Now entering bear country
“You smell like a bowl of fruit,” the cashier said as she swiped granola bars, bug spray, and hand sanitizer over the scanner and made them beep. I raised my wrist to my nose and took a furtive sniff. Sweat, maybe a hint of the body spray I use, but not the banana, apple, pineapple melange suggested.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing to smell like a fruit bowl? I didn’t ask. She didn’t answer. But it stuck with me, this random judgment from the cashier at Target, on the day before vacation.
It’s funny what comes to mind in moments of stress and panic. Years ago, during an armed robbery at work, as I stared at the barrel of the gun, I felt sweat trickle down my sides. At that moment, I didn’t think of life and death. I remembered I forgot to use deodorant that morning. So, is it any surprise I thought of smelling like fruit salad as our little hiking party of two adults and a five-year-old child slipped into the shaded corridor of a pine forest in Yellowstone National Park a few weeks ago? It would be the first of a growing list of things that felt wrong about this hike.
We decided we’d had enough of this tourist crap, maneuvering through crowds of bus and RV travelers, camera toting, and big ice cream cone eating tourists looking for the souvenir shops. On our fourth visit to this grand park, we wanted a genuine backcountry hike. The real thing. Like we used to do so many years before.
We picked an almost deserted place and found the trailhead. This is the land of grizzly and black bears, of the roving bison and reclusive moose. None of them friendly types. I scanned the grassy basin flanked by snow-capped mountains surrounding the forest. Seeing nothing large anywhere near or far, we entered the woods.
Almost immediately, I thought about my fruit-bowl aroma, wafting through the wilderness and perhaps right up the nose of a hungry bear. I thought about the canister of bear spray still sitting on the kitchen counter back at the cabin. I thought about the book I started reading in the cabin, the one about bear attacks in Yellowstone and Glacier National parks and the mistakes of both experienced hikers and hunters as well as ignorant tourists. I had this overwhelming feeling of being watched in a deserted place.
As a daily meditator, I know how hard it is to train yourself to stay still and silent for long periods of time. Know what’s even harder? Training yourself to make noise and be hyper-aware while on a walk through dreamy woods and fields.
As suggested by the experts, I broke the muffled silence with loud talking. I whooped and clapped my hands and urged Girl from the East to sing her kindergarten songs. We three, clad in hiking boots, shorts and T-shirts, each toting water bottles, were not really outfitted for this walk.
As I scanned the woods, the clearings, the bushes, and the wetlands for signs of wildlife, while trying to shake the feeling of dread that gripped me by the collar and threatened to strangle, I spotted a large fresh print in a muddy runoff intersecting the trail. Although we are not sure, my husband and I were certain it was a bear, whether grizzly or black bear, we didn’t know. My husband seemed assured that nothing would happen, that I was overreacting. He had, after all, spent large chunks of his formative years in this very wilderness.
I wasn’t sure of anything.
Twelve years ago I visited Montana for the first time. My first night, there was no room in the guest bunk house. I was handed a flashlight and directed toward a tent pitched in the woods near the edge of a rushing river. I was both frightened and exhilarated. A year later as newlyweds, my husband and I returned to the canyon bunk house, which we’d use as a base for our 14-mile round trip trek to a camp in national forest. We stayed for several nights, lived from whatever fish we caught. We filtered water from a mountain spring, hung our food and other odorous supplies in a tree, slept far from where we cooked and ate.
One morning I awakened to heavy footsteps on the ground and a snuffling sound outside the tent. I froze in mortal fear, believing a bear was outside the tent. I was alone. I didn’t know here my husband had gone and was too afraid to call out. I counted to ten, 20, 30. I sat up and quietly unzipped the window cover. Relief. It was a trail guide’s horse tethered to a tree.
Warning bells rang in my head when I heard a yapping/yelping sound coming from the underbrush to my right. I did not recognize that sound; had never heard it before. We had to turn around and get out. Was it the book I’d been reading? Was it a mother’s intuition/a sixth sense? I didn’t care.
When we reached the car I felt small relief. Something spooked me in those woods and I’m not sure all of it was paranoia. It stayed with me on the short drive to Canyon Village, the next intersection. It stayed with me as I got out of the car and entered the gas station to buy water. In the women’s room, I found this taped to the mirror:
We were hiking less than three miles from where this happened 24 hours earlier. Granted, three miles separated by waterfalls and the grand canyon of Yellowstone, but we didn’t know this when we read the press release. We knew nothing when we paid our entry fee at the gate. It was not posted in any of the visitor centers I entered. It felt like a secret, although I know that’s ridiculous since it was all over the news. But we hadn’t watched any TV. Didn’t have Internet access or phone service.
I thought of the fresh track in the mud, of the yapping sound in the bushes, of the forest closing in on me like a dark cloak. The next stop on the road was the site of the attack. All trails and roads were closed, with signs posted warning of bear danger. An area that is generally teeming with cars and tourists was almost empty. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.
Top arrow is where we were; bottom arrow is where the mauling happened
Even though I was spooked by the hike and the startling news, I didn’t want to leave the park. We stayed until the sunset. We did see a mother bear and her cubs ambling about on a grassy incline next to the road, but it was from the safety of our car.
I thought about my gut feeling. That sixth sense. I’ve read about it and I’ve been told to trust it, especially in situations with potential danger.
I’m glad I listened.