They're just about our size and can stand upright or sit back on their
haunches in a relaxed sort of posture. I've seen them hold jars and bottles
in their forepaws and drink from them. So it becomes easy to think of black
bears as merely a tribe of funny people in fur costumes.
I've seen humans do incredibly stupid things around black bears. Pose their
children mere feet away while they snap a picture or—seduced by the reduced
image in their view-finder—walk within swiping distance of one of those
paws. I've heard of even crazier things. A friend told me of a woman
somewhere who put honey on the face of a youngster so she could capture the
image of a bear licking the child's face. When the bear crunched the
youngster's face, they shot the bear. Hmmhm.
The attraction of bears in the wild is more than understandable. Near as I
can tell, it's universal. After all, a bear is magical. It's a piece of
wilderness come to life. Spotting a bear, more than anything else, can make a
trip to the mountains seem wondrous. Worth driving from Illinois or Michigan
for that one encounter that stays with you a lifetime.
"Look! A bear! There, in the tree."
They're dark and primitive, like fragments of leftover childhood storybook
nightmares come to life. More than once I've seen bears walk casually into
picnic areas and lay waste to some family's Sunday afternoon outing. Oh how
the people scatter! Scared. Excited. Gleeful at last, as they begin to take
pictures and attract passersby.
I remember how one nonchalant bear scarcely took notice of the hoopla. He
leisurely clambered onto the frightened family's picnic table, sat down in
the middle of the feast—his back legs spraddled out before him—and had at
it. He picked up an opened jar of mayonnaise in his front paws, stuck his
snout in the jar's mouth, and sat licking out the contents to his heart's
desire. With his thick old pink tongue swirling round and round to draw out
the white bliss, he easily reached to the jar's bottom and licked it clean.
Afterward, he repeated the performance with a jelly glass. Then he sampled
dish after dish as maybe 75 tourists gathered, scattered in a fanning arc
back toward the roadside, laughing, yelling, snapping pictures. The bear was
oblivious. When he was quite finished, he yawned, climbed down, then shuffled
off into the underbrush.
When I was a child, my family used to see black bears by the side of the road
most every time we'd go to the mountains. Then for a few years such
encounters became scarce, as the Park Service took to hauling over-friendly
bears off to the back-country. About one-thousand columns ago, I wrote my
first opinion-piece for pay. It was an article critical of that practice and
garnered some criticism from park employees. It's one of about a dozen
columns over the years that I've wished I could take back, but it taught me
the power of words to inflame, inspire, stir excitement, even turn on you.
These are traits words share with bears. Some kind of kinship pertains.
When I was 16 I hiked up to Mount LeConte for the first time. I was with two
high school friends and we knew next to nothing about hiking. We hauled up
cans of chili and packages of wieners and Coca-Colas. Those backpacks weighed
tons. When we got up there the overnight shelter was full, so we were turned
away. We knew nothing of backcountry permits and registering.
Luckily some horsemen who were staying in mountaintop cabins abandoned a
nearby campfire about dusk, so they let us take over their fire and we set
about roasting hotdogs on sticks.
Without warning, into our midst walked a piece of the night. We jumped up,
yelled at the bear and waved our arms. The bear scarcely took notice, just
kept foraging through the campsite, and I hold a memory of us three teenaged
boys marching sidewise—single file—around and around that campfire to stay
ahead of the bear, reversing course on a dime as the bear changed direction.
Finally we gathered the presence of mind to scoop up spoons and cans and pans
and raise enough ruckus to scare it away.
For a while we took turns keeping watch that night, but the first sentry,
worn out from the hike up and all the excitement, was sleeping along with us
before long. I remember hearing something and waking up to see the bear with
his snout about one inch from the nose of a sleeping friend, and peering into
"Oliver!" I rasped. He eyes opened and just kept on opening up until they
darn near swallowed his face. I didn't know eyes could get so big. Nor did I
know my friend could move so fast. He rolled over swiftly, grabbed up a can
or a pan and, jumping up, deftly hurled it at the bear, who lumbered off into
We beat a trail to the shelter then, and the seasoned hikers there let us lay
sleeping bags on the ground beside the wire mesh fence. All night I remember
a dark presence roaming the grounds outside, back and forth, weaving fear and
wonder into our dreams.