The Bear and the Maiden Fair

I live in a place where there are still wild things. I live in the kind of place where men still hunt bears. Where men accidentally kill a mother, and then rescue the cubs from the tree they’d climbed, yowling. Where people still raise bear cubs, letting them roam in the woods outside their cabin, letting them come into the cabin at dusk and climb into their laps for cuddles. “I know it was illegal,” said a friend of mine who had done this, “but she was so cool. So affectionate, with her little noises. The Game Warden found out and took her away. I’ve never looked at bears the same way since.”

The bears here usually keep to themselves, high in the mountains, and for a very long time I’d never seen any. But this summer has been hot, and the huckleberries expired more quickly than normal. There have been fires, too. Last night was exceptionally hot, meaning at 8:30 it was finally cool enough to go hiking. There was still light on the horizon, but in the trees it was dusky, difficult to make out details. I padded along through the dust in my bare feet, wearing nothing but a sports bra and a pair of yoga shorts. Normally the Syringa trails, an easy system close to town, are heavily populated — or heavily populated for this area; you’ll see a few clusters of hikers and mountain bikers over the course of an hour or two. But last night there was nobody. I like this trail at dusk, I thought. I feel almost like a primitive human in the wild, engaging all my senses.

I was rounding a left-sweeping bend when I heard something heavy in the underbrush. I stopped. There was a screen of trees in front of me, and I peered around them. I saw something black, an inky blob between the trees a stone’s-throw from me. Are my eyes playing tricks on me? Is that really a bear? And then it moved, crunching along in profile so that its bulky shape, long muzzle and rounded ears were obvious. Go up the trail, get away from it slowly, I thought. But no: the trail went left, so it was in the trail, thank you very much. Ok. Go back down the trail, then. But that also meant moving closer to the bear, thanks to the sweep of the path. Ok. Make noise. Alert it to my presence, in case it hasn’t noticed my very-obvious hot-human smell, and it will probably leave. So I called out into the darkness, warning the animal. And, indeed, it started to move, only… it was starting to move in my direction. It walked at a lumbering pace that did not seem particularly threatening, but I figured a curious, friendly bear was not something I wanted to be in close proximity to either. So I backed away from the approach, into the underbrush, and then I turned and wiggled through a thicket in the hope that a fat bear would be less likely to choose this path. I was thinking MovNat! MovNat! Fit to be useful! and I kept going until I reached a clearing. Stopped. Listened. Horrors: I could hear a large animal in the underbrush, closer than before.

I’d been scoping out the terrain for an easy tree to climb, and at this point I spotted one. It had fallen into a ramp between a cluster of small pines, and it was still heavily frilled with branches. The perfect MovNat tree. I picked my way up it until I was level with the cluster of pines, figuring that in a pinch I could stem my way up between two trunks, or else run the rest of the way up the ramp, hang and drop. Bears can climb trees, but they cannot climb like monkeys. Mostly, the tree offered a nice vantage point, and a nice place to start making copious amounts of noise. I started to yell out to any other hikers: “HEY! THERE’S a BEAR! And I’m up in a TREE! What do I do NOW?” No response, so I figured it was a perfect time to practice my Sub-Saharan yodel, a high-pitched, authoritative vibrato that has no doubt been used to strike fear into the hearts of large predators for millennia. Or at least that’s what I was telling myself.

After ten minutes of cawing yiyiyiyiyi at the top of my lungs, I reassessed my situation. It was pretty obvious I was not going to be rescued by anyone, and it was getting darker all the time. Soon it would be too dark to find the trail again — not that I was totally clear on where that was anyway. I briefly considered staying in the tree all night. Very briefly. That seemed like the least safe option, really.

It was up to me to rescue myself, so I climbed down from the tree. Just before I jumped to the ground, however, I imagined what my family would say if I died blundering into a bear in these dim woods. Why, they would say, why did she need to be so crazy? So I yodeled all the more fiercely and found a stick. This stick was going to be useless as a weapon, but it looked like a spear in profile, and maybe that would give the bear pause. And, let’s face it: I felt a lot braver with a stick in my hand. I walked in the direction of the trail, trying to avoid pokey things in the dark. In this I was unsuccessful, and my bare feet retained a number of prickles. But after only five minutes of searching, I found the trail again, and I marched along with my stick, chanting, yelling, puffing myself up like a near-naked peacock. “I AM A HUNTER!” I yelled “BUT NOT REALLY SO DON’T FEEL THREATENED!”

By this time it was so dark that I could see almost nothing. I imagined bears all around me, although I was pretty sure I’d hear them. As I’d discovered, bears are not silent, not even a little bit.

I made it safely to the bottom and went home, watching for bears even in the city limits. I just couldn’t stop seeing them now.

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