It was August 6, 1983, my third year as the news director of a cluster of radio stations in Whitefish, Montana, otherwise considered the gateway to the rugged peaks and ice-carved valleys of Glacier National Park.
Its beauty is unparalleled. Picture Rappahannock County planted in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, substituting black bears for grizzly bears.
The grizzlies still haunt me.
More times than I care to recall I reported from the otherwise tranquil sites of grizzly bear maulings in Glacier Park. The victims were all either hikers or fishermen. The lucky ones were sewn back together with hundreds of sutures. Others died such gruesome deaths there wasn’t any flesh to identify.
But this summer day would be another story. As Barbara Bush explained in her memoir, “George decided that we should go camping in Glacier National Park in Montana. I was thrilled as I had never visited a national park. George also decided that we would sleep in a tent in the woods.”
Normally I would advise anyone against sleeping in a tent in the woods in Glacier National Park. What I didn’t see with my own eyes I read and then reread in Jack Olsen’s bestseller, “Night of the Grizzlies,” based on not one but two horrifying bear attacks on the same night in Glacier more than a decade earlier.
On top of that were the blood-curdling bear tales recalled around the dinner table by my Montana side of the family, including those passed down by my grandfather, a sheriff’s deputy who patrolled all the way to Glacier’s boundaries.
While driving the 25 miles from Whitefish to West Glacier, I reasoned that Vice President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, wouldn’t be your typical campers, what with the swarm of Secret Service agents surrounding the VIP couple. On the other hand, I doubted very seriously that the Bushes would ever consider camping in the wilds of Glacier were it not for their heavily armed bodyguards.
I know I wouldn’t. Not a chance.
As one of UPI’s few correspondents in Northwest Montana, the White House just days before had granted me controlled access to the Bush family during their two-day visit to the park, where they would be joined by Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson and his wife, Ann.
That first afternoon, the vice president and senator, who remain close friends to this day, wasted little time grabbing their fly fishing rods and setting off on foot, security in tow, for a remote mountain stream. Their wives, at the same time, took a gentle boat ride on nearby Lake McDonald, among other scenic stops arranged by Glacier Park’s staff.
Few reporters, as it happened, were assigned to cover the vice presidential trip into the expansive park, which measures over one million acres in size. Those who were there all but disappeared by the end of the day, when I too began packing up my broadcast equipment to head back to Whitefish. At which point a completely unexpected invitation was extended to me and a few others by the Bush family to join them at their campsite for a cookout.
There couldn’t have been more than a dozen people seated that evening around a pair of picnic tables, where an assortment of delicious foods were served hot off the grill. After conducting an “official” interview with the vice president, which wouldn’t hit the newswire until I could reach a phone booth, small talk ensued — from rainbow trout fishing (Bush laughed when I asked into the microphone if he’d encountered a “killer rabbit” like Jimmy Carter did while fishing a few years earlier) to what it’s like to live in Montana.
Which of course brought up the subject of bears. For whatever reason, human-bear encounters of the very close kind had been on the rise in Glacier. I knew it. Park rangers knew it. The Secret Service knew it. And the Bushes, because I obliged them — one ghastly grizzly bear story after another — now knew it.
Until it reached a point that Mrs. Bush’s eyes grew as wide as saucers, and the vice president shot me a let’s-change-the-subject look, and we turned to the park’s rapidly shrinking glaciers. Several in the traveling security detail had also listened intently to my sensational storytelling, although none of them planned to be sleeping those two nights anyway.
“We wanted to be communing with nature,” Mrs. Bush would write in her book, explaining why the couple passed on the opportunity to sleep in a camper on wheels. “So our little tent was set up quite a way from the others; we zipped ourselves in and climbed into our sleeping bags with many giggles. It didn’t take long for us to realize that for security reasons our tent was ringed with lights some thirty feet away . . .
“Then the roots under our sleeping bags started to torture our backs,” she continued. “It was very hard to sleep. Finally, George got up to go to the bathroom in the woods only to discover that behind every light and tree was a Secret Service agent.”
Nobody was taking any chances.
The next night, Barbara wrote, “a jar appeared for George’s nocturnal use.”
As life’s strange twists would have it, sixteen months later, as a budding White House correspondent covering Ronald Reagan, I approached Mrs. Bush at a White House Christmas party and reintroduced myself as the Montana reporter who regaled her and her husband on the topic of grizzly bears.
Her jaw dropped, she let out a scream, reached across the crowd for her husband, and pulled him in for a handshake and Glacier Park reunion. And six months later, when my wife and I were married, Mrs. Bush honored us with a heartfelt letter of congratulations.
In a political book published in 2004, I briefly wrote about the Bushes and their visit that summer to Glacier, including in the chapter several of the same bear tales I told that night around the campfire.
As Mrs. Bush wrote, “that was really one of the most fun trips we took.”
— John McCaslin is editor of the Rappahannock News