I hiked out the mountain, in the direction that we last saw the bear headed.
“Good.” I thought while noting the bird calls and songs. The presence of squirrels. The deer my presence flushed out.
The industry of woodland creatures ceases when a predator is (or has been recently) present. A bear qualifies as an interruptor of forest peace. Now, if one blunders without care, stomping through the woods, as I have done countless times with my children, one cannot judge the lack of activity of the small creatures as a guide for other, larger presences, b/c in this case, you are the nuisance.
But today, by myself I hiked quietly up amidst the constant chatter and motion of small creatures, knowing the bear wasn’t close by.
I acquired a nonchalance about bears as a child. The mountain hollow I grew up in boasted an abundance of skunk cabbage—which bears love to eat (think “spring salad!”). I frequently stumbled across bears in my walk-abouts and riding my horse. Returning from one of my adventures, I’d offhandedly mention, “Oh, Mom, Dad…saw another bear today.”
Of course I’d been taught all the common sense about bears. A good bear is a bear that’s afraid of you and going the other direction. Never feed them. Never approach. And for the love of everything, steer clear of adorable bear cubs.
One afternoon, I’d been riding my old horse on a plateau at the top of the mountain. Our family dog, Maria, accompanied me. Rounding a bend on the old logging trail we rode on, my breath snagged and the dog, and I and my horse stopped short. A bear loomed on the other side of the bend.
In the middle of that moment—you know the moment that stretches out before you while you realize chaos is going to break out in the next moment— while the bear, dog, horse, and I processed the company we were now in, I saw how Maria’s black fur matched the black fur of the bear. The dog and bear glistened black in the sun.
The spell broke. The bear bolted with Maria, outraged and woofing, in hot pursuit. And I, still on my horse, crashed through the brush following after them, screaming Maria’s name—I knew what one cuff from a bear would do to a dog.
“Maria! Come back, come back!” I screamed. Minutes later, she, unaffected and seemingly satisfied with her chase, circled back to me. No sign of the bear now. We continued on our merry way.
Just another bear sighting in the life of a rural mountain girl.
Now that I’m older I do have more dread of bears, and less ambivalence than in the past. I can still see the magic of these oftentimes charismatic predators. But I’ve seen all the YouTube videos of supposed last moments of people recorded in blurry cell phone videos of frightening bears bearing down on the phone holder until the screen goes ominously blank.
I’ve reasoned these things through. Sometimes though “what if’s” win and weigh me down. I try to keep this perspective:
Be cautious. Be a little afraid. But go anyway. Life life.
There will always be bears.