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I’ve Been Attacked by a Bear, and I Still ‘Choose the Bear’

A social media trend hits home for someone who's actually lived it.
Bear PawA successfully hunted black bear; (photo/Rachelle Schrute)
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A recent social media trend highlighting that women will almost always choose running into a bear over running into a man in the woods hits home for me. I’ve been attacked by both.

I began writing this story last year, and for a few logistical reasons, it sat. I should say I began writing this story years ago. It’s changed as time has gone on, but it’s a story that’s unfortunately been mine for too long. All that is to say, this feeling has been around well before some social media trend.

No bear has ever had bad intentions for me. A bear has never feigned kindness or faked friendship in order to catch me off guard. There has never been a bear who’s planned and plotted to injure me for fun. I’ve never been left bloodied and crying in the church parking lot by a bear. My self-worth has never been destroyed by a bear. My body has never been violently violated for the sick enjoyment of a bear.

I cannot say the same for man.

The Bear

Stills from bear charge
Stills from a video I made for my daughter after hitting a bear in the head with an elk shed — just in case it turned back for me; a video I’m grateful she’ll never have to see; (images/Rachelle Schrute)

“Dad. I got attacked by a bear.”

It’s probably not a call my dad ever expected, and it’s a call I never expected to make. The short story is this:

I was solo elk hunting in an area known to have black bears. I’ve run into black bears plenty and have never had much of an issue with them. They go their way. I go mine.

This time, I saw what I thought was a little ol’ Black Angus cow grazing in a meadow on public land. As I got closer, that cow lifted its head over the waist-high grass and looked at me as I passed within 30 yards. That cow was not a small cow — it was a huge bear.

I stopped, made myself known, and decided, obviously, to change path. Oddly, the bear lowered its head and kept munching on whatever it was working on, paying little attention to me.

What felt like maybe 20 minutes later, I was moving along a game trail that bottlenecks on a fairly steep hillside when I heard a ruckus to my right. Whatever was making the noise was moving ahead of me through the gnarliest brush. Then, I saw movement behind two forked pines at the smallest point in the bottleneck of the trail.

My first thought was, “That’s either a moo-cow or an elk-cow.”

Not a Cow at All

Elk Shed Antler
The actual antler that might be the reason I’m still here; (photo/Rachelle Schrute)

I had an elk shed in one hand that I’d picked up a few minutes earlier and was carrying my bow over my neck with the other. As I contemplated slowly setting the shed down so I could grab my bow and get ready to take a shot, the bear was already bounding toward me.

With bear spray on my pack belt and both hands full, I instinctively swung the antler and made contact with the bear’s head. I fell hard to the left; he recoiled and bounded down off the trail to the right.

This wasn’t some false charge. This wasn’t just a curious bear. It was a full-blown stalk and attack.

I realized quickly that the fastest way out of the woods was to follow the exact path that the bear had taken to get himself out of the situation. With the most violent shakes I can’t possibly describe, I followed his lead toward the road.

A Video That Hurts to Watch

I pulled my phone out and began recording. I felt I owed it to my children to say some things in the event the bear turned back. We’d often joked about the possibility of me being eaten by a bear and how much street cred that would earn them. I mean, it’s pretty cool to tell someone that your mom got eaten by a bear, right?

I also started recording to keep myself making noise. Honestly, I also just needed to talk to someone. I’d never felt more alone. All I had was a phone, no cell service, and an inReach with unanswered messages because everyone I knew was also out hunting. I felt so stupid, like one of those dramatic teenage girls recording themselves crying … yet there I was, crying into my phone.

It took almost 2 hours to get back to my rig and drive to cellphone service to call my dad.

The darkest reality of this is that I never called my dad when I was attacked by men. Somehow, there’s shame attached to being a victim of a man. There’s questioning, blame, and disbelief. We’re taught as women that opening our mouths about these assaults will just open up a can of worms that isn’t worth it, so we often just shove it down into our gut and hold it in silence. It’s easier.

And in the end, no one will ask me what I was wearing to provoke the bear.

The biggest irony is that I’m far more to blame for the bear assault than I’ve ever been to blame for the assaults by men.

