Monday, December 03, 2007

Bear tales


Rob commented on my last post and linked me to a poem he wrote about a close encounter of the ursine type. The poem is quite delightful. This poem and my previous post about my childhood camping adventures brought to mind a few bear stories of my own.
If you travel much in the northwestern United States (and southwestern Canada) you probably will encounter a black bear being fed by stupid people in cars. This is an especially common sight in British Columbia and Alberta. Of course you stop too and take a picture or two but this is not a fear-inducing sight. Nonetheless the human fear of bears strikes me as innate and rather visceral, like the fear of sharks and large cats. But tigers don’t roam wild in our neck of the woods and I’ve never met anyone who encountered a mountain lion. I’ve heard the latter are quite dangerous but they tend to stay away from people.
For reasons unknown, Readers Digest likes to run stories of people mauled by bears. As a kid I would always read those stories with a grim, morbid thrill of fear and, dare I say, fascination? Why they publish those stories and I read them only a more skilled psychoanalyst than I will choose to say.
The stories all went like this. Lisa B., a 23 year old secretary for a large automotive company, was minding her own business hiking in the woods through a patch of berry bushes when she heard a strange sound. She rounded the corner and found herself face to face with a large male grizzly bear. The bear chased her down the trail and knocked her to the ground with a single swipe of its large paw. A well educated woods-woman, Lisa knew the best idea was to play dead. Bravely she curled into a ball on the ground while the grizzly gnawed her arm and part of her face. Then the bear mysteriously lost interest and left her there to die. Fortunately, Lisa was found by two hikers who carried her and her left arm to safety. After 43 reconstructive surgeries, Lisa tells the tale with tears in her eyes but is looking forward to her next backpacking trip in the British Columbian Rockies.
Now, I just made up that story but is there a person on this planet that hasn’t read this story or one similar in a magazine? Lately the stories are of the crazy grizzly lover who, along with his girlfriend, was eaten by his favorite animal. Apparently the entire lovely moment was recorded on the fellow’s tape machine. They made a documentary about him. Now, I have no need to see that one. My imagination makes me shudder plenty without the visuals.
So am I afraid of bears due to too many stories or due to some innate, instinctive fear? Or is it just that I hiked enough to know that around every bend there might just be a bear. I don’t fear earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes or snakes. I do admit to a phobia of spiders and a fear of large barking dogs. Well, suffice to say that fears can be irrational, but my nightmares are often populated by bears.
My only in person encounter with a bear was in Yosemite. I was a relatively young kid and was playing in a creek near our camp ground. My younger brother was a few feet away. I chanced to look upstream and there was a black bear. It was minding its own business and I decided to do the same. I had to hiss a few times to get my brother’s attention and then we both took off. If you camp much in Yosemite, at least back in those days, having a bear stumble through your campground late at night was probably fairly common but that was the only bear I ever saw. Not too exciting in the retelling. Someday I’ll post about the earthquake I saw in Yosemite (yes, saw).
My next bear story is of the bear we didn’t see. Many years ago my family and I drove through the Chilcotin region of British Columbia. The area is pretty remote. It feels like the U.S. must have felt at the time the first roads and rails were going through. After some days of camping and hiking we headed in to Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. By then we had been driving for days on dirt roads. Presumably my father was praying we didn’t run into car trouble.
The road to Tweedsmuir is quite a trip. Here is one BC site’s description:
“The notorious stretch east of Bella Coola, known locally as 'the Hill,' is 27 miles (43 km) of steep, narrow road with sharp hairpin turns and two major switchbacks as the highway descends from the Chilcotin Plateau. Definitely not for drivers who suffer from a fear of heights, the Hill has a 5.6-mile (9-km) stretch of up to 18-percent grade.”
I’m guessing that the latter stretch is the part of the road my father asked us all to get out of the car while he drove, in case he went over the cliff. I’m glad he made it safely past that switchback.
Well, after this grueling drive, we pull into our campground by a river. It is a lovely spot and is well known for its fishing. Unfortunately for us the campground was deserted. There was no one around for miles. Just us, and the large signs posted over every garbage can: BEWARE OF GRIZZLY BEARS. Visions danced through our imaginative little heads. Just us, having a nice little bacon and eggs breakfast over an open fire, 4 little happy grizzly bear magnets waiting to be eaten. To make a long story short, we had braved the roads, the rain, and the mosquitoes (hordes) but that was the last straw. We drove on to the town of Bella Coola (population in 2007 of 909) and stayed in a hotel.
Now that I have beared you to death (sorry), I will finish with a recent bear tale. It too involves no visible bears. This past August I had the pleasure of traveling through Yellowstone and the Tetons. Bear bells were sold in every store. These are bells used to make noise while one hikes, to warn the bears you are coming—kind of like the dinner bell rung at camp. Not too many people wore them on the trails, except for the Asian tourists. All their children wore bear bells. I wasn’t sure how to interpret this non-scientific sociological finding. Did the tourists think they made great souvenirs? Or did they think that the U.S. has a bear on every corner, one with a special taste for Japanese and Chinese children? People I met in France still thought we have Al Capone style gangsters with Tommy guns here in Chicago. So bears in Wyoming make a certain sense. After all to some we still are a frontier backwater here in the U.S.
Thank you for bearing with me. Blogging live from chilly Lake Michigan, S. Kron wishes you a great day.


Kathe said...


j.white said...

You know, I remember those Reader's Digest stories about bears.

In fact, I had a friend, a pretty tough guy, who had a phobia about bears. He had terrible nightmares about being attacked by bears. On one occasion, I loaned him a .357 Magnum so he could go fishing in the woods with his son, as he would clench up from fear otherwise.



Andrée said...

My father was always after me to stop hiking alone, especially when the berries were ripe in the woods. I never did, but I did carry sticks and purposefully made a lot of noise hiking (which sort of negated the whole point of observing stuff in the woods). Now I am more worried about getting into some stupid predicament and getting hurt alone in the woods than I am about bears. Perspective changes as I age.