Evening was the best time to hike last summer—the light lasted but the heat had waned, making a mountain excursion comfortable and exceptionally beautiful. The trail up Big Cottonwood was the perfect summer place for one group of hikers until they noticed they were being followed.
The Biggest Baddest Bear in Them Hills
A giant grizzly who ruled the Wasatch Range in the early 20th century, Old Ephraim was a legend, supposedly the largest bear to roam the Wasatch, according to an article in the Aug. 22, 1923, issue of The Standard-Examiner in an article reporting on the big bear’s death.
They say Ephraim stood 9-feet-11 inches tall and weighed 1,100 pounds. The report says the sheep-killing bear clawed down an 8-inch diameter tree a rancher-set trap was tied to and ran up a hill with the trap still on his foot. The rancher, one Frank Clark, a real-life Ahab, hunted the bear from 1914 to 1923.
With the bear dragging the trap behind him, Clark fired all of his ammunition and fled back to his camp, where his dog kept the wounded bear at bay. After a night of fitful sleep, Clark awoke at first light to find the grizzly had succumbed to the gunshots and died.
There are no more grizzlies in Utah, but the myth of Ephraim lives on in Nephi J. Bott’s poem, inscribed in a plaque at the bottom of a stone monument erected in 1966 by Logan Boy Scouts where the bear was buried.
By a bear.
According to news reports, the bear followed the group all the way to the parking lot at the trailhead.
During the summer of 2019, reports of human-bear encounters more than doubled since the same time in 2018. Bears were investigating campgrounds and rummaging through garbage. Biologists say the long, wet spring meant a longer hibernation and hungrier summer bears. But the bigger, wide-angle reason is more people.
The urban population along the Wasatch Front is predicted to increase by 40 percent in the next 25 years—the valley, hemmed in by mountain ranges, is already stuffed with two million residents. And, as the number of humans increases, encounters between humans and the wild is bound to increase. The National Forest Service coined a term for it: The Urban-Wildland Interface.
Even in seemingly tame City Creek Canyon, wildlife abounds—a pride of cougars has been spotted near the water treatment plant and a four-foot Great Basin rattlesnake (the only poisonous snake in the Wasatch) is often seen along the asphalt trail. Hikers have complained that hawks dive-bombed them, driving them from the trail.
Up the wilder canyons you may see elk, moose, deer and mountain goats, bobcats, coyotes, fox, porcupines, raccoons, beaver, badgers, rabbits, weasels and pika. Consider yourself lucky if you do—living close to wildness is one of the treasures of living so near these mountains. The deer may munch your tender garden plants, the bears may dump over your trash. You’re in their backyard, not the other way around. So some of these animals, particularly bears, moose and snakes, may take offense at your trespassing.
• If you’re camping, carry bear spray and keep food in bear-safe containers. Don’t hang it in a tree, bears can climb trees. Duh.
• Make noise as you walk, hike or move around. Bears don’t want to see you either and noise will warn them of your presence. If you’re in a group, stick together to appear intimidating.
• Back away slowly, in the direction you came. Walk, don’t run, and keep your eye on the bear so you can see how it will react.
• Although the Shiras Moose, the subspecies native to the Wasatch, are the smallest moose variety, they are plenty big.
• Read the signs: An agitated moose might lay its ears flat. The hair on the nape of its neck may stand up, like an angry dog’s. They might roll their eyes or smack their jaws.
• The moose wants you to go away—do it. If you see one, don’t approach it. Wait for it to leave.
• If it charges, run and try to get behind a big tree.
• Remember, Utah snakes are harmless. The exception in the Wasatch is the Great Basin rattlesnake and they can grow to be four feet long. • Rattlesnakes warn you—the hiss, the coiled posture and the buzzing rattle.
• The wise walker will watch where they step.
• Hot, exposed rocky sections of trail are prime snake spots. The Bonneville Shoreline Trail is basically snake city.
See more Outdoors content here.