Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Bear in the Woods

Something happened in my former town that I can't stop thinking about. It is not my story to tell; I don't live there anymore. You can read more details here. Basically there is this: a man is dead, perhaps waiting it out for rescue in a remote cove by a fire on the beach, signs of a struggle, a trail to a cache of his partially eaten remains, a sow and cubs aggressively defending it.

This was my fear every time I went to sleep in my tent somewhere in the Alaska wilderness, which was just about every week in summer due to my job as a kayak ranger. I would lie there, cold rain pattering on the slim nylon walls, cold steel of a rifle beside me, headlamp and pepper spray close at hand. It was a fear I never really got over, even after seeing hundreds of bears in the seven years that I lived there. They walked right by the tent, past us on the trails, and up the streams. Sometimes we saw them swimming. I hung around bear hunting guides and their clients, even though I wasn't fond of that type of "harvest", just to learn more about bears and their habits.

In all that time only two bears acted strangely. Once a bear stalked between us and our kayaks, causing us to crouch in the woods waiting him out. The other time a sow with cubs charged us, growling, standing up, circling, our mauling almost a certainty except that we had five people in our group, enough to give her pause.

Here in a tamer place, there are no grizzlies. Black bears are rare sights. People fret over wolves and mountain lions. I don't really think about them. It has always been bears that haunted my dreams.

What we fear is a strangely personal thing. I have a friend who is deathly afraid of thunderstorms. Another, of heights. I can argue all day long that it is only low cloud cover, only exposure, but they are not convinced. I am the same way with bears. After seven years I achieved a certain level of comfort: I ran the trails alone, day hiked alone, but could never camp alone, not once.

Nobody will ever know what happened on that beach. I want to believe that a mistake was made, something preventable, but I know that sometimes in the wilderness things just strike back. If we want safety the answer isn't just to shoot all the wolves. It's to stay home.

1 comment:

  1. My biggest fear while camping has always been bears. Ever since I was little. I also though have a fascination with seeing bears while out in the wilderness. I am bummed if I don't see one bear all summer, yet if I see one then my outdoor experience for the summer is complete.

    It wasn't until this past April that I ever slept in a tent by myself. Had it been in bear country I probably wouldn't have. My son does with Boy Scouts and it worries me. How often do 30 some boys pick up all their food and scraps. My son has woke up in the morning to bear prints outside his tent. Did it worry him...nope.

    Who knows if the fear and fascination was brought when I was three. While visiting Mt Rainer with my parents, a bear came up to our picnic table. It rifled through our cooler that was sitting at the opposite end of the table from me. My parents grabbed my 6 month old sis and headed for the truck leaving the cooler and me behind. The bear proceeded to take our bag of Snickers and eat them while I was eating my lunch.

    Mom says there is no way that I remember this, that I only remember it because of the story being told. What's strange is I do remember details that are not told in the story ie: color of my jacket, where they were standing, what side of the table that cinnamon colored bear was on and what side I was on (the same side), I was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and had potato chips on my plate, the air was crisp and the sky was clear. I do remember.

    Guess I will never know for sure what makes me fear yet also be fascinated by them.

    Cougars and wolves on the other hand creep me out for sure. Never knowing if there is a cougar in a tree watching me. That scares me. I don't have a Want to see them like I do a bear.

    Whatever it is yo are not going to get me to just stay home. I need my outdoor time.


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