WHITEFISH - When a plucky wrangler and her lion-hearted steed hazed a charging grizzly bear away from an 8-year-old boy this summer, the unlikely duo trotted out of a remote corner of Montana and into the national spotlight.

Their stardom grew each time the harrowing tale was recounted in the news media, and peaked in October with a guest appearance on the "Late Show with David Letterman," who introduced the pair by exclaiming, "How can you not love this story?"

And while the celebrity stature seems to have had little effect on 26-year-old Erin Bolster - the 5-foot-10-inch blonde still wears an unassuming grin and the vintage vestures of a seasoned wrangler - the attention was briefly intoxicating to her colossal draft horse, Tonk.

"He was such a ham," Bolster said of Tonk's trip to New York. "His trailer was parked all day on Fifth Avenue (in Manhattan) and he let everyone who walked by feed him. He probably ate 25 apples and a bag of carrots."

At 1,800 pounds, the Percheron-cross has hooves the size of paint cans and a girth that could dwarf a Prius. A striking animal in any context, Tonk's national television appearance was preceded by all manner of primping and preening. A liberal dousing of whitening shampoo had his pearl coat gleaming for the audience, and Tonk looked nothing short of a mythical creature.

He behaved the perfect gentleman in rehearsal and was unfazed when Letterman climbed on his broad back, but when the cameras were rolling and a handler led Tonk out on stage to the raucous applause of 440 audience members, he startled and turned tail.

But only for a moment.

Bolster quickly calmed him and turned Tonk back toward the crowd's glowing approval.

"They (the network) spent $16,000 transporting Tonk to New York, but they said if he didn't want to go on stage he didn't have to," Bolster said. "It's kind of ironic because when I first met him he was very spooky and flighty. A piece of paper could blow by and scare him."

***

That was Tonk's demeanor in early summer, when Bolster first encountered the draft horse - a gentle giant that would sooner fly the coop than square-off against 750 pounds of charging grizzly bear. And who could blame him?

Despite a brief bout of camera shyness, after the duo's harrowing run-in with the grizzly bear and the life-saving rescue of an 8-year-old boy, Tonk and Erin will surely be remembered for their mettle and heroism.

Tonk was leased from a farm in Wyoming by Swan Mountain Outfitters, where Bolster spends her summers as a wrangler leading horseback trail rides through the Flathead National Forest.

When Bolster led Tonk from a stable of 48 horses on the morning of July 30, she'd spent more than a month working to build the big mount's trust and had forged a bond.

"It was like flipping a switch," she recalls. "Once we established that trust it was clear that he'd follow me into fire."

On that summer morning, Tonk had only to follow her on an hourlong trail ride near Desert Mountain, which sits in the shadow of Glacier National Park.

***

Bolster and Tonk were leading a group of eight riders on one of the most basic and popular horseback rides that Swan Mountain Outfitters offers, and had prepared for an ordinary day.

"There was absolutely no indication that it was going to be a wild day, and I chose Tonk mainly because he'd rested the day before and he needed to get out," Bolster said.

And out they went, moving along the trail at a casual pace until, about 15 minutes into the ride, Tonk stopped suddenly and froze.

Bolster knew immediately that something was wrong, and when she heard the snapping sound of branches breaking she turned to see a wide-eyed white-tailed buck crashing through the trees. The bounding deer glanced off Tonk's side and then caromed off of Scout, a young mount that was carrying 8-year-old Ian, from California, who had never before ridden a horse.

Then Bolster turned back toward the woods and saw what had spooked the deer - a grizzly bear was tearing across the forest floor, chasing its prey with a single-minded focus.

When the deer burst through the trees the riding party scattered, and seven of the eight horses shot up the trail toward the barn.

The deer peeled off in the direction of the group, but Scout had spun toward the deer's initial path of travel and bolted into the woods. The boy was out of the stirrups and leaning forward, clinging desperately to Scout's mane and saddle horn.

The grizzly bear followed on their heels.

"He had tunnel vision for that pony and that little boy," Bolster said.

***

Bolster grew up near Roanoke, Va., but her mother is a native Montanan and her father once led pack trips through the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. She owned her first horse at the age of 4 and was training American Saddlebreds by the time she was 14. At 16, she was training and riding professionally, ran a riding academy, and even worked with actor William Shatner's horse.

She has been around horses ever since.

"My first horse was a draft horse," she said of the Clydesdale-cross she owned when she was 4 years old. "You can trust a big horse. They're gentle and loyal."

On numerous occasions last summer, Tonk had shown that he was no different, and Bolster knew she would mark the end of her season by purchasing either Tonk or another horse she'd been riding.

Tonk proved his loyalty definitively on that July morning, and it took only an instant for Bolster to make up her mind - the moment she dug her heels into Tonk's flank and wheeled the animal toward the woods, chasing after the boy, the bear and Scout the horse.

"Tonk made one turn toward the barn and I pulled the rein," Bolster said. "And that was it."

***

As Bolster and Tonk dashed through the trees, she knew the boy was likely to fall off into the bear's path if Scout stopped or turned abruptly. She had to drive the bear away if she wanted to save the boy.

Bolster gained on the bear and the boy and cut an angle, putting herself and Tonk's broadside between the wild animal and its prey, hoping to shift the bear's focus away from Scout and haze him off. Instead, the bear continued charging.

So Bolster spun Tonk toward the bear and rushed him head-on, bearing down and hoping to call its bluff.

The bear came within eight feet of the pair before it reared back on its hind legs and veered left of their path.

"I thought he was either going to roll out of the way or stand his ground and keep after the boy," Bolster said. "And the bear rolled off."

At that point Scout had stopped and the boy had fallen to the ground uninjured. But the bear was circling around and made another run toward Scout and the boy. Bolster again put Tonk's broadside between the bear and the boy, and this time the grizzly scampered off for good.

Bolster situated the boy in front of her on Tonk and trotted back to the trailhead with Scout in tow, met by the boy's unimaginably relieved mother and father. The boy's father had been along for the ride, but unlike Tonk, the horse he was riding refused to confront a charging bear. It sped toward the barn with the others, and the boy's father was overwhelmed with a nightmarish sensation - his son was being chased by a grizzly bear, and there was nothing he could do.

Fortunately, Bolster and Tonk were on the job. And despite the outpouring of job offers, it seems as though they'll both be staying for a while.

***

Recently, on a crisp morning at a ranch north of Whitefish, Bolster brushed Tonk and fed him a snack while waiting for her friend, Christen Rak, to arrive for a trail ride.

Rak works as a manager at Swan Mountain Outfitters and was among the first to speak with Bolster after the bear confrontation. Since then, she's been so inspired by the story that she intends to write a children's book to depict the hair-raising narrative with a happy ending.

And even though Bolster has retold the story 100 times by now, her articulation of the events still gives listeners goose bumps.

"Everything seemed to happen in slow motion," she says. "I have a very clear memory of everything visually, and I remember the smell - it smelled like a hungry, dirty bear - but I have no memory of what it sounded like. My last memory of sound was that deer crashing through the trees."

Asked whether she was in shock or just running on pure adrenaline when she turned Tonk toward the bear and, without hesitation, dug in her heels, Bolster says she was totally aware of the consequences.

The boy depended on her, and she depended on Tonk.

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

 

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