The bear came into our camp at dusk.
In the gathering dark, we weren’t sure, at first, whether it was a shrub, suddenly materialized on the ridge a scant fifty feet away, or whether it was the source of the crashing and snapping branches we’d been hearing for the past fifteen minutes.
“Amanda,” I said, and pointed my chin in its direction.
My sister looked over from where she was standing near the tent.
“Was that there before?”
“Is that – ?”
We both knew it wasn’t a shrub, and in the heartbeat before it started moving towards us, Amanda was crouching, kicking off her camp sandals.
“Should I put on my hiking boots?” she asked, tense, already tugging them onto her blistered feet.
“Put them on,” I said. The bear was coming at a quick lope. I reached down for my day pack, slung it over my shoulder, and slid the safety off my bear spray. Amanda leapt to her feet, shoelaces not yet tied, and grabbed for her day pack.
In the half-light, with the animal face-on, I couldn’t tell what kind of bear it was, which was a problem. If you run into a black bear, you’re supposed to act big and aggressive, shout, throw rocks, try to scare it off. If you run into a grizzly, you want to be quiet and calm and back away, assuring the animal you mean no harm. We’d been yelling and making noise and singing off-key show tunes since we first heard the crashing in the woods, just after we returned to our tent from dinner at our kitchen site over another low ridge. If this bear had been any kind of normal bear, black or brown, it should have headed away from us.
In those first few confused seconds, as my heart turned to ice in my chest, that was the thought that gripped me: Why is it coming towards us? That’s not supposed to happen. We’d done everything right, performed all the proper rituals of bear avoidance – we’d been loud, we’d kept the food far from camp in secure containers, we’d cooked at a third location far from the tent and the food storage site. We’d even sung songs from The Sound of Music, an activity guaranteed to send anything with ears scurrying. But here we were, a bear of unknown species approaching at speed. The wind had been high all day, and if I used the bear spray in the position we were in, it was going to blow back into our faces, potentially blinding us and leaving the bear unharmed – essentially turning us into spicy, incapacitated snacks. I didn’t want to risk chucking rocks at it in case it turned out to be a grizzly. Our best option was to leave; it would probably stop at the tent to investigate while we made our way to safe location.
I waved a hand at my sister, who was fumbling with her bear spray, and said, “Up the ridge. Don’t run.” Even in the dimming light, I could see the panic rising in her face. We moved east, downhill from our camp, across a tiny stream, and then back up towards the low ridge that concealed our kitchen site. We headed south along the ridge, away from the food containers and the kitchen, and up into the pines.
In the trees, we turned to look back. If the bear ransacked the tent, so be it.
But the bear was not ransacking the tent. The bear hadn’t stopped. The bear was still coming for us.
Living and working in wolverine country means living and working in bear country. In the US Rockies, wolverines – and their researchers – share the landscape with both black bears and grizzlies. To traverse wolverine country in the summer, certain precautions are essential. You carry bear spray. You make noise. You keep a clean camp. You store your food and toiletries in bear-proof containers or hang them from a tree. You do this for your own safety, but also for the safety of the bears. A bear who learns to associate humans with food is going to continue to pester people, and it’s only a matter of time before the bear hurts a human. In the greater Yellowstone region, once a bear threatens people for food, the bear will likely be shot. Grizzlies are granted some leeway, black bears less. But a food-conditioned bear of any sort is almost certainly a dead bear walking. Keeping food away from bears is a way of expressing a wish for their continued existence on the landscape.
For wolverine work, the presence of bears requires that baited camera and live-trapping stations are taken down before bears come out of hibernation in the spring. Wolverine work is primarily winter work, in part because no one in their right mind wants to risk accidentally nabbing a grizzly cub in a baited log box trap, or hiking in to a camera station when a bear might be snapping selfies with the deer haunch hanging from the wire. Summer wolverine work is limited to the kind of surveys that my sister and I were doing – visiting sites of potential importance to wolverines, without any expectation of seeing the animals or sign.
Amanda and I were deep in the northwestern Tetons, the wild and remote region of the range that is less accessible and less traversed than the southern reaches encompassed by Grand Teton National Park. We were up here for two reasons. The first was a straightforward scientific objective: we were ground-truthing a talus model that will be used for the Wolverine Winter Recreation Study’s habitat analysis. This involved visiting randomly selected points that the model had identified as talus, and recording the characteristics of those sites.