Why I’d Still Choose the Bear That Tried to Eat Me

Black Bear
Not THEE bear, but a similar-sized bear that I spent some time watching on another occasion; (photo/Rachelle Schrute)

This story isn’t about that bear, or any bear for that matter. I have multiple friends who have been attacked by bears, many far more violently than my experiences. A friend of mine “heard her own skull crack” in the mouth of a bear, fought it off with the help of bear spray, and held her scalp to her head while she hiked herself out. I had the honor of holding that bear’s skull in my hands.

The only physical injuries I sustained were some decent bruises and scrapes from the impact of hitting the ground and a whole lot of scratches from busting out through hawthorn bushes to get the hell out of the woods. I lucked out. My story is certainly not unique, nor is it even badass, as compared to the experiences of the people in my circle.

There’s a picture somewhere of my grandmother swinging a broom at a bear that was getting into her flowers. I spent some time wilderness guiding, where a good day meant I got people into places where they could watch grizzlies graze and wolves tussle with each other. Bears are just part of our life.

I’ve had some really sketchy interactions with grizzlies, including bluff charges and, pending your definition of a charge (and how much interaction I choose to have with Montana Fish and Wildlife officials), some that were far more than bluff. I’m lucky that I’m still here to write about them. Almost all of those interactions were entirely my fault, where I put myself in the wrong situation and caught a bear off-guard.

Predators on Two Legs

Bowhunting Elk
Bowhunting elk at last light; (photo/Rachelle Schrute)

That said, my scariest moments in the wild don’t compare to the moments I’ve faced human predators. That fact lives on the tip of my tongue whenever someone questions why I go into the woods alone. I often wonder how many women hunters are asked the same. I wonder how many have gotten the recommendation to “go with one of the guys.”

What about bears or wolves? You really don’t take a guy with you? No husband, no boyfriend, father, nothin’?

These concerns all come from a place of caring. I know this, and I do appreciate it. It’s just that as I’ve gotten older, I come to understand that the concerns might be misplaced.

The worst thing a bear, wolf, or mountain lion can do is hurt my body or take my life.

I don’t want to downplay that. I absolutely get spooked in the wilderness. I’ve hiked out after dark at times, and every sound was something trying to eat me. Once you get in that frame of mind, it’s a dark place to be.

However, there is no twig snap in the dark, no scurry through the brush, no low rumbling growl, or charging bear that compares to:

“What’s a little gal like you doing out here all alone?”

The Social Media Monster

I began stewing on this topic several years ago. To be honest, I was pushed to write about it because of interactions I’ve been put in via social media. It started relatively innocently with the random guy joking that he’d like to hunt with me someday and really teach me something. Then, it would be the compliments that edged on inappropriate. And finally, maybe around 2016, the negative interactions began to escalate.

I’ve had to file restraining orders as recently as a few months ago. In the most recent incident, I hadn’t responded to a kind message that ended up buried in my inbox. The man who sent it took it as such an affront that he very credibly threatened to kill me and everyone I knew.

I had a man in his late 50s travel across the country by plane and then rent a car to drive several hours to get to my rural office. He walked in with flowers, excited to meet me and even more excited to discuss the adventure he’d planned for us.

I had never spoken to this man. Yet, here he was, standing in front of me alone in my office with no one else around. When the police arrived, he was visibly confused as to why I wasn’t flattered. He knew everything about me. He’d gone through so much to come see me and really believed we were meant to be together.

Opening your life up to the public can have very real-world consequences.

Me, too.

Social Media Backlash
Just some of the fun comments from nice guys on social media; (photo/Rachelle Schrute)

I’ve occasionally shared social media stories that highlight these sorts of interactions, along with the incessant pile of harassment that finds its way to my inbox. After mentioning how my fear of most men ranks far higher than my fear of bears, I was bombarded with messages. Many of those somehow both downplayed and echoed my sentiment. It’s ironic that this little hobby of mine suddenly became such a popular trend, particularly with women who’ve never even seen a bear.

So many men claimed that they, too, felt more scared in an alleyway than in the forest. They’d rather be in the woods than in the city. They felt safer out there.

Oh, I know, sweetheart. The meth heads in my neighborhood terrify me, too. I can’t imagine being a pretty girl like you. I’d rather be camping.”

This cognitive dissonance is so loud.

You missed the point, bud. You’ve taken the threat I face every day and not only made it about you but misdirected it to blame drugs or thugs or whatever demographic you find sub-par. What you don’t realize is that most assailants are “nice guys” just like you.

