I’ve had an odd relationship with bears for all of my adult life. Living in the Sonoran Desert during the formative years of my hiking and backpacking career it was common to cross paths with rattlesnakes. Consequently, I respected the venomous creatures but harbored little to no fear of them. Bears, on the other hand, were the thing of nightmares. They were malicious creatures intent on dragging me out of my tent for a late night snack. It wasn’t a matter of “if” it would happen, it was “when.” My fear paralyzed me to the point that one night, while car camping in Flagstaff with an ex-girlfriend, I left our tent after hours of sleeplessness to lock myself in our truck.
I knew I wasn’t being rational. I knew there wasn’t a bear in the woods somewhere that had heard through the grapevine about a tasty little dude in Phoenix. I read every book I could get my hands on that dispensed bear safety wisdom. It didn’t help. Mind you, I’d never actually seen a wild bear. But that didn’t matter. Bears were put on earth to eat me and that was that.
Then, in 2000, on my first trip to Grand Teton National Park, I shared a trail with a bear. Five bears, actually. Five beautiful black bears who would forever change my relationship with the ursine world. That same ex-girlfriend and I were hiking to Amphitheater Lake when two young women came around a bend in the trail, their eyes as wide as Frisbees, and breathlessly told us that a mama bear and two cubs were just up the hill. They wasted no time passing us and continuing down the trail, in the opposite direction of the bear family. I unholstered my bear spray, clicked off the safety and started slowly walking up the trail.
I saw the sow first. She was standing dead center in the middle of the trail. She slowly turned her head to look at us and her expression made it clear that we’d come close enough. Only 50 yards stood between me and the most beautiful animal I’d ever seen. We slowly backed away and when the bear was comfortable enough with our distance, she averted her gaze. Just then, two little cubs wobbled out of the brush and gathered around Mom. We watched the bears walk the trail uphill for a short distance and then disappear into woods.
I stood there in silence. Neither of us spoke. I holstered the bear spray and after some time, a few minutes perhaps, we resumed our upward trek. Two switchbacks later we saw another bear throwing large clumps of earth as it dug for grubs or possibly roots. It was right next to the trail, even closer than the first bears. We stopped at our switchback and hikers coming downhill queued up at the one just above us. We waited and waited and waited for the bear to finish digging. Eventually, it did and we passed a dozen or so hikers headed downhill, all of whom had massive grins stretched across their faces.
We made it to the lake and enjoyed a hiker’s lunch in the sun before heading back downhill. Very near the spot where we’d seen the sow and cubs we again found ourselves in the company of a bear. This bear was young, maybe two or three years old, and surprisingly small. It was standing on the trail above a woman who was taking a break just off-trail. She was digging through her pack, oblivious to the fact that a bear was sniffing the air only a few feet above her head. We didn’t want to yell at her as we were afraid it would spook the bear. Instead, we stood quietly and watched, ever hopeful we weren’t about to witness a mauling. The bear ambled away and began munching on vegetation alongside the trail. A trail runner coming uphill ran right by the bear, close enough to smack it on the butt if he was so inclined, and rushed past us. The bear didn’t flinch. Again we waited for the bear to move and again the bear was living life on his own time. We watched as several other hikers walked right by the bear and finally decided that maybe we should do the same. So, we did. And the bear didn’t budge.
Those encounters must have been therapeutic. I no longer fear bears. I respect them. I hold them in the highest of reverence. But I don’t fear them. I don’t lie awake in my tent, panicking every time the wind rustles a few leaves. I enjoy the quiet, fleeting moments in the mountains when I and a bear occupy the same meadow. I understand now that bears, for the most part, do not want to make a meal of me.
Melissa, Jackson and I recently spent a few days in the Tetons. On our first afternoon in the park we found ourselves trapped in the middle of a bear jam near Oxbow Bend. Traffic wasn’t budging so we sat in the truck and watched a grizzly bear move increasingly closer to the road. I grabbed my camera with 70-300mm lens attached and made a few images through the open window. Park rangers soon arrived and somehow managed to get traffic moving in both directions. Leaving the bear behind, we passed bison and deer, elk and pronghorn, before rolling into town for dinner at the Merry Piglet.
I saw the same bear the next morning. It was a brief encounter and at much more of a distance. But it was quieter. The tourists weren’t awake yet. Only a handful of die-hard wildlife watchers lingered on the side of the road with high powered spotting scopes and lenses that cost more than my truck. We each enjoyed our time with the bear and when he disappeared into a willow thicket, I drove off into the clarity of a summer morning.