The second reason was my sister’s wedding, a mere three weeks in the future. The pressures of wedding planning were stressing her out, a fact that was evident when I’d asked her, over the phone the week before, how things were going with the organizing, and her voice had assumed the flat quality that it does when she doesn’t want to talk about something. So I’d sent her an email the next day, the subject line of which read “Bachelorette Backpacking Bash (with Bears!),” proposing that she come out from Massachusetts for a week to help with the surveys and take a break from the demands of matrimonial spectacle. I’d added the paranthetical commentary both because it was alliterative, and because her fiancé has a phobia of bears, which I found worthy of some gentle teasing. Bears were cause for caution, not fear.
I didn’t think she’d say yes, but three days after the email, she was on a plane to Jackson.
Like all wolverine work, the talus surveys took us to places that would not normally be part of a recreational hike. Most of the points were parked up precipitous slopes, and some were on cliff faces (bare rock, in the model, reads as bare rock, whether talus or exposed bedrock). I’d spent the first two weeks of August in the southern Madisons and the east side of the Tetons with other field assistants, sidehilling across miles of precarious talus, scaling and descending cliffs, and bushwhacking through dense, steep forest. I’d developed bad blisters, sliced up my arms on the sharp, fossil-studded limestone boulders of the southern Tetons, and watched my boots fall apart piece by piece. With another field assistant, I’d already had one encounter with a black bear, which had huffed at us when we stumbled across it in the trees, and then moved off – but not that far off. Disconcertingly, it sat down in a patch of sun on the slope above us and watched until we moved out of sight.
On the whole, though, the surveys were spectacular, a chance to spend the clear blue days of late summer in remote country, in high elevation bowls cradling aquamarine lakes, the slopes still hung with snowfields, the ground carpeted in flowers, following the game tracks of bighorn sheep and mountain goats across the talus, startling elk in their havens far from the hiking trails. This was the part of the experience that I thought would benefit Amanda – the vast tranquility of being absorbed in the beauty and the magnificence of the mountains, the sense of unity with nature.
We’d hiked six miles in along one of the Teton drainages, and over a high pass, crossing into another drainage and then setting up camp close to a cluster of talus model points just below the divide. We spent our first afternoon clambering around on granite boulders of gorgeous hues, pink and gold interspersed with white and grey and the occasional chunk of pure black basalt or amphibolite. We found a scat that looked promisingly wolverine-like, and collected it as we verified the first set of points.
A snapping branch woke us at about 6:30 the next morning; we both sat up and listened, tense, in the way that you do when you’re in bear country. But we heard nothing further, so we got up, went over to the kitchen, and prepared for the day. The next set of points was about five miles down the drainage we’d crossed into when we came over the pass; we’d have to descend about 2000 feet, and then ascend about the same elevation to reach the points. We would use our current campsite as a base camp rather than hauling our gear down the drainage, since an active fire had closed the trail below us. The fire prevented us from making the loop we’d intended, which meant extra miles overall, but nothing we couldn’t manage. Amanda’s a sub-three-hour marathoner, in excellent shape, and I had no concerns about 15-mile days over rough terrain. Unfortunately, however, Amanda already had incipient blisters from climbing on the talus the previous day. I handed her the blister band-aids that had been indispensable to me over the past couple of weeks, and she doctored her feet, and then we set out.
When we finally reached the points, we could see fires burning all around, the smoke lending the day an ominous light and an uneasy edge. We’d turned off the trail just before the closure, and from our ridge we watched trees torching one by one to the west, while over another high ridge just to the north, a much bigger fire burned, smoke roiling apocalyptically. The wind was ferocious, stoking the fires and gusting so that we were constantly grabbing our hats and anchoring them to our heads. Our route back down to the trail was circuitous and slow. Amanda’s blisters were worse, and we were both tired.
By the time we finally got back to camp, it was past 7:00 pm. Amanda took off her boots to messy, bloody heels, despite the blister bandages. In her socks and camp sandals, she trudged over to the kitchen site, and we ate our dehydrated camping meals in the saturated light of sunset, the wind still gusting around us. She peeled off her left sock and liner to rebandage the worst blister, and then we secured all of our food and toiletries, donned our hats and puffy jackets in the quick cold that gathered after the sun set, and headed back to the tent, ready to sleep. Amanda had just collected her boots from where they lay overturned near the tent, and stuck the left liner sock in one, when the crashing and cracking started, branches breaking in a nearby grove of trees, a bird flying into the pink sky, squawking a warning. The vague sense of unease seeded by the fires burst into full and furious life.
