I was living in the true mountains, surrounded by untamed, sprawling ranges. This place is far and away and wild. From my aging cabin’s loft, I looked down onto three ancient apple trees, trees so ancient they do not have names. The apples are delicious, but they are not delicious apples, if you know what I am saying. Late one September, I had the pleasure of eating a few of those apples, picking one from time to time as I walked by, standing on my tippy-toes like some backwoods ballerina, picking one here and there that was almost ripe, but not quite.
A few days passed and the apples were gone from their branches, branches becoming bare and brittle, long bony fingers reaching out into the chilly air. There had been so many apples and I had taken so few. They were just becoming perfectly rosy ripe when the bears were in the backwoods hiding, grinning I imagined, their distended tummies stuffed, their lips sticky with apple juice.
They would come in the midst and mist of night, moon or no, after I had turned off the lights and brought in the dogs. After I was sawing logs. They graciously left their calling cards: great moist piles of applesauce shit, great broken branches. The berries had not been robust that summer, and the bears were hungry, I could understand. I just wanted to catch one in the act, catch one climbing a tree, catch one stuffing its gut with apples. Catch one crapping applesauce … wouldn’t that be funny?
Periodically, I walked the ragged fence line. The fence is there to keep out Ma Hill’s free-range cows. Ma Hill’s goddamn cows. I wanted to think they were cute, but really they were not. So the fence keeps out Ma Hill’s cows, but little else. It does not keep out the bears. Good. Late in summer, along the inside of the fence line, curled steaming lumps of purple bear scat, huckleberry shit to be exact. In autumn crouched browning piles of applesauce. Chunky style. Bears are not careful masticators.
Within days of running away to this bittersweet hamlet, I saw my first grizzly. The cinnamon bear was young, likely less than four years old and was hanging out a few fields over. The locals, some of whom had lived there for-evvv-er and had yet to see a griz, doubted my claim, thought the greenhorn was seeing a brown black bear. Big difference. I can tell. But later on, glory be! one of the locals witnessed my grizzly with their very own peepers.
A friend came out to visit and we hunted bears. No guns for us, just our ears, eyes, hearts. Another friend chose the bear as her totem. Or perhaps it is the bear who chose her? Years ago, we hiked to a peak named Bear’s Breast Mountain, and heard a bear call out to us (though some would have called it a long, loud growl). We froze for a moment, our eyes saucers, our spines electric, then skedaddled up the trail.
Many folks around this faraway mountain hideaway eagerly look ahead to spring bear season, a time when the bears are just waking up and still groggy. With sleep in their eyes and fuzz in their brains, they make for easy targets. It breaks my heart; the bears have so few places to go anymore.
My last winter there had been a mild one and it was early in the next season when I experienced my first bear encounter of the year. He was a beautiful, silvery black bear, about three years old, all paws and romp. He stopped about a dozen feet away, quickly sized me up, his eyes saucers, his spine electric, then skeedaddled back down into the trees.
I’ve had closer encounters since. One encounter that stretched the minutes out good and long, like Salvador Dali used to do. Breath held tight against my lungs, heart pounding to beat the band. Wondering how much the likely attack would hurt and if I would live to bear (no pun intended) the scars and tell the tale. But even that encounter turned out just fine. The big black bear decided, after his own ponderous moments, to leave me be. We could have almost reached out and touched one another. What a rush. After watching his backside disappear into the brambles, I giggled all the way back down the old, overgrown USFS road and back into the cabin.
After a year, I moved away from that remote, Montana acreage, and it wasn’t because of the bears.
I now live at the toes of another breathtaking and wild range, and always feel real peaceful after seeing bears. Close up, far off, it doesn’t matter. And I love knowing they are right close by, even when I am unaware …
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