How to stare into the face of a black bear (or what not to do)

black-bear

The first time I ever visited Big Bend NP I was under prepared. I was a novice camper and new to backcountry hiking/camping. I think it was 2003, which means I was like, 22.

I bought a tent at a garage sale for $20 bucks. It weighed at least 60lbs. I did not know they came lighter. Novice deluxe. I also had a large stove with propane bottles, a sleeping bag, a couple of pans and lots of food. I guess I just assumed that you camped in the backcountry the same way you did in developed camp sites.

I must have looked like an idiot carrying all of that junk hiking into the back country. You couldn’t tell me that though.

I only made it a mile, maybe two, the first day. I set up camp and decided I would leave it all set up there and just day-hike the next several days choosing a different direction/trail each time. On the third day I decided I wanted to hike up one of the mountains.

It was foggy and wet. It seems I had picked visiting the park during the rainy season, a particularly hard time to be at Big Bend, and not a popular time to be there either. The rain is unpredictable and causes flash flooding in a millisecond.

I was having a great time on the way up. It was just a little chili. The fog was thick which felt exciting. Like I was breaking new ground. And I felt like I could smell it, the fog. About eight tenths of the way up I stopped where there was a nice overlook, only all I could see were clouds below me and more mountain peaks across the distance.

Suddenly, I see a guy coming down. He’s walking briskly. Without stopping when he gets close, says “you should turn around and go back, there was a bear about 15 minutes back up the mountain. I didn’t wait for him to see me.”

“Whoa!” I said, “Thanks for the heads up!”

Then I was torn. Something inside of me lit up when he said there was a bear ahead. I got excited to see one in its natural habitat and at the same time felt afraid for my life. I also thought, if I get injured that’s it. There might not be anyone to find me if I get injured and can’t walk.

Bears have been my favorite animal since second grade. All of them. I dream of having bear pets. I would have hated myself if I didn’t try to see it. So I went up the mountain. Now though, for safety sake I was walking slower, quieter, looking for tracks on the ground, and listening for out of the ordinary sounds.

First I saw tracks. Much too big to be a dog and not really the same. There were five toes instead of four. And defined claw imprints.

Cue the dryness in my throat.

Next, I heard very strong walking sounds. I might even say I could feel the ground vibrate a bit – at least I remember it that way. There was heavy breathing too. Almost like someone grunting under their breath.

Cue the panic in my brain and the heart palpitations.

I chickened out. I couldn’t go any further. I very quickly turned around and headed back down the mountain, as quietly as I possibly could. I felt like it was following me the whole way. I felt like I could still hear it off to the side of the trail. My heart was pumping so hard I couldn’t feel my legs. I had to concentrate just to remember they were there so that I wouldn’t fall all over them.

I got down to the bottom and felt immediate relief coupled with regret. I didn’t get to see the bear.

The next day when I woke, the regret was so heavy on me that I decided to hike up the same mountain, on the same trail that day. I made it to the where the tracks were, but there were no noises this time. I made it all the way up, fearing every corner, but alas, there was not a bear in sight. I spent a little time in quiet thinking about the fear that I felt and wondering why my life was so precious that I had to preserve it at all costs.

I remember feeling really connected on the mountain top. I could see out in all directions and everything felt like it was below me. I knew God was near and I was trying hard to listen to see if He was saying anything. I walked away with a sense of peace, but no great wisdom or insight that I could sense. The peace was enough. I made peace with my fear. I knew it could be a helper, but the previous day it felt more like my master than my helper.

A few years later I was in Big Bend again. This time with a 6 pound tent, no stove (as I only carried in nuts and dried fruit, the rest I foraged), and just a small sleeping bag. By this time I had learned to hike 8-plus hours a day and keep up the pace for several days. I had learned a few tricks such as grinding mesquite seeds into a flour and adding juniper berries and water to make a sort of pancake. I had seen my fair share of wildlife by this point also, such as elk and big horn sheep. Still no bear.

One day while hiking though some dense trees I looked to my left and saw a huge black bear about 30 feet away. He saw me before I saw him. We both stopped in our tracks and stared at each other. I was so excited that I almost started smiling before remembering there wasn’t a fence between us.

We continued to stare at each for what seemed decades. The whole time I was thinking “you shouldn’t be staring, you shouldn’t be staring, you’re threatening him,” but I couldn’t help it. I could feel myself getting nervous and I had the thought he was going to rush me. He was staring, and dead still. I felt like prey. The air turned pulpy.

Then something happened in me. I remembered my regret from last time. I decided that I wasn’t going to back down or shrink. I was going to keep my ground at all costs. About 5 seconds after I decided that within me, the bear broke eye contact and slowly walked away, turning back to look at me every few steps to make sure I wasn’t getting closer.

I stood there and watched it until it left my sight all together.

I felt calm. I actually felt much the same as I did on the mountain years before, like king on top of the world, yet humble.

There is something about courage that requires us to be willing to lose our life in order to save it.

G.K. Chesterton says it best for me: “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.”

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