“It’s probably just an elk,” I told Amanda, but I didn’t believe it. “We should make some noise,” I added. And we did. But the bear came anyway.
In the trees, we watched the bear as it loped towards us. The sense of warped reality heightened:The bear is not supposed to be acting like that!
It was probably a black bear, but even if it was a grizzly, I didn’t care anymore about antagonizing it. I scrabbled on the ground for a rock. My hand closed around a big piece of granite, and I picked it up and heaved it towards the bear, shouting. The rock fell short and the bear, a dim shape, seemed to pick up speed. Beside me, Amanda yelled, “No!” She held out a finger, as if admonishing a dog, and then repeated it a second later, this time as if she couldn’t believe this was happening: “No.”
Amanda’s fear was hot and panicky; I could feel it and I could see it in her face. My fear was cold and tactical, as if time had suddenly reeled and tilted in a way that made everything both extremely slow, and absolutely immediate, stripping away everything except for a rapid-fire process of crisis logic.
A lot of things happen, quickly and subconsciously, in the adrenaline-saturated brain. Instantaneously, and almost simultaneously, the things that cycled through my mind included:
The wind is still against us; I need to maneuver until the bear is downwind.
We can’t go east up the talus slope, we’ll be at a greater disadvantage, the bear will probably have better footing than we will on those boulders.
Holy shit, that thing is moving fast.
The best option is to go southeast, back up the pass, because it’s open and we can see the bear.
If we go back up the pass, the bear will also be downwind.
But using the bear spray means letting the bear get closer, and I do not want that thing any closer than it is, and what if the bear spray malfunctions?
You’re going to have to use the bear spray. Get over it.
It’s getting dark. That’s bad. We need to spray it before it gets any darker and we can’t see it.
I dragged my little sister up here and what if she gets hurt or killed?
Idiot! Why did you put that snarky “With bears!” in the email? You just had to tempt fate, didn’t you?
Is it responsible to abandon the camp and let the bear trash it?
We can abandon the camp if we have to, the food is secure and the bear won’t get any food reward.
I have to protect Amanda.
Amanda is about to panic and run. Don’t let her run.
Amanda was fumbling with her bear spray as I continued to throw rocks and yell.
“How do you use this?” she demanded.
“Okay,” I said, and my voice was alien to me in its terrible calm, “First, take off the safety.”
“How do you get the safety off?”
I heaved another big rock at the bear, herding Amanda up towards the pass, holding out my hand for her can of spray. I slipped the safety off and handed it back to her.
“But which side does the spray come out?” she asked, turning the can in her hands, her voice pitching upwards.
The bear was on the other side of the thin line of trees, just downslope, trying to cut us off. I turned to face it. The wind had died.
“Get behind me,” I said, “I’m going to spray it.”
She obeyed. My scalp prickled, every cell oriented towards the bear, towards the enormous task of letting it get close enough to spray, every instinct shrieking Get away from it! We were still stumbling backwards, the bear downslope, and suddenly we were on the switchback trail leading up the pass. For the second time that night, I had the sense of lurching between realities; what was this thing, this bare line of ground, this artifact of a human world where nature was curated and controlled? For the past few minutes we’d existed in a world where the thin veil of civilization had dissolved to reveal the stark reality of human existence. We were not the privileged darlings of evolution, dividing the world into neat segments with our roads and trails, managing nature to our own purposes. We were prey.
The trail was littered with smaller rocks, and I scooped up a handful.
The bear burst through the trees just below us. The remaining light hit it in such a way that I could see its lighter muzzle, its nose, its eyes, its mouth slightly open, a horrible amalgamation of adorable and terrifying.
Facing it across that tiny, inconsequential space, a cryptic conviction hammered through my mind: You and I are not the same thing. We’re not one thing. We’re two things.
Why was that the thought that fixed itself in my mind at that moment, when I was scared that my sister was going to die less than a month before her wedding, that I was going to die before I finished my novels, before I got a PhD, before I’d ever visited Kamchatka, or learned Navajo, or run a marathon, or found out how Game of Thrones ended, or any of the million other things, trivial and non-trivial, that I wanted to do with the entire rest of my life? I had no idea. But the thought was like a shield, something I placed between the two of us and the bear.
