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Aug. 13, 1967, marked one of the most tragic and important events in the history of Glacier National Park. Two women, in campsites miles apart from one another, were mauled and killed by grizzly bears, the first bear-related fatalities since the park’s inaugural year. It is known as “Night of the Grizzlies,” a story with enough gravity to grab national headlines and cause the national park system to re-examine wildlife policies. It was also an incident forever burned into the hearts and minds of those involved, as well as the park’s widespread community. MontanaPBS is revisiting the story with the documentary, “Glacier Park’s Night of the Grizzlies,” set to debut on May 17. While the story may be familiar to many Montanans, some of the voices in the film have never been publicly heard before, said co-producer Gus Chambers.

Documentary Revisits Glacier’s ‘Night of the Grizzlies’

Aug. 13, 1967, marked one of the most tragic and important events in the history of Glacier National Park. Two women, in campsites miles apart from one another, were mauled and killed by grizzly bears, the first bear-related fatalities since the park’s inaugural year.

It is known as “Night of the Grizzlies,” a story with enough gravity to grab national headlines and cause the national park system to re-examine wildlife policies. It was also an incident forever burned into the hearts and minds of those involved, as well as the park’s widespread community.

MontanaPBS is revisiting the story with the documentary, “Glacier Park’s Night of the Grizzlies,” set to debut on May 17. While the story may be familiar to many Montanans, some of the voices in the film have never been publicly heard before, said co-producer Gus Chambers.

“When we started it, we kind of realized it took 40 years for a lot of the people to want to speak about it,” Chambers said.

The documentary chronicles the series of events leading up to the deaths of Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons, two young park employees out for overnight camping trips with their friends.

Helgeson and her friend Roy Ducat hiked to the Granite Park Chalet on Aug. 12, 1967, and were both mauled early in the morning on Aug. 13. Ducat survived his injuries; Helgeson did not.

That same night, a grizzly attacked Koons and her friends at Trout Lake. Her friends, including Paul Dunn, survived by climbing trees. Koons did not make it out of her sleeping bag, according to witnesses.

Both Ducat and Dunn share their memories of that night on the documentary, along with family members, other witnesses, biologists, journalists, park rangers and others. Missoula-native and actor J.K. Simmons provides the narration.

Chambers, who has worked in the park and for the U.S. Park Service and is based in Missoula, said it was only fitting for Montana filmmakers to take on this subject. He and his co-producer writer Paul Zalis, who also wrote the script, approached the project sensitively, not wanting to sensationalize the deaths of two young women.

“We wanted to keep this as respectful for the survivors, for the families and for bears as possible,” Chambers said. “Who better than a local to try to take it on?”

Much of the documentary focuses on the state of wildlife policy in the park in the 1960s and 1970s. It was regular to feed the bears garbage or to give them food to attract them to cars or tourist-centric destinations in the park.

Hikers and campers also did not have the pack-it-in, pack-it-out mentality they do today. This meant trash at campgrounds to draw in the hungry bears, which were becoming increasingly unafraid of humans, according to biologists.

The filmmakers mixed old footage, still-frame re-enactments and old photographs to create a seamless storyline, Chambers said. This meant shooting film at Granite Park Chalet and other locales.

Glacier Park spokesperson Amy Vanderbilt said the park felt comfortable with the documentary because of the respectful nature of the script. “The Night of the Grizzlies” was a deafening alarm telling national parks that humans and wildlife need to be separated, Vanderbilt said.

“That was a bellwether event in bear management in national parks, not just here in Glacier,” Vanderbilt said. “It changed careers, it changed policy within the park as well as within the park service, seemingly overnight.”

Work on the film began three years ago, and Chambers hoped it would be completed by 2007, in time for the 40th anniversary of the event. The story expanded, however, in ways the filmmakers did not initially expect, Chambers said, and they decided to take the extra time – three summers – to tell the entire story.

The fact that the documentary is debuting during Glacier’s centennial celebration this year is a coincidence, Chambers said.

The park is also performing its annual evaluation of grizzly policies, Vanderbilt said, which have drawn more attention than usual this year after a sow grizzly and her cubs were removed from the park last August.

“Glacier National Park is vigilant about trying to educate and communicate to park visitors that they must stringently keep their food and garbage and utensils out of the path of bears and animals,” Vanderbilt said.

For his part, Chambers believes the documentary accomplished what it set out to do by telling the story of the people involved in that terrifying night, as well as the story of the animals and the conditions that led to a tragic conclusion.

“This story is sort of Glacier’s awkward adolescence,” Chambers said. “A coming-of-life event that (the park) learned from and grew from.”

“Glacier Park’s Night of the Grizzlies” airs May 17 at 8 p.m. on MontanaPBS.

This story first appeared on the Flathead Beacon.

About Courtney Lowery

Comments

  1. Sharon Fisher says:

    I’m really looking forward to seeing this. I was 7 when it happened, and a year or two later Popular Science did a big article on it, and I used to read it over and over in horrified fascination.

  2. Kent Madin says:

    A lot has changed in perceptions about how to manage human/wildlife interactions. The Craighead brothers, who pioneered research on grizzlys argued strongly for closing the garbage dumps because of how they altered grizzly behavior and raised the potential for human/grizz interaction.

