I was six on a trip out west with my family. As the youngest, I was standing on the picnic table bench facing the ponderosa pines as my father cooked the meat. Savory smells were billowing out, announcing it was dinner time. I innocently pointed at a lumbering dark shape entering the clearing. “Is that a bear,” I asked.
Before everyone else had turned to follow my gaze, I got my own confirmation and did the only logical thing I could think of. I ran to our station-wagon, jumped in, and locked the door. My family, locked out of my hasty refuge, has never let me forget this. They banged a lot of pots and pans and the bear receded, with no harm done, except to my reputation.
Fast forward to when I was about seventeen, and I was camping in the Tetons with my parents. They had one tent, and I was by myself in a separate, small one. We had hiked in to a gorgeous campsite right next to a lake that was bordered on the far side by jagged peaks. When I went to bed, I left my tent flaps open to watch an enormous full moon rise over the mountains, and shine across the water, right to me. The beauty of that scene, as I drifted off to sleep, was pure bliss.
I was awakened in the night by something cold and wet on my face. In the moonlight, I could clearly see in silhouette the tell-tale humped back of the grizzly that was nuzzling me, sniffing. The only thing between me an his cold, wet nose, was the screen of the tent, meant to keep out mosquitos. I froze. I played dead. I tried to be uninteresting. Time stopped and took forever.
After an eternity that was probably not more than ten minutes, he wandered off in search of something more tasty. Upon waking in the morning, the neighboring campsites were abuzz. There were five different Coleman coolers all shredded to bits by dangerous claws and powerful teeth.
When I had children of my own, I took them on an eleven mile hike in Glacier National Park. It was a hot Fourth of July day, with penetrating high altitude sun, and we had underestimated how much water we should have brought. The youngest of my three children was only four, and she scampered along just fine, turning jubilantly back at me on the narrow ledge pathways – a vertical cliff face on one side and a plunging precipice down to oblivion on the other – to thank me that I thought she was capable of this.
I had fond memories of doing this exact same hike as a child, but it was a very different experience as a parent. So it was with some relief that I approached the last mile which was downhill and wooded. It was then, with my youngest still out in front, that we came upon a mother bear and her cubs on the path. I was a mother bear with my cubs too, and we both felt threatened.
She moved a couple yards off the path and stood on her hind legs, her cubs at her knees. In the calmest whisper possible, I instructed my children to slowly, quietly proceed. Fortunately, none of them freaked out and they tiptoed forward as if on moccasined feet. I made steady eye contact with Mrs. Bear, and she kept alert eye contact with me too. Here I was with an incredible photo op, but I couldn’t risk the click of the shutter.
We respectfully passed without incident. Soon, when we finished the trail at a parking lot, we got into the first car we found open, not willing to stand exposed until the shuttle would come to take us back to the trail head. These nice Texans in their Suburban were certainly surprised by us barging in on them so unceremoniously, but they understood when they heard my children’s garbled, excited tale, and with everyone speaking at once, they were happy to oblige, and drove us back up the mountain to the ranger station where our car was.
When I told the ranger about the mama bear and her cubs, she insisted we should have turned around and walked back up the other way. I can’t help but think that comment revealed she wasn’t a mother. I was out of water, it was already late in the day, the searing heat was still blazing around 100 degrees, and my young kids had already walked eleven miles. What would you have done?
My last bear experience was remarkable mostly for the lack of it. Our youngest was six, when she asked whether there wasn’t something fun we could do while her siblings were at camp in northern Michigan, so she wouldn’t have to spend her summer driving there and back to Connecticut twice. I thought this was a reasonable request, so I planned a camping trip on a remote island in Lake Superior, just for the two of us.
We were dropped off by a boat, with the expectation of being picked up three weeks later. We had a ziploc bag labeled with food for each day, and a reserved campsite equipped with a picnic table and a bear box. On the way there, we were told that the island had a greater density of bears than anywhere else in the lower 48. Everyone that comes there, sees bears.
I strongly recommend a solo trip with your child in the wilderness. It is one of the best things I have ever done. We had a blast, frolicking along, surrounded by beautiful beaches, abundant ripe berries, and the exquisite evening song of the hermit thrush. I painted a whole journal while on the island, one page of which you see here in the photo. We stayed longer than anyone had been known to and yet we were the only ones to never see a bear. I’m confident, however, that they saw us as we loudly played, loved, skipped and sang.