I shifted the bear spray to my left hand, a palm sized rock to my right, and aimed, and threw the rock.
It hit the bear, and the animal pulled up short. I was sure that it looked surprised and hurt – not physically, but in an emotional sense, as if deeply indignant that I’d interrupted its fun, violated the rules that said that prey did not bite back.
I threw another rock, and then another, yelling “Get out of here!” The stones landed at its feet, and it shifted backwards. I crouched and grabbed another handful of rocks, and threw them. They peppered the area around the bear like shrapnel, and it looked from one side to the other, and turned.
We moved along the trail, which was leading us west, towards another grove of pines. Below us, the bear moved west as well, dropping towards the base of the little wood. The bear reached the trees and turned uphill, as if to cut us off when we reached the other side of the stand.
But the trail hitched east, and we went with it, far from the bear and the trees, rising with the contours of the mountain. By now it was so dim that all the detail of the landscape was lost. I didn’t want to look behind us, because if the bear was coming, we probably wouldn’t be able to tell. We wouldn’t be able to aim the bear spray, or rocks. Would we even hear the thing coming?
We continued up and up and up until we crested the top of the pass. I peered back down along the open expanse of the slope, several hundred feet down to the pines where we’d last seen the bear. Nothing seemed to be moving.
“Can I tie my shoes now?” Amanda asked.
Below us on one side of the pass was the camp. Between us and the camp was the bear. We didn’t know whether the bear was still following us. We had our day packs, which held warm layers, water, water purification, a GPS, and our headlamps. The car was six miles away, at the trailhead, which would require traversing another big drainage that was not necessarily bear-free.
We headed downhill on the other side of the pass in instant unspoken consensus, pulling out our headlamps as we went. The light kept us on the trail, but Amanda’s headlamp, which she’d bought for long marathon training runs during dark winter afternoons in Boston, was blindingly bright, and it threw wild shadows with every step.
Shadows, when you’ve recently been chased by a bear, all look like bears.
More than once as we came down the pass, I was sure that I saw it coming after us, only to realize that the pursuing bear was the shifting shape of a pine or a boulder as our headlamp beams flashed across it. We stumbled down the trail, finally reaching a clearing at the bottom of the pass. Everything was still and quiet.
We were both overheated, our mouths parched, symptoms of the adrenaline. We paused for water and a brief discussion, quickly resolved. Neither of us wanted to stay out. We went on towards the car, talking in low voices, caught between the knowledge that the bear behind us was not intimidated by human voices, and the thought that any other bears out there in the dark might be.
We went through lists of what each of us was supposed to tell friends and family if only one of us survived.
“Tell Mom and Dad that I love them,” Amanda said, “And tell Michael I’m really sorry I didn’t listen to him.”
“About the bears. He was right about the bears.”
We talked about wedding planning, every time we approached a bend in the trail, all the details that Amanda had come out here to escape – guestlist, play lists for dancing, the entire menu, dresses, flower arrangements, plans for a bachelorette 5k once I got back to Boston – just to have something to say, to forewarn any bear around the corner that we were coming. We talked about books, and movies, and TV shows, and friends. We brought up the same subjects multiple times. I assiduously avoided the subject that repeatedly jostled to the forefront of my thoughts: the fact that black bears that turn predatory will stalk humans, persistently, until they catch and eat their prey. I didn’t think Amanda needed to know that while we were still out in the open.
We skittered along the miles back to the trailhead, the night vivid with stars and fear. Overhead, the Milky Way arced above the valley, and we moved beneath it, our headlamps dim earthbound stars, rocks in one hand, fingers of the other hand resting lightly on the triggers of our cans of bear spray. To the north, Ursa Major stalked the sky, the ever-present Great Bear, watching us, inescapable.
At dusk the next evening, I crested the pass again, this time on horseback. The large carnivore management specialist for Wyoming Game and Fish rode beside me, leading a packhorse. We started down the slope towards our abandoned campsite, on the same trail Amanda and I had traversed in such fear 24 hours ago. I was tense, scanning the surrounding landscape for signs of the bear. The evening stillness felt sinister as we reached the hollow where the tent sat, seemingly undisturbed. As we dismounted, though, I spotted my sleeping bag twenty feet downslope, lying crumpled like something dead. The carnivore management guy – his name was Sam – pulled a rifle from his saddlebag. For the thousandth time that day, my emotions ricocheted between sadness and anger.