    Craighead Center in Bozeman (www.grizzlybear.org) is on the leading edge of research and implementation of science based planning tools that give planners the information they need to maintain wildlife corridors in the steady drumbeat of development.

  3. William Gleason says:

    Is the documentary “Glacier’s Night Of The Grizzles” available for sale? I have the book, in fact two of them, by Jack Olsen. I visited
    the park many years ago and hiked up to Ice Berg Lake with one of the rangers. About 24 of us started up the trail and 12 of us reached the lake. I found out later that this is a trail that was frequented by grizzlies often. Yipes. I’m 84 now and don’t think I’ll make that hike again.

  4. jeremy says:

    Night of The Grizzlies, was available on DVD if you go to Montana’s PBS website.

  5. SueD says:

    I saw this documentary last night (June 15, 2011). It brought back the horror of my own encounter with this story. I was 17 at the time and was camping with my parents, 15 year old brother and 3 year old sister at Lake McDonald. In the campground, news did not travel too quickly I guess, because the morning after the attacks, my father, brother and I hiked from Logan Summit, across the Garden Wall and up to Granite Park Chalet. We stopped at several spots along the way to enjoy the beautiful alpine meadows and large marmots that entertained us. We made the hike slowly, enjoying the day. Upon reaching Granite Park Chalet, we were treated to the sight of many park staff with rifles chatting near the chalet. It was then that a chalet staff member who took our lunch order told us what had happened the day before, and that the park rangers were still walking and riding the trails looking for grizzlies. We had ordered “grizzly burgers” for lunch, thinking that was such a fun name for the staff to use for a menu item. All of a sudden it wasn’t so funny. We were terrified and ate our lunch quickly. We saw a park range get on a horse and start down the Loop Trail, so we finished lunch and ran to try to catch up to him so that we could hike close to him and his gun on the way down. We had to run to even keep him in sight and the whole way we were tripping and falling over rocks and branches, my brother was crying in pain – he thought he had appendicitis which later turned out to be a “stitch” in his side from all the running. When he fell, my father (a doctor) yanked him up by the shirt collar and said “Keep moving – we’ll figure it out later”. We reached the switchback on the highway a couple of hours later and waited for my mother who was scheduled to pick us up there. By that time she had also heard about the deaths and spent the day in mortal fear for us. This was definitely pre-cell phone days! Once we split up there was no chance of contact. A few years later I was camping at Redstreak Campground in Fairmont and I read Olsen’s book one night in bed. There was no sleep that night, that’s for sure. This story has haunted me now for 44 years. I have been back across the Garden Wall and up to Granite Park Chalet, but it took many years to stoke up the courage to do it again. Things had changed radically in the way the chalet handled their garbage and patrolled the campground at night for the safety of outdoor campers. The documentary was very well done – very respectful to all concerned, and it was nice to hear the story right from the survivors, although I’m sure it is still difficult for them to recount.

  6. LRD says:

    Even though I have never hiked out west, the book “The Night of the Grizzlies” haunts me decades after I read it.

    What a horrible collision of humans and wildlife. Nobody’s fault, exactly.

    I was probably twelve or thirteen when I read the book, and am now 60, and still the descriptions follow me.

    I just wanted to remember Michele and Julie.

  7. William Gleason says:

    I purchased Glacier Park’s “Night Of The Grizzlies” a few days ago. I have seen it six times, along with interested children and grandchildren. The DVD is very well done, and follows the book quite well. It would be impossible to put all the events from the book into a DVD, but they did a good job. FYI: TV viewers with big screen TVs and HDMI or component hookups cannot get CCs. There are no subtitles. For those of you having somewhat older setups, you can receive CCs. I tried it on my old DVD player. My grandson connected it somehow to the receiver and TV and used AV1. Voila, CCs. This is beyond my ken, but the younger generation copes very well. The DVD is well worth the price. If you are interested in Glacier, Yellowstone and BEARS, this is a must. I am 85, and remember driving through Yellowstone when I was 8-10 years old. People fed the bears slices of bread while standing outside their cars. My parents wouldn’t let my sister and me even roll down the windows. The bears put their paws on our car and did a good job of begging. One of my sons did the Highline Trail a few years back to get to Granite Park Chalet. My mother’s family must have had some money, because my mom, her girl friend and a ranger rode through Glacier in 1920 or 1921 on horseback. They stayed at Granite Park Chalet and the Chalet near Perry Glacier, I believe. He cared for their horses, made their meals and they saw zero bears. Going To The Sun Highway was not in existence. You got to Glacier by train. Buy the DVD. I am not a shill, believe me.

  8. Jeff says:

    I just saw this last night on PBS, this doc is truely scary, I was not expecting it to have that big of an effect on me, but it did. Excellent interviews with the actual survivors and park rangers puts you right there, the recreations are very scary, using still photos along with real photos campers took on their hike. I was really freaked by the time it was over, I can not imagine the horror these people went through. If you are looking for something to really scare you and alert you to the dangers of the wilderness you need to see this!