My friend Derek has a bear story about time he rounded the bend to find a bear sniffing his son’s neck:
We were almost back to the parking lot and Will (then 6 years old) had gotten maybe 20 feet ahead of us. He went around a little bend in the trail, and all of a sudden I hear him screaming… and go running up there.
We were hiking in Montana near Red Lodge in the Beartooth Mountains. We had hiked a few miles up, and were on our way back down. The trail is bounded on one side by a raging river (ironically, called the Stillwater), and on the other side by a cliff. We’re normally pretty careful about bears and mountain lions when in the wilderness, and keep the kids between us. Beth had Elias (2 at the time) in an Ergo kid-carrier on her back. This was summer of 2010, about a week after the deadly grizzly attacks just outside of Yellowstone. We were about an hour away from where those attacks occurred.
When I ran up, I saw Will on the ground in the fetal position with his hands clasped behind his neck… and the bear straddling him, sniffing at his neck.
I yell at the bear, and he jumps off Will and sidles over to my left. At this point, I whip out the iPhone to record some video… meanwhile we’re looking for other cubs and/or momma bear (you can hear Beth, my wife, say “where’s mom?” at the beginning of the video).
As you can see in the video… the bear keep stopping and looking back at Will (to my right)… and wanting to go back that way. I have to keep telling him to “go on, bear.”
As I finally chase the bear back up the trail, we high-tail it for the parking lot. It’s starting to lightning and hail at this point… and as we trot to the car Will (holding my hand) says:
“Yeah?” I say.
“I was pretty sure my life was about to be over.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I can see why.”
Will couldn’t stop talking about the bear’s teeth… how big they were, how close they were.
A few days later, as we were driving back to Boulder, I say: “Hey boys, check it out, those are the bear teeth,” (pointing to the rock formations that run along the ridges… from whence the mountains get their name).
Will quietly says: “those don’t look like bear teeth.”
Here is the video Derek took while he was shoo’ing the bear away.
I’ve known Derek for a while and he is the level headed sort, but the way he keeps his cool in this situation is amazing. This is one reason that I’m interested in bear stories, they offer a way to glimpse inside.
Derek hits the balance exactly right. He gets his son away from the bear and makes it clear that Will is not an easy meal (I’m not sure the bear was convinced that he was either). At the same time, Derek recognizes that the bear is struggling to survive. We talked about how the bear looks to be in poor condition.
A recent book about keeping a level head is Bears: Without Fear by Kevin Van Tighem (review). He talks about how a, “fear of bears seems almost to be part of what it is to be human.” How we depict bears–either as the ultimate monster, a symbol for doomed nature, or a cute and cuddly play thing–shows that we are focusing on our fears, rather than on the bears reality. Another title for Kevin’s book might be Treat Bears As If They Are Bears.
I aim to treat bears as bears. My novel, The Bear, is very much about coping with and trying to move past fear. And the next time I’m in a sticky situation? I hope Derek is along.