Amanda and I had spent a cold and uncomfortable night huddled in the front seats of my little car, which we couldn’t drive down the dicey Forest Service access road in the dark. At dawn, we drove out to Driggs. Our phones were still up on the mountain, in the tent, and Amanda’s blisters meant that we couldn’t hike back in, even if we hadn’t been concerned about running into the bear again. We pondered our options, and eventually I remembered that I had a satellite phone in my backpack. I’d briefly recalled this fact when we were up on the pass, but I hadn’t wanted to take the time to use it when we weren’t sure whether the bear was still chasing us. It had slipped my mind in the weariness of the hours since.
I hesitated before I made the call. The bear had chased us, and it had seemed like a dangerous situation, but had we done anything to provoke the animal? Should we have stood our ground at the tent and sprayed it, regardless of the wind, regardless of not knowing what kind of bear it was? By leaving the tent, had we made ourselves seem like prey? By escaping over the pass without spraying it, had we missed an opportunity to teach it a lesson? What if the fires had driven it up the mountain, hungry and crazy and confused? What if it had just been a curious young bear trying to figure out what we were? I hated that damn bear for scaring us, for chasing us, but what did I really know about its intent?
On the other hand, it had never stood up on two legs, as curious bears do. It had stayed on all fours, and come at us without hesitation. We’d yelled, we’d thrown rocks, and it had continued to come after us.
I made the call, and by early afternoon, the director of the Wolverine Winter Recreation Project had called in Game and Fish. They deemed the bear’s behavior worrying enough that they wanted to send someone in with me to retrieve our gear. I wasn’t naïve; I knew that this person would come with a loaded gun, and that by reporting the incident, we’d probably condemned the bear.
As I waited for the Game and Fish guy, I wrestled with an overwhelming sense of guilt and grief over the fact that this bear’s interaction with us could cost it its life even though it had no understanding of the rules humans had established in regards to bear behavior. And then, balanced against that guilt, was a visceral animosity towards this particular animal, the resolution that if we did shoot it, I wanted its skull and its pelt to give to Amanda and Michael as a magnificent, barbaric wedding gift.
We started late – it takes some time to round up horses and haul them over Teton Pass – and the last of the sunlight receded up the slopes in front of us as we rode up the valley. Game and Fish had only three horses available, which meant that Amanda was staying in Driggs with wolverine biologist Jeff Copeland and his two dogs, Kilo and Mac. As we drew closer to the pass, I kept rehashing the whole incident, wondering if we’d done the right thing in moving away from the tent when we first saw the bear, in not using the bear spray, in abandoning the camp, wondering what the bear had really been thinking.
I hope it’s gone. And then, ten seconds later, I want it dead! Over and over again.
I saw its face, in the one glimpse I’d caught of it, when it was so close – the eyes, the half-open mouth, the indignant way it had huffed and stopped when the rock had hit it, the slyness of its retreat towards those trees, where, I was convinced, it had thought it could catch us as we rounded the slope.
That strange thought that had lodged in my head as I threw the rocks returned: We’re two things, not one. Had it been a repudiation of the bear’s perceived intent to incorporate us into its being by eating us? Or was it a recognition of the limits of the idealistic notion of oneness with nature, of immersive empathy with animals? Was it a failure of one of the foundations of my own dearly cherished narrative of the world and myself in that world?
At the campsite, we circled the tent, Sam with the rifle ready, my fingers resting on the bear spray on my belt. Although the tent was standing and looked undisturbed from the front, the back was a mess. The bear had sliced open the fly and back wall, pulled out my backpack and my sleeping bag, and tossed them aside. Then, apparently, it had lain down inside the tent, where it chewed my camping mattress into pieces and shredded the tent floor. Amanda’s things – backpack, sleeping bag, mattress – were untouched, except for her camp sandals, lying in front of the tent where she’d kicked them off. These the bear had chewed; they were punctured by numerous canine marks. Next to her sandals was a disgusting piece of wadded, muddy fabric. I pulled it out of the dirt and shook it out. It was the liner sock she’d taken off when she rebandaged her blisters, and had tossed to one side when she’d frantically pulled on her hiking boots. The sock had evidently spent some time inside the bear’s mouth, and the bloody heel had been chewed out.
