I have long had a tremendous fascination (there are some who might argue an OBSESSION) with the largest predator in North America…Ursus arctos horribilis…the Grizzly Bear! For years I have studied this magnificent animal, devouring every book (fifty-three titles currently in my collection), every article, every film…any piece of information I can find about his natural history, habits and behavior.
In the last several years, ALL of my backpacking has been done in the Grizzly Country of Wyoming, Montana and British Columbia, for it is HERE that I can come to fully appreciate the true meaning of wilderness!
What is it about these formidable creatures that has so gotten under my skin? I’m not sure that even I can honestly and thoroughly answer that question. Certainly, Grizzly Bears have an amazing intelligence possibly (research has shown us) with the memory and reasoning ability of at least a five-year-old child. That means that, should they possess a voice-box capable of human vocalization, we could be carrying on meaningful conversations with a bear! I can scarcely imagine what HE would have to say.
The bear’s remarkable power has always captivated me as well…capable of overturning a six-hundred-pound slab of solid rock with a single paw…at thirteen-hundred pounds per square inch, a bite force nearly three times that of the wolf…jaws capable of crushing a bowling ball to dust!
Yet for this abundant strength, the Grizzly remains naturally wary and extremely averse to risk. This bear is by far the most dominant mammal in its habitat, yet so often chooses NOT to engage with humans, when given a choice. Although the signs of his presence may be readily seen by the observant, he generally lives a very private life, making the sighting of a wild Grizzly (outside of a National Park) an extremely rare and treasured gift.
Yes, had I not pursued the creative path of art and music from such an early age, I could have, probably would have, and perhaps even SHOULD have aspired to become a Grizzly Bear biologist, a career I would have enjoyed immensely, in spite of the attendant complex and frustrating politics that surround this controversial keystone species.
So, instead, I try to immerse myself in grizzly habitat as often as possible, with at least one long, annual two-week trip into deep, untrailed bear country, along with my ever-faithful dog companion, Miss Penny, seeking an adventure that I find to be an imperative in my life; a driving force and the high point of my entire year! I truly NEED this experience, not just to be different from (and certainly not superior to) anyone else…but an overly domesticated life simply seems to be not enough for me…incomplete and, ultimately, unsatisfying personally.
Out there I am ALIVE in a way that I can’t quite seem to find with any other experience.
“But why risk going out there…especially alone?!”, friends ask. “ You’re just asking for trouble, you know…it’s only a matter of time.”
As much as I dearly appreciate their concern for my safety, I doubt that they could ever fully understand…and in all fairness, if we’re speaking strictly statistically, the dangers of driving your car to work, being in a love relationship, or even suffering a bee sting are potentially much more deadly.
Of course, admittedly, those same statistics fail to hold much water in the pitch black of a wilderness night, and I acknowledge that the risk of a bear attack increases significantly the more you tend to hang out where they live. But it’s a relatively small risk and one SO worth enduring for the dividends it pays to my soul.
Even as much as I can read and learn about the Grizzly Bear’s power, intellect, and instinctive behavior, there still remains the ultimate teaching experience…actually meeting the Great Bear in the wilderness, on his turf, on his terms. I could just as easily go the rest of my life and never HAVE a close encounter with a Grizzly, especially because I choose to travel in bear country with great care, awareness, and deep respect…for the bear’s safety as well as my own.
But I’ve got this feeling, somewhere way down inside of me. It tells me that our meeting is destined to occur…sometime…somewhere…someday. It has haunted a thousand of my dreams. Would I ever push to try to MAKE it happen?…No, of course not. (I am at least a little bit smarter than that!) But still, there is this inescapable feeling.
This chance meeting is, obviously, almost entirely at the discretion of the individual bear. Based upon the fresh signs, sounds, and smells I’ve already witnessed (and yes, you will KNOW a bear when you smell him!), I have certainly already had plenty of bears around me, and quite close by too.
But to his credit (and much to my relief) the bear has always chosen the path of least resistance, seeking secrecy over conflict.
Although by no means harmless (please, don’t EVER make that mistake!) the Grizzly Bear is still a much less adversarial animal than our popular media portrays and much less the “boogeyman” than many believe him to be. I remain fairly convinced that one day, and perhaps even under conditions when and where I least expect it, a close encounter may very well occur…with a huge Grizzly standing up just twenty feet away!
And what a moment THAT would be!
A real learning experience for myself AND the bear…the bear learning that some humans accept his true nature, willingly and completely, and along with a good bit of deeply rooted, genetic fear, hold tremendous admiration for him in their hearts.
And in that same moment, I imagine that I might learn what I am truly made of. My immediate reaction to this fearful beast MUST be based wholly upon what I have learned about him (the factual truth) and to trust in what I hold to be his true nature.
This would be a good time to stand strong, with as much quiet confidence as I can muster, and to patiently wait for this very INDIVIDUAL bear to make a decision about what will be his own very INDIVIDUAL reaction to me.
And it might be a fine time to say a little prayer too!