They say there was a man who could casually lookout over a vast expanse and spot a grizzly ten miles away with his naked eye. The legend is true, but doesn’t begin to tell the full story of the true gentleman, the man they called Luke.
Antelope Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a view of unparalleled wildness and grizzly habitat second to none. It was here – thanks to two loving, patient parents and the kindness of bear watcher Frank Butler – that I spent hours watching through a scope a grizzly sow play with her two rambunctious cubs, one of whom grew up to become the iconic Scarface. It was a sight that gave birth to a passion for bears and the spaces they call home, but it was a passion that wasn’t fully realized until my third visit to Antelope Valley, when I was 13.
When my family and I pulled into the same Antelope Valley overlook where we had seen that grizzly family years before, I had hoped to find a bear, but in truth I found so much more. You see, Leon Marshall and Maleea Abel were also waiting to spot a bear from the very same pullout – a place where they spent most summer evenings.
The warm, open couple from Utah were quick with a hello and their generosity of spirit helped me overcome my shyness and make, in many ways, my first true friends. They wanted to spot bears, of course, but they mostly derived joy in helping others find bears. And find bears they did.
Leon was the stuff of legend. As he moved his eyes across the meadows of Antelope, he would quietly announce, “bear on Skyline…bear on Honeymoon…bear on #3…bear on Golf Course”, all openings on the landscape he’d helped name to help people identify the animals more quickly. And you needed to be quick, for as soon as you’d find one of his spots in your binoculars, he’d have found another grizzly.
Indeed, Leon was so skilled at spotting bears, he became known as Luke – as in Skywalker, given his other-worldly ability to spot bruins walking along a skyline, literally, ten miles away.
What was to be a brief pitstop on our Yellowstone family camping trip became a nightly, yearly ritual. Hours and hours of my teenage years were spent with this couple and the legion of bear lovers who Luke and Maleea welcomed and made family. We watched hundreds of bears, including Scarface at every stage of his life, and had the chance to observe everything from the peaceful nap to the incredible thrill of a grizzly herding elk – all safely through the scope, where the bears didn’t even know of our presence.
Watching bears was a gift. It was a chance to learn and a chance to nurture my passion for the wild. It gave way to my twenty year journey to help save a bear closer to home, the white Kermode or spirit bear. And it was my refuge when the campaign became overheated and impossible to navigate.
Indeed, I was a shy kid with a stutter who didn’t easily make friends when I was younger. When the spirit bear campaign came to define my life, finding personal balance became harder than ever. But throughout the years, Luke’s quiet, steady and kind presence brought me peace and helped keep me going.
Last week, Luke left us and the world lost more than the greatest bear spotter who ever lived, but also a gentleman in every sense of the word. Maleea lost her beloved partner and our extended bear watching family lost the man who, in so many respects, brought us together. And even though Jill and I haven’t been able to visit Yellowstone and see Luke and Maleea in too long, he has rarely been far from our minds. We will miss him deeply.
So, if you find yourself parked in a dusty pull-out looking for far-off grizzlies in Yellowstone’s Antelope Valley, remember the legend of Luke and know that his spirit will forever walk the forest floors with the bears he loved so dearly. Take good care of our friend, Scarface.