“Did it get any food?” Sam asked.
“Not unless it got into the bear canisters somehow,” I said. Did a bloody sock count as a food reward? It was too creepy a question to articulate. And again, the guilt – the poor animal must have been incredibly hungry, to take the time to chew out the bloody heel of a sock. I shoved the liner into Amanda’s backpack.
The bear canisters were where we’d left them, undisturbed. We packed up the camp and loaded the backpacks onto the third horse without any sign of the bear. It was too dark to check for tracks to verify that it was a black bear, so that question remained unresolved.
It was nearly two in the morning when we finally got back to Driggs. I was too tired even to feel dismayed at the destruction of the camping gear that was so essential to my work on two continents. But I wasn’t too tired to recognize that, in the deepest part of my heart, I was glad that the bear had been gone when we got there.
The next day, we were at a friends’ house in Jackson, relaxing in the disorienting comfort of solid walls, hot water, and real food, when Amanda came in from their front yard waving her left hiking boot.
“Seriously, look at this,” she said, shoving it towards me.
There was an enormous chunk missing from the tongue of the boot.
“I saw it yesterday and thought maybe a mouse did it, back in Massachusetts, but I would have noticed that when I was wearing them. Right?”
We examined the boot more closely. The missing piece from the tongue was suspiciously similar in size and shape to a bear’s mouth. There was a canine puncture mark exactly where a canine would be. And as we looked at both boots, more canine marks and damage became evident. We went through our photos, found pictures that we’d taken during the surveys a few hours before the bear. In the photos, the boot was intact.
The bear had been in our camp, chewing on my sister’s boots, while we were over the ridge having dinner. We’d scared it off when we returned to the tent – I vaguely remembered Amanda righting her overturned boots when we got back. But then the bear had returned. For us, or for the boots, or for what, I didn’t know. We joked that he’d chased us because Amanda was wearing the boot that he wanted to snack on. We joked that he had a foot fetish. We told the story to the friends with whom we were staying, one of Amanda’s college classmates and his wife.
“If we didn’t know you two,” he said, “I’d totally think you were making this up.”
His wife, who works with Search and Rescue, said, “I’m glad that we didn’t have to go in there looking for you after not hearing from you for a few days.” Unspoken was the subtext: I’m glad we didn’t have to go retrieve your half-devoured remains. This was not a theoretical situation for her. She’d found such remains before.
In the days that followed, we joked about the situation more and more. Every time I thought about the things that hadn’t happened – What if it had waited five minutes and we’d been in the tent when it came into the camp? What if it hadn’t stopped when I’d hit it? What if it had chased us out? What if we’d used the bearspray and it kept coming and got us? What if something had happened to Amanda? – I’d counterbalance it by attributing silly motives to the bear. It was a way of re-processing the experience, alchemizing it from something frightening to something locked within the framework of a humorous story. It was a way of bringing that bear under our control.
But the bear was never under our control. The bear, before we encountered it, during the encounter, after the encounter – it was always its own bear. It was an unknowable quantity, and therefore troubling. The opacity of its intent was the source of the conflict I felt in the wake of the encounter.
For an entire month after the incident, I refused to allow myself to write about it. I wanted to let that tug-of-war between sympathy and terror play out, to assess whether the encounter would leave me afraid.
Fear is a tricky thing. I’m afraid of certain things, but those fears – of needles, of wasps, of having to deal with people who are severely bleeding, of crossing high rivers on horseback – are not the sorts of fears that dictate or reflect an orientation towards the world. They are little fears, almost quaint, easily dealt with.
Fear of carnivores is different.Yes, it can coalesce around a particular encounter, but there’s a more generalized narrative of fear around predators. Sometimes this is a narrative of individual phobia – referred to among outdoors-y wordsmiths as “bearanoia” – which makes a person fearful about going out into the wilderness, turning the landscape into a perpetually hostile and risky place. Caution is one thing – no one goes into bear country without being cautious. But to be afraid is to hamstring yourself, to cede all enjoyment of the outdoors to imagined catastrophe. This is the thing I was worried about, because the wild plays too great a role in my life for me to be afraid of it.
