In the early morning hours of Aug. 13, 1967, a tragedy struck Glacier National Park. A tragedy that would forever change the way the Park managed its backcountry and the bears that lived in it.
Near Granite Park Chalet, Roy Ducat, an 18-year-old bus boy working at Glacier Park Lodge, and Julie Helgeson, 19, who worked in the laundry, hitchhiked from East Glacier Park to Logan Pass and hiked the Highline Trail to Granite Park Chalet. They stayed at the chalet a bit, inquired where a good place to camp was, and then headed out to their campsite below the chalet about 8 p.m.
Meanwhile, the chalet routinely threw its garbage out in a pit below the stone building.
Advertised it, in fact.
“Come to the chalet and see the grizzlies at night!” the saying at the time went, recalled Dave Shea, who was a seasonal wildlife biologist for Glacier at the time. Just a few days before, Shea, and seasonal ranger Bert Gildart had been to the chalet and seen five grizzlies eating garbage.
Shea wrote a report to Park administrators, Gildart recalled. Gildart also complained. Nothing was done.
“It was kind of ignored in those days,” Shea said.
But with all that garbage around, the bears were used to people and associated them with food. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
The sow grizzly came into Ducat and Helgeson’s camp around midnight.
Ducat was awakened by a squirrel scampering around camp. It was a pleasant evening. He got up, took a drink from a nearby stream and went back to sleep.
Then Helgeson woke him up.
“Pretend you are dead,” Helgeson told him, according to a Hungry Horse News story of the attack in 1967.
Ducat was thrown from the sleeping bag and was bitten in the shoulder, arm and thigh. He stayed quiet and face down. The bear went after Helgeson, and starting biting her.
Ducat recalled her saying “It hurts.”
The bear returned to him, bit him in the back and legs, and then went after Helgeson again, biting her, dragging her off into the woods.
Ducat got up and rushed to Don Gullett, who was camping alone near the Trail Cabin, which is below the chalet.
Gullett wrapped Ducat’s wounds with a sleeping bag.
The guests at the chalet had heard the screams. Gullett and Ducat got up on the roof of the cabin, signaled them with a flashlight, and told them it was a bear attack.
Park naturalist Jean Devereaux radioed to Park headquarters and a helicopter flew in ranger Gary Bunney from Park headquarters.
A search party was formed. They came down from the chalet with flashlights and washtub with a fire in it.
They found Julie’s body and took her back to the Chalet on an Army cot. She was still conscious. Dr. John Lipinksi and two other doctors tried to treat her, but she suffered from a punctured lung and other wounds. She died about 4:13 a.m. Ducat survived.
But Glacier’s nightmare was far from over.
At Trout Lake, another bear was attacking a party camped there.
Ray Noseck, 23, Denise Huckle, Paul Dunn and Michele Koons, 19, also employees of Glacier Park Inc., were camped just above a perennial log jam on Trout Lake near the outlet.
The party caught a few fish and were cooking hot dogs at camp when Koons first saw the grizzly. The party left camp and the food, and the bear stayed about a half hour, leaving camp and walking down the log jam with Koons’ travel kit in its mouth.
The bear had eaten all their food except a box of cookies and some cheesettes.
They decided to move camp closer to the lake and make a big fire to keep the bear away. But they fell asleep and the embers died and the bear came back. About 4:30 a.m. it bit Dunn’s sleeping bag and tore his shirt near the arm.
Dunn got away and up a tree and the others, too, went up trees, except for Koons, who was in a mummy bag. Her zipper stuck and the bear grabbed her.
“He’s tearing my arm off,” she screamed.
The bear continued to maul her. The survivors stayed in trees until 6 a.m. and then got down. Noseck and Dunn ran for help, making it to the trailhead in two hours. They got a hold of seasonal ranger Leonard Landa.
Gildart also heard of the mauling and teamed up with Landa. They found Koons’ body. She was dead, badly mauled.
The next day Shea and ranger Kerel Hagen and others went to Granite Park. Armed with heavy rifles, they shot three grizzlies.
“We were told from Washington, D.C. to remove every bear,” Shea recalled. Based on blood on its claws, the bear that killed Helgeson was discovered to be a sow with two small cubs. They tried to shoot the cubs, too. One was wounded, shot in the jaw, but got away.
The cubs would end up surviving the winter, but got into garbage the next summer and were killed in Many Glacier, Shea said.
It was sad, Shea noted, but in retrospect, necessary, since all the bears were used to eating garbage and would have become problems sooner or later.
At Trout Lake, two days after Koons’ death, Gildart and Landa went to the cabin at Arrow Lake to hunt that grizzly.
That first day, they saw nothing.
They spent the night at the Arrow Lake shelter cabin, which no longer exists today. The next morning Gildart saw the grizzly on the bank of the outlet stream of Arrow Lake. He said the bear, almost in slow motion, would raise and lower its head to look at him.
He called to Landa for the rifles. The bear started moving aggressively toward the men. They shot the bear. The Park Service flew in a forensic expert with the FBI. He cut off the sow grizzly’s head and then cut open its stomach.
A ball of human hair rolled out.
It was the right bear. Tests later showed the sow also had broken glass in her gums from chewing on jars. She was in pain, emaciated and in bad shape.
In retrospect, neither Shea nor Gildart blame the bears. They blame the human filth at both places.
“As time went by I came to realize the bears wouldn’t have attacked people if not for the presence of garbage,” Gildart said.
He noted they hauled out 17 burlap sacks of garbage from Trout Lake alone.
Gildart, who lives in Bigfork, went on to have a fruitful career as a writer and photographer. He also spent several more years as a seasonal ranger in Glacier. Shea’s Park Service career spanned 36 years as a seasonal ranger, including 11 in the Belly River. He, too, is an author, including a great field book on animal tracks in the Park and a book on Chief Mountain. He also compiled the original list of bird species known to Glacier. In addition, he teaches courses for the Glacier Institute. He lives on a small ranch in Chouteau.
True Crime author Jack Olsen brought an even greater spotlight on the incident with an article in Sports Illustrated and subsequent book in 1969, “Night of the Grizzlies,” which still sells well today. Olsen died in 2002. But Olsen didn’t coin the phrase “Night of the Grizzlies.” There was a film, “Night of the Grizzly” that was released in 1966 before the incident at Glacier even happened. It played in local theaters and was advertised in the Hungry Horse News at the time. The movie was set in Wyoming, not Glacier.
Glacier literally cleaned up its act the next summer. In 1968 it set up a backcountry camping and permit system that is still in use today. Dumps and garbage were cleaned up, a pack-it-in, pack-it-out system was mandatory, and permits were required for backcountry campers. The camps, too, were set up to avoid bears. Sleeping areas were set up away from food preparation areas, backcountry toilets were installed, and hanging lines and poles were installed to keep campers’ food out of the reach of bears, Shea noted.
The Park also implemented an aggressive education system for anyone using backcountry camps.
“It was good, common sense stuff,” Shea said.