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Thinking About Bears

I’m supposed to believe a horse with a horn is made up but a three-hundred-pound-forest-dwelling-racoon-who-sleeps-under-a-log-all-winter is real?

By: Aaron Rickel Jones + Save to a List

I’ve been thinking about bears lately. Partly due to the fact that I just got back from some time in the mountains, and partly because it’s been a long time since I last saw a bear. Bears are something out of fantasy. Like honestly, I’m supposed to believe a horse with a horn is made up but a three-hundred-pound-forest-dwelling-racoon-who-sleeps-under-a-log-all-winter is real? My gut would say unicorns every time, but I’ve seen bears with my own eyes and can confirm, bears are real.

I remember seeing my first bear through a car window in Yellowstone. The most memorable was seeing one from a canoe, minding his own business walking along the shore. I was actually asleep for the most exciting one, on the ground outside a Housekeeping Camp tent cabin. A bear on dawn patrol lumbered through camp and wandered toward me, got within a few feet, sniffed the air, then turned and walked away. My mom was up early and watched the whole thing, trying to decide between scaring the bear away and waking all of camp up. Yes, we both are now aware she probably didn’t make the ranger-recommended call.

The best method a human being has to fend off a bear who wanders too close is to act as much like an ape as possible. Reasoning with the bear doesn’t lead anywhere, after all, as bears are quite unreasonable creatures. To scare a bear away, we have to tap into something deeper, something much more animalistic. We yell and shout. We bang on trees or pots and pans. It doesn’t matter the contents of the shouting so much as the volume, as bears do not seem to speak english anyway.

When I was younger, bears were among my top fears while camping. My younger brother was more scared than I was, and our cousin was more scared than either of us, so I just let them carry the outward fear of the whole group. But inside, I was relieved when he convinced my dad to perform the obligatory bear check with the flashlight before we went to bed.

I’m not scared of bears anymore. California black bears, at least—grizzlies still spook me a little. Still, I would describe it more as respect for than fear of. They’re basically giant, less-aggressive racoons. They’re curious and they want your food and they weigh a few hundred pounds, but bears usually give up a lot more easily than their tiny neighborhood counterparts. The frustrating part is now that I’m not scared of bears, I don’t see them anymore. I keep hoping I’ll see one, but for years now they’ve evaded me. A man I met on a backpacking trip in Olympic National Park said he’s never seen fewer than six bears on a trip there, sometimes up to twenty if the blackberries are ripe. I saw zero.

I saw a social media post by the park ranger who responds to all the bears who get hit by cars in Yosemite National Park. He, sadly, sees a lot of bears. The sheer number of calls he responds to puts those “Speeding Kills Bears” signs into perspective. In the post, he described having to drive several hours to the incident site. How heavy that drive must have been, knowing what you’re destined to find when you arrive. She was a cub, this time. I wonder what he listened to, if anything at all. Perhaps he simply rolled down the windows and smelled the piney evening air. He had to wander a ways off the road to find her. She hadn’t died immediately. She was laying on her side in the bushes, curled on the ground. He picked her up and carried her body away from the road into the forest.

Many Native American cultures believed that bears had the power to heal their own wounds; I am prone to hope the same, even as we emphatically prove it wrong.

In the last three weeks, we hit at least four bears with cars in Yosemite, killing at least two of them. I can’t point any fingers—I’ve driven too fast on mountain roads, but it’s so easy to get angry at them, isn’t it? Those drivers are responsible. Why couldn’t they have just followed the rules when it really mattered? Why couldn’t they have been in less of a hurry, or chosen a different time to turn around and separate the kids fighting in the back seat? Why couldn’t they have simply not sung along to the last chorus of Firework by Katy Perry? Why couldn’t they have known the bear was coming? I admit, I’m the first to assume the worst of all the drivers, but the truth is some of the drivers who hit bears are going the speed limit, and the truth is that three thousand pounds going even a reasonable 25 miles an hour is no match for a bear cub.

At some level, we’re all the drivers, aren't we?

Perhaps there is more we should do to protect bears from ourselves, but if we can’t even drive the speed limit and avoid crashing cars into bears, I fear it is not a matter of inability but unwillingness. It is a matter of ignoring the consequences of our actions until it is too late. It is a matter of our tendency to avoid living in the present moment, at some level. Our tendency to get distracted. I imagine cars with presently attentive drivers rarely, if ever, collide with bears.

I hope that we each and all do what we must to relearn the craft of giving attention.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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