My wife and I suffered a near-bear experience while camping in New Mexico.
Actually, I’ve had several near-bear experiences in my travel life.
The first was in Tennessee, when I was camping with a college buddy in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. We were staying at Ice Water Springs on the crest line of the mountain range when a bear charged me. It was a young bear and I was photographing it and I guess it wanted to let me know I was too close.
In my defense, I must say, I did not approach the bear; he approached me.
But I was too close for his comfort nevertheless, so he turned and ran straight at me, loping from side to side as he did. You read about people saying their hair stood on end and I had always thought it was just a metaphor. No, it’s real. My hair stood on end. At the last moment, no more than two or three feet from me, the bear veered off and ran away.
I was so dumb, I actually stood there and snapped the picture.
My buddy, an old hand at camping, told me his secret for dealing with bears. “Just treat’em like a big dumb dog,” he said.
Years later, in Seattle, I got to know the bear-keeper at the zoo and I sometimes went with him to the back side of the bear cage at feeding time. The female grizzly bear loved to sock down a dozen or so hot dogs for a treat. I would toss them down her gullet, where they disappeared like raindrops in the ocean. A grizzly bear’s gullet is a prodigious thing.
Well, my wife has a thing for bears. She loves them. Every time PBS runs a nature program on bears, I have to videotape it. I don’t know how many times we’ve see the feature film The Bear.
And when we go camping, she is likely to walk to the edge of the camp ground and yell into the woods, “Here, Mr. Bear! Here, Mr. Bear!”
It actually worked once in the Canadian Rockies. Fortunately, we were driving at the time. We were in Jasper National Park and she had the window down, yelling for Mr. Bear. A grizzly showed up along the roadside and we stopped to enjoy his company for a while from the safety of our Chevrolet.
I’ve tried to discourage this practice in campgrounds, though, but she just suggests that maybe if she tied a string to a peanut butter sandwich and trailed it along behind her, she might attract one.
Visiting our friends in Maine once, my wife baked two coconut cream pies. A bear smelled them and came up to the house. He couldn’t get the pies, so he raided the bird feeder outside the kitchen window.
We named the bear Tupai for the two pies. Later, Tupai came back with another bear, looking for pie. My wife, who is an artist, made a paper cut of the event (see above).
Well, we were camping near Cloudcroft, N.M., in the Lincoln National Forest and in the middle of the night I was awakened by a noise outside the tent. There was a slow rummaging through whatever items we had left outside the tent. I looked over and saw my wife still asleep. My hair was standing up again.
My first thought was how I would protect my wife if the noise turned out to be a bear, and if the bear wasn’t satisfied with turning over the Coleman stove and water bucket.
The only weapon I had was a Swiss Army knife and I found it in the darkness and opened it in my sleeping bag. My plan was to attack the bears belly and try to find his heart with the blade. I knew it was a long shot, but I also believed it was my only shot. Big dumb dog, indeed.
Luckily, what really happened was that the sound went away and it was spookily quiet in the woods. I didn’t get much sleep that night and by morning I finally relaxed my grip on the knife.
Over breakfast, I told her the story and she broke out laughing. She had been awakened by the same noise and thought I was asleep. She went through the same reaction I had had and armed herself with a fingernail clippers, planning to save me from the beast.
It all reminded me of the old joke about two guys camping when a bear comes into camp.
“What should we do?” asks the one.
“Run for it,” says the other.
“You can’t outrun the bear,” says the first.
“No, but I can outrun you.