It’s a summer night in Montana, and hikers across the Glacier National Park are tucked up in bed. Suddenly, a series of terrifying screams ring out through the dark. By morning, two teenage girls lie dead. But who – or what – could have committed this terrible deed?
Julie Helgeson was born on February 21, 1948, in Albert Lea, a city in Minnesota. A singer and cheerleader in high school, she began attending the state university after her graduation. Over the years, she had grown into a fun, beautiful young woman, well liked by those around her.
In June 1967 19-year-old Julie took a summer job at Glacier Park Lodge, a hotel situated on the edge of the park. Afterwards, she planned on returning to her studies, but she was excited to spend the summer in the great outdoors. So, on the morning of August 12, she set out with a friend named Roy Ducat to explore.
Like many visitors to Glacier National Park, Julie and Roy began their hike at Logan Pass. For almost eight miles, they walked along the scenic Highline Trail. But by the time that they arrived at Granite Park Chalet, a historic building in the middle of the park, they discovered that all the beds were taken.
As a result, the pair decided to spend the night at the adjoining campsite instead. Although the site was still being developed, Julie and Roy set up camp and settled down for the evening. Sadly, however, Julie’s wilderness adventure was about to be cut tragically short.
Some 20 miles away, another 19-year-old girl, Michele Koons, was also trying to get some sleep. A freshman at California Western University, she was a popular teenager who loved to be the center of attention. That summer, she had taken a job in the gift shop of one of the park’s many lodges.
Earlier that day, Michele and four friends had made their way to Trout Lake, a picturesque spot in a remote region of the park. Along the way, they encountered two hikers who warned them that grizzly bears had been spotted in the area. And sure enough, once the group had made camp, they spotted one of the animals nearby.
Cautious of the wild animal, Michele and her friends decided to move their camp to another location closer to the lake. But at around 2:00 a.m., the bear returned. After nosing around their old site, the creature made its way to where the five campers lay huddled in their sleeping bags.
As the bear crept closer, the campers listened in fear. Eventually, it reached Paul Dunn’s sleeping bag, and he jumped away. Climbing up a tree to safety, he watched as two of the group managed to escape. Michele stayed put, however.
Sadly, it would prove to be a very bad decision. The bear attacked, and dragged Michele off into the dark. “She screamed, ‘He’s got my arm,’” Dunn recalled in a 2017 interview with the Daily Inter Lake. “Then the other thing she screamed was ‘Oh my god, I’m dead,’ which was bone-chilling.”
Even more terrifyingly, Michele’s weren’t the only screams to ring out across Glacier National Park that August night. Unbeknownst to the Trout Lake campers, another tragedy was unfolding back at Granite Park Chalet. At around the same time, a different grizzly bear had made its way into Julie and Roy’s camp.
Initially, Julie woke Roy and told him to play dead. And even though the bear began to maul him, he managed to maintain the charade. But when the animal left him and started attacking Julie instead, she couldn’t keep quiet for long. Soon, she started to scream.
As she struggled, the bear picked up Julie and carried her off down the mountainside. Hours later, rescuers found her, bleeding heavily and barely alive. And even though three doctors were found among the chalet’s guests, Julie was too badly injured to survive. Just after 4:00 a.m., she passed away.
Back at Trout Lake, Michele’s friends hid in the trees, waiting for the sun to rise. When morning eventually came, they summoned help. Soon, rangers discovered Michele’s mauled body just minutes from the camp. In one evening, the grizzly bears of Glacier National Park had claimed two victims – the first recorded fatalities that the region had ever seen.
As the authorities struggled to make sense of the double tragedy, many began to criticize the park’s approach to managing its dangerous residents. At the time, it was commonplace for businesses to feed their trash to the bears, creating a spectacle for visiting tourists.
In some places, bleachers had even been built around rubbish dumps, so that visitors could watch the bears feed. And at Granite Park Chalet, the managers took a similar approach, deliberately using food to entice the animals. Meanwhile, campsites across the park were routinely left strewn with litter, giving the bears another reason to associate people with food.
After the events of August 12, the park’s approach to bear management changed almost overnight. A camping ban was rolled out across the region, and officials began puzzling over how to make the area safe. Meanwhile, rangers launched a hunt for the bears that had claimed two human lives.
Days later, two rangers shot and killed the grizzly that had fatally mauled Michele. More bears would suffer the same fate, although no tests were able to ascertain whether one of the dead animals had been responsible for Julie’s death. In addition, park officials began developing measures to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
From garbage cans that keep out bears to cables that allow food to be suspended between trees, Glacier National Park today is full of precautions designed to keep the potentially deadly animals away from human visitors. It isn’t always enough, however. Sadly, the park saw another death in 2016, when a mountain biker crossed paths with a grizzly bear.
All around the country, in fact, the impact of Julie and Michele’s deaths can still be felt today. The days of feeding scraps to bears are long gone, and parks everywhere have adopted a more sensible approach. For the girls’ families, the change in policy has provided comfort over the years. “That her life and death were not in vain is good enough for me,” Michele’s sister Teri Culpepper told Daily Inter Lake.