What is a bear?

Just in time for throwback Thursday, I answer the question “What is the scariest thing a backpacker can face?”

One time my brother and I went for a little drive. A little one. It took six months and twenty thousand miles to find our way home. We got some pretty good stories out of those miles. This is one of my favorites.

It was raining. God how he hated the rain. Especially the pussy-footed kind of rain that wouldn’t decide if all hell would go ahead and break loose or it would just finally stop. No, it was a mediocre trickle at best and the air was thick and dripping with mist. So his face was covered in mist. He still had to wear a rain jacket and pants, and his boots still got soaked, and it was still cold. It was always cold in Alaska, especially in the mountains. And it had been raining for three days already which made it especially cold. Hours spent in the tent, wasted, waiting for it to let up. The smell inside that tent was becoming unbearable: three days of sweat combined with a dampness that never went away.

But here they were, walking downhill. On the whole, they were having fun, but afternoons like today were the kind of afternoons that might make them forget it. He was with his brother you see, and they had driven a long way to get to where they were.

Jamie was a college dropout, he just didn’t know it yet. For now, he was just happy to be in a new place, on a new adventure and dispossessed of his last set of problems. You tend not to care about ‘real life’ when your daily existence is reduced to a survival situation, albeit one of your own creation. That’s why he came out here. That’s definitely why Ross came out here. He was an Ivy League graduate and one year after graduation was still living at home and working as a waiter, and was definitely in need of a fresh start. So they got in the car and drove north. And now they were walking downhill in the rain. That damned rain.

Three days of rain and the above freezing temperatures, even if they were just barely above freezing, were letting the last of the late summer snow pack melt, and this had made the creeks and rivers swell. The creek bed was starting drop into the earth.

“Hey bro! I don’t think we’re going to be able to walk much further,” Ross shouted. He shouted, because the roar of the creek was deafening, much more so than a few hundred feet above. And that deafening sound was accompanied by powerful water that would not be safe to walk near for much longer, that, and the the creek was cliffing out.

“Yeah,” Jamie shouted back, “I think you’re right. We better try and find a way out of here!”

The pair hopped from stone to stone down the coursing creek, looking for an opening, praying for an opening from the cliffed out canyon onto the grassy finger above them. And then they saw the way out: a steep, muddy dirt ramp that led upward. Ross went first, scrambling on hands and knees, stabbing at the dirt with hiking poles, and after a brief but powerful effort he was standing on the grassy ridge. Jamie followed closely behind. As he cleared the dirt and began walking down the gentle, grassy slope he saw Ross walk up a small rise and make an abrupt turn in the wrong direction.

‘What in the hell is he doing?’ Jamie thought to himself curiously, and mildly irritated. And then Jamie too came up on top of the small rise.

And what follows took place in the amount of time it takes your jaw to drop. His mind recognized what his eyes saw: a mother grizzly bear with her two cubs, thirty feet away, nibbling at the grass. And then the adrenaline started. And that got his heart racing and his instincts took over. It was instinctual to grab the can of bear mace strapped to his chest. He grabbed it and then he too took the same instinctual, abrupt turn that Ross had taken. And without really thinking too hard they were a hundred yards away. They stopped and stared at one another.

“HOLY SHIT!”, they both yelled in a hoarse whisper. But there wasn’t any time for fear yet, so they didn’t get scared, they just moved.

And without needing to discuss it they just turned and walked another two hundred yards further up the finger. Then they stopped again. Jamie looked down wind at the mother bear, and she stopped eating, and looked up at him, held her gaze for a brief second longer than made either of them comfortable, and went back to eating.

“We gotta get out of here,” Ross said.

Jamie just nodded his head and started walking. The walking was brisk but it wasn’t running. The mandatory bear training says never to run because it triggers a predatory reflex in the bears and they’ll maul you. So they walked briskly. And when they had walked a few hundred feet more up the finger they paused and noticed a thick fog rolling in. And for the briefest fraction of a second, Jamie thought to himself that this fog was a savior, that it would provide the necessary cover they needed from her on what was otherwise an open and grassy plain. And in the same exact second he realized, no, the fog would not provide them cover. It would only provide her cover. She could still smell them. Jamie shared his ridiculous notion with his brother and they laughed; even if they weren’t prepared to laugh at death — which a fully grown grizzly bear defending cubs certainly embodies — they should be able to laugh at the feebleness of humans compared to raw wild power.

And then they did the only thing they could do in such a situation: they sat down back to back in the fog, holding cans of bear mace gingerly in their hands, unsure if it would really stop a four hundred pound, six foot tall killing machine that could sprint thirty miles an hour. They weren’t sure, but there wasn’t fear. Not in the traditional sense. The shivering that was setting in wasn’t from fear, but the mild hypothermia caused by half an hour of sitting perfectly still in the cold rain. No, what the adrenaline that was coursing through their veins had given them was an intense appreciation how badly things could have gone, and potentially could still go, if she thought for one second that they were a threat to her babies. Fight or flight had told them to fly and fly they did.

And then the fog started to clear. And when they had stood up and decided to walk back down the hill, she was gone. And they could see her with her two precious gifts far above, about a mile away, on another ridge. She hadn’t wanted to tangle with them anymore than they had wanted to tangle with her. And for that they were grateful.

So that was that. The afternoon’s excitement was over. But this was Alaska. The bear had just been an excuse to sit down and rest. The day was not done yet.

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