Everyone loves a good bear story. And this week we can’t wait to tell the tale about Grizzly Bear 399 — perhaps the most famous bear in the world. For more than a decade, Griz 399 has been living her best bear life in the front country of Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. Thousands of tourists, wildlife watchers, and photographers flock to the park’s Pilgrim Creek area to catch a glimpse of Griz 399 and her cubs feeding on an elk carcass, scrounging for berries, and taking naps in the sun, all before the public’s eye.
Griz 399’s fame exploded this year when she crawled out of her winter den with four tiny cubs in tow. Wildlife watcher Maureen Matsen has been scouting wildlife in Grand Teton National Park for 40 years. Viewing animals in their natural habitat helps Matsen de-stress from her high-stakes job as an ICU nurse. She says the feeling when Griz 399 comes into view is palpable.
“The adrenaline is super high; the excitement is super high,” Matsen says on the Out and Back podcast. “And the minute she appears or one of those cubs pokes up its head, you just hear the ‘click, click, click, click, click, click, click’ of all the cameras going off. It’s just such a funny thing. I almost thought I’d just start filming these photographers because of the joy on their faces.”
For many, Griz 399 embodies resilience and hope. Matsen is among them.
“It’s just giving people a lot of hope during a year where we’ve all dealt with a lot of really hard things,” Matsen says. “I think it’s been just this uplifting good news that this bear exists and that you have a chance of seeing her if you go up there.”
Wildlife photographer and conservationist Thomas Mangelsen has been documenting Griz 399’s life for almost 15 years. In this episode, he sheds light on how this majestic and wild bear mastered navigating crowds of tourists who come to the park just to see her.
“She will outfox most of us,” Mangelsen says. “We’ll be looking down the road, but she’ll just go through the willows and say ‘I don’t want to go through the crowd. I’ll just take the kids across the road down by the creek.’ We just laugh at it, because she’s so damn smart.”
Mangelsen says Griz 399 is a special bear because she appeals to human emotion. He recalls Griz 399 mourning her cub after it was hit by a car and killed. Mangelsen saw the distraught Griz 399 “sobbing” on the roadside near the body of her cub, grieving much like a human mother would.
But as cuddly and adorable as Griz 399 and her cubs appear, they are not domesticated animals. Grand Teton and its neighboring Yellowstone National Park are not zoos by any stretch of the imagination. These parks are home to wild animals that can attack if provoked. Park officials remind wildlife watchers to keep a safe distance of 100 yards or more, watch animals from the safety of a vehicle, and use binoculars to view animals from far away. Never approach wildlife.
Grizzly bears can be dangerous if people get too close for comfort. That’s what happened in 2007, when Dennis Van Denbos unknowingly walked into Griz 399’s space during an early morning outing at the Jackson Lake Lodge. The bear charged at Van Denbos. He hit the deck and suffered several bites from 399 and her three yearling cubs before people intervened.
“They’re just going to eat me,” Van Denbos thought. “There’s nothing I could do. There’s no way I could fight off four grizzlies.”
In this episode, Van Denbos gives a blow-by-blow account of the encounter. Though his injuries took months to heal, he explains that he felt no animosity for the mother bear and was relieved that wildlife officials spared her life following the attack.
Montana based journalist Todd Wilkinson says this decision to let Griz 399 and her cubs live proved to be a pivotal moment in grizzly bear recovery in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Since then, Griz 399 has expanded her ever-growing family tree, producing multiple sets of healthy and vibrant cubs.
“She’s been this amazingly fertile bear, and the cub production comes from a mother that’s getting good nutrition,” Wilkinson says. “The number that’s been used is seven litters, including three sets of triplets, plus one quadruplet.”
At 24 years old, Griz 399 has become a grandmother bear many times over. Everyone was surprised when she woke from hibernation this spring with four cubs — a highly unusual event in bear reproduction. Now that she’s long in the tooth, her fans are wondering how long she’ll live.
Don’t miss this episode as Wilkinson and Mangelsen discuss the many dangers grizzly bears face in the lower 48. They dive into Griz 399’s ability to adapt, crediting her intelligence for her long life and survival against the odds. Tune in to hear the details of why Griz 399 sticks so close to the road, what kind of mother she has become, and how you may or may not see this famous bruin if you visit the park.
