Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

Insights navigation:

[ Insights ]

RSS feed

Don Williams comments

A few words on the power of bears
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   05/26/2000)

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 his face.

"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 the woods.

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.