They’re back! It’s spring in the Greater Yellowstone area, and the bears are awake and afoot. Some of you may remember that the dogs and I had a little encounter last year (see Not the Top of the Food Chain, and Bear Update). Well, this year it was three local girls, who got pinned up in Suce Creek for two or two and a half hours by a grizzly. They were hiking, they saw the bear, the bear charged and they all yelled at one another to drop and cover their necks. They dropped to the fetal position, covered the backs of their necks with their hands, and hung in there as the bear charged, charged again, jumped over one of them, and essentially wouldn’t let them move. The story is here, in the Livingston Enterprise (you might have to scroll down). They did everything right, and came through it unscathed, and with a major life experience under their belts.
Then a couple of days ago, the paper ran a follow-up piece. The girls had gotten a photo just as the bear charged them and my buddy Bill Campbell circulated the photo to his bear scientist buddies, and they all agreed, it looks like it was a grizzly. Bill’s classic quote in the paper was that knowing the bears are up there adds “a dynamic tension” to hiking. Dynamic tension?
I love Bill like family, but what to Bill is dynamic tension, is to some of the rest of us, just way too fucking scary. I don’t really feel like I’ve got that kind of luck to burn — I got out of my bear encounter unscathed last year, but most of the time, I just feel like day-to-day life is scary enough. Especially since Patrick died — I used to be brave. I used to climb and kayak and do a lot of things like that, and one of the reasons I did those sports was in order to get close to what was real about life, that there was a world out there that wasn’t strip malls and traffic and consumerist jockeying, but a real world, a world where you could test yourself against the rock, or the river, knowing that your life and the lives of your companions were on the line. You had to be there for one another. You were all in it together, and the consequences were measurable.
But Patrick’s death took a lot of that out of me. It was the one thing I thought would never happen — that I’d lose him, that I’d have to face the rest of life without him. We were less than two years apart. I don’t remember a time when Patrick wasn’t my other half. Losing him so rocked my world that it was nearly a year before I could even drive to town without taking the dogs, so afraid was I that something might happen to them while I was gone. Its better now, the existential terror has abated somewhat, but I’m still not in a place where I’d hike in bear country without taking Bill with me, or sticking to one of the really busy trails in the area, where I know I wouldn’t be alone.
But for Bill, like so many of us who have moved to this part of the country, and for most of the good folks who are working to save some part of the natural world that is not entirely under human control, it is that danger, that real-ness that drives them.
Our friends, Doug and Andrea Peacock have written a new book, The Essential Grizzly : The Mingled Fates of Men and Bears, and they point out that:
The grizzly is a thing of beauty and grace, a magnificent beast in its own right hwo is capable of stirring deep reverence and humility in humans. The awe-inspiring bear is, however, married to danger. For thirteen thousand years, grizzly bears occupied the top of the food pyramid in North America, their dominance barely contested until the nineteenth century. This is the one animal who challenged human impulses to extend our dominion over all lands and creatures, informing us that we still live close to but not quite at the top of that pyramid. In fact, they take us back to the dawn of hominid consciousness: they are a reminder of the ancient fear of falling prey to a wild beast. This primal awareness has helped direct the evolution of human intelligence throughout time.
Although I won’t be heading up Suce Creek alone for another month or so, until the bears’ food supplies have started to kick in in the high country, knowing that the bears are here is one of the reasons I choose to live in this part of the world. I like living among people who know we’re not the top of the food chain, and who are working so hard to keep it that way. My encounter with the bear last year, while terrifying, was deeply thrilling. That’s the paradox — it’s those things that scare the wee out of us that keep us sane, that keep us in touch with what’s real. The world is real — its not actually in our heads — and sometimes it takes a big old bear standing uphill and woofing at us to remind us of that.