Oddly enough, I’m already preparing for the throngs of men who will call this story or any of my accounts “fake,” and that is just part of the deal.

Not All Men

Solo Bowhunting

This is about to get REAL personal. Consider this your trigger warning.

I’ve never been raped by a methhead, assaulted by someone on crack, manhandled by a homeless man, or accosted by a “thug.” I’m not saying that those things don’t happen to people every day. I know they do, and my heart breaks for them.

What I am saying is that all of those things have happened to me.

However, the perpetrators were not the people we’ve been taught to fear. They came in the form of a high school basketball player, a respected pastor, a community leader, and a U.S. soldier, among others. Every one of them would be someone the local paper would gloat about; every one of them is still respected in their communities. These were people I was taught to trust.

There’s a habit of passing the buck to those who are deemed “less savory” in the eyes of society. I understand that not all experiences are universal, but mine came from those on the proverbial societal honor roll.

Would I have been safer in the woods with them? I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have been.

Whenever I read the phrase “not all men,” I immediately think, “not all bears.” I haven’t been attacked by most of the bears I’ve come into contact with. That doesn’t mean I’d want to be locked in a cage with one. See? See how that works?

To be clear, I am not scared of men. Most of the people in my life happen to be men. The safest I’ve ever felt is in the company of well-chosen men. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that the most scared, most threatened, and most injured I’ve ever been has also been at the hands of men.

I find deep irony in the suggestion that I must add one to my guest list in order to be safe. Can you imagine someone suggesting to a man that they should take a woman along on a hunt, you know, for safety? It seems ludicrous in our society, but statistically, it would be more effective.

How My Experiences Have Shaped Who I Am

Rachelle Schrute (Author) with a successfully hunted bull elk
(Photo/Rachelle Schrute)

There isn’t enough time in the day to tell you all my stories involving the predators in boots. Being a woman in the outdoors puts you in the minority in general. Being a woman in the hunting and fishing space, even more so. I am often the only woman at camp, the only woman on press trips, and the only woman in the room.

It’s not something I even think twice about, and I’ve come to see it as an honor. I am absolutely comfortable in those settings with those people. They are my people, gender not considered.

But, I’ve had interactions in the wild that those people will likely never experience, and that changes a person. Sometimes, I think it takes a mean old bear to put threats into perspective.

Cementing My Stance

In the months since my face-to-face, or perhaps, antler-to-face interaction with that bear, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the dangers that I face unknowingly and the dangers that I put myself in. I’ve come to some striking conclusions.

I would rather face that bear again than face the man who was waiting for me by my truck in the middle of nowhere, with no cellphone service, and no one else around.

I would rather face that bear again than have to go back to the day that I had to cut down a gate that had been wire-tied shut by two men who didn’t want me to be able to leave without them being able to catch up. Their intentions were quite clear.

I would rather face that bear again than have to go back to the church where I was taught more than any 8-year-old girl should ever have to know.

In every situation, in every location, in every circumstance: I choose the bear.

Is There a Solution?

Perhaps the fact that so much awareness has already been brought to violence against women, with no apparent resolution, says something.

I come from a biology background. Whenever I try to rationalize anything, I always revert to the fact that the animal instincts of mammals don’t leave the females in a good spot. I hope that we are in a place in evolutionary history where the males of our species are collectively capable of higher orders of thinking. However, it seems the statistics show that biological drives often outweigh morals.

Call me a pessimist, but I prefer to think of it as realism. I am smaller, slower, and physically weaker than most men. Because of that, they will always be a threat.

What Does It All Mean?

(Photo/Rachelle Schrute)

This story does not have a moral, solution, or happy ending. It’s just a story.

Maybe this is a nod to the women out there who feel the same. Perhaps it’s just a social commentary on how women are taught, from such a young age, that we need men in close proximity for us to be safe. That sentiment is especially strong when it comes to venturing off the beaten path.

In no way is this some testimony about how scared I am of men. Most of my favorite humans have that sex listed on their driver’s license. The bulk of my social circle consists of men who I trust with my life.

However, statistically, logistically, realistically, and from so many very personal experiences, when faced with the choice of an unknown bear in the woods or an unknown man:

I will always choose the bear.

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