Fear of carnivores has another dimension, too, though. Those of us who do research on carnivores, who celebrate their return to landscapes from which our ancestors eradicated them in decades long past, are frequently faced with a countervailing narrative of dominion over nature, a story focused on the right of humans to use resources for personal profit without regard to the broader environmental or social costs. In this narrative, carnivores are an impediment to the free pursuit of profit – a threat to life and property, a nuisance to be removed or even extirpated so that humans are never inconvenienced. This narrative frequently employs fear as a justification for human entitlement, and it has both personal meaning to those who hold it, and broader socio-political manifestations. Dominionistic worldviews make no allowance for the individuality or sentience of wildlife, let alone the long-term interests of a species.
To counter this tired but persistent story, wildlife advocates, enthusiasts, and many researchers perpetually construct an argument – sometimes explicit, sometimes in subtext – about the ways in which humans and animals are alike, about shared qualities of concern for mates, for young, for the persistence and well-being of the species, for the need for intact habitat. We identify with them, we consider their home to be our home, we argue that they are moral in their behavior, or that our interactions with and understanding of them reflect something about our own morality. We create compelling tales of heroic individuals – Grizzly 399, the great mother bear of the Tetons; Wolverine M56, the traveler from Wyoming to Colorado to South Dakota; the original wolves of the Yellowstone reintroduction, all known to wolf-lovers by number and pack. We believe that we are giving these animals a voice and bringing them into a community of personhood. And implicit in all of our stories is an argument against fear, because the line from fear to intolerance is clear.
I spend much of my life, day to day, word by word, thought by thought, building and celebrating narratives about the unity between humans and animals, humans and nature. Fear is a cancer to the ability to love in this particular way (probably in any way), and it was a disease that I didn’t want.
But love and empathy have hard limits. That was the thing I’d run up against in the final moments of the confrontation with the bear. I wanted to be like the Buddha in the Jataka story about the starving tigress, unafraid to recognize the needs and the karma of a wild animal as equivalent to my own, enlightened and empathetic even to the point of self-sacrifice. Does this sound crazy? Probably. And in any case, I was, in the end, the antithesis of enlightened and empathetic. When we walked away from the tent, I wanted to let the bear do its bear thing, even at the cost of our gear. When the bear came after us, our relationship to each other abruptly shifted. We were no longer one thing, with one interest, the seamless continuity of human and animal, the seamless functioning of “nature.” We were two different things. My sister and I were humans. The bear was a bear. There was no unity, no shared interest, no empathy, no love, no kindness, no wonder, no awe, and no mercy. For those few minutes, we were adversaries, and that was all.
A month later, nearly to the day, I began to write. By then I knew that I wasn’t afraid. That bear was probably a bad bear, with bad intentions. It had probably gotten food from people before, and understood that bullying might lead to a meal. But an encounter with a bad individual of any group is hardly a reason to judge or go in fear of the entire group (see also: humans, for which I still feel overwhelming love despite consistent terrible behavior by terrible individuals). The lessons that I took from the encounter were not about staying out of the wilderness; they were about the importance of being prepared. I’d been through bear training, I knew how to use bear spray, I knew to store food and keep the campsite clean, I’d had hundreds of conversations about bear behavior and how other people dealt with bear encounters. In the moment, I didn’t panic. I was scared – I would even go so far as to say terrified, briefly – but I didn’t panic. We dealt with the situation. We got out. We had good friends who helped us out in the aftermath, and a good agency that responded immediately, and that put their resources towards helping us retrieve our gear. Amanda and I went back to Massachusetts, we ran Amanda’s bachelorette 5k (I PR-ed, Amanda won the race: bachelorette bear power!), and Amanda and Michael said their vows at a beautiful country inn in Vermont, which was located along a road with signs cautioning motorists about bear crossings. We told the story of the bear to a lot of people, and they were suitably astonished at the adventure, and I took care to tell them that they shouldn’t be afraid, but prepared, because we are sharing our world with carnivores now and fear is not a way to live. And every time I told the story, I hated that damn bear, but bit by bit, piece by piece, word by word, in spite of our separateness, I loved bears again a little more too.
In writing this, I wanted to convey the intensity of encountering a large predator, and the specifics of what was going through my mind as I dealt with the situation. As a writer, my job is to tell a good story, with a dramatic arc that the audience is compelled enough to follow to the end. The elements that one chooses, as a writer, are inherently the most dramatic and striking. Everything in this post is true and accurate to the best of my memory, including the weird and somewhat inappropriately intellectual reflections that were going through my head as I chucked rocks at the bear.
