“Are there any bears around here?” my seven-year-old granddaughter asks as I light the small campfire. The sun set over the ridge half an hour ago and the forest around us is growing dark. This isn’t the first time Kaylee has been in the woods overnight, but it’s the first time that there’s been no grandma, no big dog with us, no one else. It’s just the two of us in a silent, still forest shrouded in twilight. Kaylee is now old enough and aware enough of her surroundings to ask that question. She anxiously awaits my response.
“Yes, but they won’t bother us,” I tell her with feigned indifference, while feeding another stick to the fire. “The only bears in these woods are black bears and they’re afraid of people,” I add, and that vanquishes her fears for the time being. But it’ll be another ten or twenty years before my brave little woodswoman really begins to understand bears, wolves or any of the many other mysteries of deep woods. The wild is not so easy for grandpas to explain away.
On many occasions, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of introducing people to the natural world — adults as well as children. During most of these outings, my companions ask me about bears. It’s usually just a matter of time before they do. The more uncomfortable people are in deep woods, the faster these questions arise. Everyone has heard stories but they count on me, a seasoned backcountry traveler, to give it to them straight. I don’t take this responsibility lightly. I do my best to quell their fears while feeding them bits of information about the animal. But I have to be careful. I’m no expert and the last thing I want to do is increase the ever-growing mountain of misinformation.
Not all bears are equal. Like human beings, each has a distinct personality, based upon life experience. A bear that’s been shot at, for example, will react much differently to humans than one that hasn’t. A bear that’s badly scarred will tend to be somewhat cantankerous. Experience shapes behavior. But just as important, there are differences between the various types of bears — genetic differences.
Here in North America, we have at least three distinct species of bears: the black bear, the brown bear and the polar bear. The polar bear lives in high latitudes and is a meat-eater for the most part. The brown bear, or grizzly, lives west of the Mississippi River. It eats flesh and vegetable matter alike. Black bears, found just about everywhere on our continent, eat mostly nuts, berries and such. All the same, it will snack on the remains of a dead animal if one comes available and will rarely pass up a decaying stump full of grubs. Then there are subspecies, like the large and imposing Alaska brown bear that prefers salmon to anything else. Different places, different bears, different eating habits. Different temperaments, as well, so it’s foolish to generalize about bears. Yet people do it all the time.
Most people get their information about bears from bear stories, which are only as reliable as the people telling them. Hikers and campers generally portray bears as pests that, similar raccoons or chipmunks, are constantly trying to get into their food supplies. Animal lovers like to think of bears as misunderstood creatures — warm and cuddly teddy bears that won’t hurt a flea unless provoked by some mean-spirited human. Hunters like stories of bear attacks, where a bloodthirsty grizzly is tearing some unsuspecting backwoods traveler apart, limb from limb. That gives them good reason to pump lead into the next bear they see, skin it then hang its head on the wall. Environmentalists — especially those living in cities — idealize bears. To them the majestic grizzly is a symbol of vanishing wilderness — one whose survival is far more important than, say, the few domestic animals that they might take from ranchers. Yeah, bear stories abound. But they tell us more about the storyteller than the animal itself.
Ask a wildlife biologist or park ranger about bears and you’ll get an ambiguous report. Habituation is a big problem, they’ll tell you. When bears turn to dumps, garbage cans or directly to humans for their next meal, there’s trouble afoot. People and bears don’t mix, they’ll tell you. And when a bear goes bad there is no redeeming it. What makes a bear go bad? Feeding it, of course. Leave the bear alone and it’ll be just fine. That is, unless it happens to be a bad year for nuts or berries. Then all bets are off. Or unless the bear in question is a young male recently mauled by a more dominant breeder. Bears like that tend to have serious attitude problems. And so on. The more questions one poses to those who actually know a thing or two about bears, the harder it is to get a straight answer.
“One must always cross-question nature if he would get at the truth,” John Burroughs once wrote. I’m no expert when it comes to bears or anything else in the wild, but I’ve spent enough time in the woods to know what Burroughs is talking about. You can make nature out to be anything you want it to be, but getting down to the reality of it is an entirely different matter. In this incredibly diverse and complex world of ours, few things are more difficult to explain than the wild itself. When meticulous people work hard trying to decipher some aspect of it, they are grateful for any morsel of truth they can extract. Such people know more about the nuts and bolts of nature than woods-wandering generalists like myself can ever hope to know. And, curiously enough, they rarely tell bear stories.
Years ago, I had the good fortune to spend a couple weeks alone in a remote corner of Southeast Alaska. It was a life-changing experience to be sure. But when I returned home from that adventure and tried to explain what happened to me there, I ended up telling bear stories. Everyone loved my tales, but a part of me died every time I told them. I reconstructed each bear encounter as accurately as possible, but failed to convey that essential, unnamable aspect of the wild. I wanted to speak of the magnificence of wide-open country, its breathtaking wonder and beauty, the absolutely astounding rawness of the landscape and its inhabitants — wild and free in the truest sense of these words. I wanted my listeners to hear the scream of nearby eagles on a misty morn; to see mountains and glaciers slowly come into focus as the fog lifted after a four-day storm; to know primal, earthly existence as I came to know it. But I ended up telling bear stories instead. I told bear stories because that’s what most of my listeners wanted to hear, because the truth of the wild is hard to talk about and bear stories are easy.
“The grizzly radiated potency,” Doug Peacock wrote in his book, Grizzly Years. “That was a power beyond a bully’s swaggering. It was the kind of restraint that commands awe — a muscular act of grace.” After a rather brief encounter with a thousand-pound Alaskan brown bear, I must concur. Peacock comes as close as anyone can to explaining what such an animal is like. All the same, my bear did not behave as expected. In fact, his actions only confused me. None of the stories I’d been told had prepared me for his unpredictability or nonchalance. I caught him daydreaming. The more I thought about that afterward, the more it disturbed me. There wasn’t room in my worldview for a wild animal that could do something like that.
The wild refuses to conform to any anthropocentric worldview that we might entertain. We like to think that it’s all about us — that everything revolves around our glorious existence — but nature has an agenda quite distinct from ours. If we have trouble understanding it, that’s only because we don’t like having our comfortable worldviews challenged. The wild makes a fool of the philosopher, a bungler of the scientist, and monkeys of us all. It’s constantly reminding us about that part of ourselves that we’d really rather forget. So instead of listening to it, we sit around campfires with our backs to the forest, telling each other bear stories to distract ourselves from our real fears. Best to portray bears in black-and-white terms and leave it at that. The alternative, it seems, is unthinkable.