Learn more about Griz 399 by visiting her Instagram page. Read her Wikipedia page and Mangelsen and Wilkinson’s glossy-paged book: Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek. See Mangelsen’s photography by visiting his gallery in Jackson, Wyoming, or follow him on Instagram. Read Wilkinson’s non-profit Mountain Journal to discover public interest issues facing the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem and for a greater understanding of the inter-relationships between people and nature in the American West. Follow Maureen’s beautiful wildlife and landscape photography on Instagram.
Special thanks to Maureen Matsen, Dennis VanDenbos, Thomas Mangelsen and Todd Wilkinson for contributing to this show.
4:00: Wildlife watcher and amateur photographer Maureen Matsen grew up looking for wildlife when she was on long road to Grand Teton National Park. To keep them entertained, Maureen’s dad would pay her and her siblings cash if they spotted an animal.
5:15: Maureen seeks out wildlife as a way to download the stress of her job an an ICU nurse.
5:45: Maureen seeks out all kinds of wildlife in the park but bears, because they are not an every day sighting, are the piece de resistance.
6:10: Grizzly Bear 399 has very distinct markings: a heart-shaped face with blonde coloring down her snout.
7:05: Grizzly Bear 399 lives along the roadside in the Pilgrim Creek area of Grand Teton National Park.
7:20: Hundreds of people line the roads just to get a glimpse of 399. But on Maureen’s first outing this year, she missed the chance to see 399 and her cubs.
8:30: The pandemic has been heavy and these animals have brought so much hope and joy in such trying times.
9:20: Maureen went back a few weeks later and Grizzly Bear 399 popped out of the sagebrush trailing four little cubs behind her. And the crowd goes wild.
11:28: This bear is being stalked by hundreds of tourists and professional photographers just trying to get a glimpse of 399’s glory. The joy when she appears is palpable.
12:50: Professional Wildlife Photographer Tom Mangelsen describes the return of grizzly bears to Grand Teton National Park. A grizzly bear showed up on his back porch in 2006. That was his introduction to Grizzly Bear 399.
14:30: Tom recalls that last year, Grizzly Bear 399 was fatter than ever before. He speculated she would have triplets.
14:45: Griz 399 surprised everyone when she came out of hibernation with four tiny cubs.
16:50: Todd Wilkinson has written about Grizzly Bear 399 for National Geographic magazine and then collaborated with Tom Mangelsen to publish a book: Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek.
17:25: Grizzly Bear 399’s life has been more dramatic to watch as the years go on.
18:00: Bears are not fearsome creatures; they only want to protect her young.
18:50: 399 lives along the road because it’s safer for her babies, and she does all of her bear business with a grandstand of people around her.
20:20: The front country has turned out to be the perfect habitat for Griz 399, who has raised seven litters along the roadside over the years.
21:43: Griz 399 has exuded amazing tolerance for human beings; she can navigate cars and hundreds of people without “losing her cool.” Tom says Grizzly Bear 399 has become a master at navigating crowds.
23:45: But not so fast. Grizzly bears are dangerous and wildlife officials advise to keep your distance, stay in your car, and never feed a bear.
25:00: Dennis Van Denbos was at the wrong place at the wrong time in 2007. He was mauled by Grizzly Bear 399 and her then yearling triplets. He lived to tell us about it.
28:21: Griz 399 jumped out of the bushes about 20 feet away and charged at Dennis. Three “teddy bear shapes” stood in the background.
29:25: Dennis saw this striking image with the sun shining on her — a sight Dennis will never forget. Dennis started to back away but stumbled off the road.
31:10: Dennis is face-to-face, eye level with Griz 399. And she charges.
31:50: Dennis hits the deck and Griz 399 and her three cubs bite him in the back and backside.
32:50: “They’re just going to eat me.” Dennis contemplates the end of his life.
33:00: People intervened and Dennis survived. Dennis understood why she attacked, she was feeding on a carcass and was stressed. He would have been very disappointed if the park had decide to kill Griz 399 because of the attack.
37:30: The decision to let Grizzly Bear 399 live after the mauling of Dennis turns out to be a pivotal moment in Grizzly Bear recovery in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Griz 399 went on to have multiple sets of cubs.
38:40: Grizzly Bear 399 displays emotions humans can relate to.
40:00: After the death of her cub “Snowy,” Grizzly Bear 399 “balled” and grieved her baby’s death. Tom describes how distraught the bear was.
