountry — he even had line of sight on a gravel pit where workers were quarrying daily — he felt it was a safe spot. The track of a grizzly bear cub in the snow didn’t set off alarm bells, and he took a photo.
The professional wildlife photographer soon found himself drawn off the road by ravens, which had bunched up in the sagebrush down a hill. As he drew near, his dog, an 8-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever mix named Sophie, started uncharacteristically trailing him, with her tail between her legs, looking uneasy. It was unusual behavior for a pet that’s usually “stupid” and bold around wildlife, he said.
“She had never acted like that, ever,” Vangoidtsenhoven said of Sophie’s body language. “She must have known something was up.”
The combination of smells emanating from a carcass and grizzlies just out of sight must have stirred up some primordial instinct to flee, he said, because Sophie then took off.
But Vangoidtsenhoven, without the benefit of a canine’s olfactory abilities, pressed forward, hoping to see what was drawing the scavenging corvids to the lightly treed, sagebrush slope overlooking the gravel pit. He walked forward until he could see into a shallow depression.
Awaiting, perhaps 30 yards away, was a sow grizzly with her cub feeding on the remains of a bull moose. It was a formula for being charged or worse, and Vangoidtsenhoven knew it.
“As soon as I could peer down the slope, it was too late,” Vangoidtsenhoven said. “I immediately know, this is bad. This is like a nightmare scenario.”
Responding with the aggression characteristic of her species, the mother grizzly stood up, huffed, dropped her head and charged. It was loud, he recalled, as she crashed through sagebrush huffing along the way.
Vangoidtsenhoven always carries bear spray, and he had it in hand in his jacket pocket. He made himself big and stood his ground screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘Hey, bear!” and “Stop!”
Although the grizzly closed to within 10 yards, the capsicum-based repellent spray was never discharged. Luckily, the grizzly diverted her attack, circling back to her offspring.
Vangoidtsenhoven was surprised she let him off so easy, and he began backpedaling and stumbling over the sagebrush. He created a bit more distance, perhaps 50 yards, when the sow, then out of sight, rumbled his way once again.
“She came like a tank, huffing and puffing,” Vangoidtsenhoven said of the second charge. “I’m thinking, ‘This is really bad.’”
But again the sow diverted her charge before she closed in and made contact. That time she ran off for good with her cub at her side.
Growing up in Belgium, Vangoidtsenhoven was unaccustomed to living around large carnivores when he landed in the United States over a decade ago to work an IT job. But the former Salt Lake City resident, who now does wildlife photography full time, has amassed some experience being around large critters in recent years.
He’s one of the regulars out documenting bears in Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone and Togwotee Pass and is convinced that the sow and cub he encountered aren’t any of the “known” grizzlies, like the animals that go by 610, Blondie or Felicia.
After his close call with the sow, he blogged about the incident, putting the blame squarely on himself.
“It’s all my fault, right?” Vangoidtsenhoven said in an interview. “I’d rather [people] think that I was irresponsible than that the bears are wrong. They were behaving totally normally. She was eating, with her baby.”
In the future Vangoidtsenhoven said plans to act differently when he’s out exploring.
“I just don’t walk into the forest anymore,” he said. “I stay in the open.”
Looking back on the run-in, Vangoidtsenhoven knows he’s fortunate. He points out the fate of late Jackson Hole hunting guide Mark Uptain, who lost his life in a scenario that also involved a carcass and a sow grizzly with a cub. But when that tragedy took place there were two men, and one of them had experience around bears. Vangoidtsenhoven was alone.
The only thing that Vangoidtsenhoven said he’d do differently if he had a redo at the nearly disastrous encounter is put more faith in the body language of Sophie, his dog.
Sometime after he was retreating from the moose carcass, with the grizzlies out of sight, Sophie sauntered up.
“As soon as the bears were gone, the dog came back to me, acting like nothing happened,” Vangoidtsenhoven said. “In an ideal world I would have listened to the dog. She knew.”
Sophie’s even been around brown bears before, owing to time she’s spent with her photographer father in places like Hyder, Alaska. But in those instances her body language was vastly different.
“She’s seen a grizzly, and the worst she does is bark from a distance,” he said. “Because I had never seen the dog do that before, I had no clue what she was doing.”
Editor's note: This story has been modified, with a section removed that said Jorn Vangoidtsenhoven did not return to the carcass after his encounter with the grizzly family. He did return with company, setting up a remote game camera to monitor the carcass, but originally told the News&Guide otherwise, believing he would be publicly shamed.