In telling this story, however, it’s important to remember that the story itself is about my perceptions, and doesn’t reflect an absolute measure of how dangerous the bear actually was. In other words, I don’t want people to read this and take away from it the idea that bears are scary and you need to stay out of the woods. I’ve had many previous black bear encounters and none of them ever went so badly wrong; in all other cases, the bears ran off. Do I think this bear was dangerous? Probably. Most bears are, potentially. But was it a human-stalking killer? Probably not – it didn’t follow us over the pass, and in the end, it was more interested in wrecking our stuff than chasing us. Bears are potentially dangerous. Be careful out there. But – at the risk of belaboring this point – don’t be scared.
Being prepared for these situations is important. I took two specific lessons from our encounter. One: I knew how to use bear spray, and I’d even test-sprayed an old can, just to see what it felt like. Nevertheless, in the encounter, I went through an intense few minutes of feeling reluctant to use the bear spray. Part of the reluctance had to do with the wind, and part of it to do with that screaming instinct to not let the bear get closer, and part of it with a weird concern that if I used the bear spray and it somehow didn’t work, my means of defense were gone. But bear spray works at distances of 25 or 30 feet, and the propellant is strong enough to carry it forward through breezy conditions (although maybe not the kind of wind we were dealing with). It’s designed to create a cloud, almost like a wall of pepper, that the bear runs into. You are going to get some pepper up your nose no matter what, so be prepared for that. But use it. It’s far more effective than bullets, and it’s definitely more effective than running, which will get you killed. (Throwing rocks is also a good defense, as it turns out, if it’s a black bear – which I think this was.) Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, the Forest Service, and other agencies, and some outdoor stores, have practice cans of pepper-less bear spray that you can use to get a feel for how the spray works. Take advantage of this so that you know what you’re doing and feel secure with using it.
Two: my sister has visited me in Montana and Wyoming in the past, and I’ve loaned her bear spray and explained how it works. I’m so used to carrying it that I figured she’d also retain familiarity with it from past visits. We didn’t review how to use it again. We should have. If you have guests who are not familiar with bear spray, or have been instructed in the past but are from places where they don’t usually carry it, review how to use it. Amanda has said that she “didn’t feel particularly brave” in the encounter, but she also wasn’t confident in the means to defend herself, and that was my responsibility. (Amanda, who, with most of the rest of my family and a number of friends, was a block from the finish line of the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off in 2013, and who has found herself at the center of assisting several people in medical crisis, is habitually brave. Ask anyone who knows her.)
Other things that I’ve thought about: Normally it’s probably not the best idea to go hiking around a bear-inhabited area in the middle of the night. The decision to go back to the car was made solely on the basis of the fact that we knew for sure that there was a badly-behaved bear behind us, and we weren’t sure how far behind us. It’s not something I would have done under any other circumstance.
I was glad that I always carry my car key in a zipped inner pocket of my hiking pants. I had it on me. That worked out well.
It was cold in the car. I happened to have my down jacket and pants in the car, and a sleeping bag liner that I’d left when sorting through my camping gear. My sister also had her sleeping bag liner in the car. It’s not a bad idea to keep emergency gear in the car. Because emergencies happen.
It was incredibly fortunate that the bear didn’t come after us while we were eating, with the bear canisters open. It was incredibly fortunate that we’d been super-conscientious about putting every bear attractant into those canisters. Bear canisters are heavy, bulky, and kind of awkward, but worth it. Carry them. Even when you’re not required to do so.
Wyoming Game and Fish were great. In reporting the incident, I figured that they would simply take note and let us go on our way to retrieve our things. I didn’t realize I’d get a horse and an armed escort on the gear retrieval. Many thanks to them for their assistance, and to Sam for his patience with my Mongolian-style horse-riding (read: American horses are huge, and the tack is confusingly different, so when I said I knew how to ride a horse, what I should have said was, “I know how to ride short Mongolian horses.”)
Finally, big thanks as well to Jeff Copeland, who took us in and let us use his phone and stay at his place when we weren’t sure where to go immediately after we got out, and to Jona and Jess King (and Ruthie!) for the hospitality, hikes, and patience with endless rehashing of the bear story. You guys are the best.