41:00: Grizzly Bear 399 is 24 years old, and that makes her a grandmother bear who isn’t expected to live much longer.
41:50: Todd explains how grizzly bears face many dangers in the world: human encounters and traffic.
42:00: We have this homegrown nature safari in the Yellowstone ecosystem.
42: 15: Todd describes how the story of Griz 399 brings us all together.
Next Episode: The Year of the Fastest Known Time with Buzz Burrell
The pandemic canceled nearly all the running races this year, but that only fueled the fire for pent-up athletes to take down the “fastest known times” on many classic and iconic routes around the world. Next time on the Out and Back podcast, Shanty and Mary catch up with Buzz Burrell, well-known “father of the fastest known time,” about everything FKT. Buzz takes us through the rise of the FKT objective, what makes a solid FKT route, and how his popular Website fastestknowntime.com documents new records. With a 30 percent increase over last year’s records, Buzz describes the allure of the solitary push for a fastest known time.
Buzz has championed many FKT’s of his own, including the first John Muir Trail and Colorado Trail speed records. He set records on Yosemite’s signature and scary Half Dome route, the 100km “O” Circuit in Chile’s Torres Del Paine National Park, and Zion’s Angel’s Landing. A trail running legend, Buzz was the visionary of some of the most sought after and iconic lines in Colorado, including the L.A. Freeway and Milner to Berthoud Pass, sometimes known as the “Pfiffner Traverse.“
In this episode, 68-year-old Buzz breaks down the realities of aging, reminding us that no one can stop the clock. Buzz implores us to keep moving even as the years creep up. You won’t want to miss this down-to-earth chat as Buzz delivers his tips to keep moving and gives us this year’s round-up of robust FKT activity. Plus, you’ll never guess what indoor activity Burrell has mastered.
Learn more about FKT at fastestknowntime.com. Listen every Friday to the Fastest Known Time podcast with host Buzz Burrell and featuring some of the fastest athletes on the planet.
Last Episode: Trails, Trials, and The Trek with Zach “Badger” Davis
In case you missed it, check out the last episode of Out and Back where Shanty and the Real Hiking Viking team up to interview Viking’s good friend and hiking legend Zach “Badger” Davis. Thru-hikers may know Badger as the founder of the popular backpacking resource, The Trek. Badger has also written Appalachian Trials and Pacific Crest Trials, psychological guides to tackling the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails.
In this episode, Badger reveals the path from thru-hiker to the creation of community on the Trek and his popular podcast Backpacker Radio. Shanty, Viking, and Badger rifle through the different skillsets needed to thru-hike the AT, PCT, and CDT. They discuss how thru-hiking has evolved over the past decade. And all three of them share how the trail serves as therapy, including the inexplicable catharsis of accomplishing the seemingly impossible. Listen through to the end to learn Badger’s favorite off-the-beaten-path backpacking trip. Seasoned and aspiring thru-hikers alike won’t want to miss this episode to learn how to find the light at the end of the dark, green tunnel.
Learn more about Badger on theTrek.co. Follow Badger’s adventures on Instagram, and tune into his podcast, Backpacker Radio. You can also hear more hilarity from Viking on his first Out and Back appearance from earlier this season.
Meet the Hosts
Andrew “Shanty” Baldwin
In 2019, host Andrew Baldwin completed a southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. After five months on the trail, Baldwin returned home to pursue a career in voice acting. A friend of the Gaia GPS company, Baldwin was a natural choice for hosting the Out and Back podcast.
In each Out and Back episode, Shanty strives to bring you conversations with people who spend an extraordinary amount of time outdoors. Listen in as Shanty taps into each backcountry expert’s superpower so that you can take their knowledge and experience with you on your next adventure.
Mary is the Out and Back podcast producer and a writer and editor at Gaia GPS. Before joining Gaia GPS, Mary worked as a lawyer, newspaper journalist, ski patroller, Grand Canyon river guide, and USFS wilderness ranger. Mary holds degrees in journalism and business as well as a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Montana. Mary is licensed to practice law in Montana and Nevada.
When she is not in the office, Mary works as a guide for Andrew Skurka Adventures in wild places around the west, like Rocky Mountain National Park, Yosemite, and the Brooks Range in Alaska. Learn more about Mary on Instagram. Also, read her tips on how to plan your first solo backpacking trip.