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The Nature Desk

Hey, Bear

Warning: The great American wilderness is home to many hungry stomachs, including some that reside in animals weighing 600 pounds more than you. Also: They travel in groups.

Joseph Smolinski, Disconnected – Kodiak and Cub, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Mixed Greens.

“Bears up there,” the Ranger said, glancing at our backcountry travel permit before tipping his broad-billed hat and ushering us out of his cramped station. 

He didn’t caution us, or quiz us, or check our gear, or show us a pictogram of a car-sized beast licking brains from a pulverized human skull—and I can’t guarantee that even those warnings would have kept us from our 10-day hiking trip through Yellowstone National Park during what I’ve only recently learned was the peak of grizzly bear season.

We were just out of high school. We were constantly stoned. We traveled in an ode to that particular brand of privileged American adventure, the cross-country drive, funded in equal parts by savings from crappy after-school jobs at a camping store and graduation money from loving parents. In the fall, we’d both start at fancy colleges: Tim to Stanford, on his way to a pair of dad jeans and the hedge fund life in Silicon Valley, and me, to Vassar and non-profits and Brooklyn and waxing sentimental about stuff I did 15 years ago.

Our first days in the woods were everything we wanted. The trail switchbacked through forests of lodgepole pine and crossed expanses of chest-high grass where elk and bison ignored us and pronghorns danced for cover. At night, coyotes howled, and we smoked huge joints and misremembered the names of constellations like Androgena. We talked across a small campfire about what god would eat for desert, or whether girls who skateboarded were hotter than girls who listened to rap. Each day took us 10 miles further into the mountains of northern Wyoming. Soon we were nearly halfway finished with our route and more than a little proud of ourselves for pulling together such a trip.

The place we camped on the fourth day was broad and open, with a log running through it that made a bench. It was 100 feet from a stream and flanked on both sides by steep slopes of evergreens that rose to snow-capped peaks. It was around 3 p.m. when we stopped hiking. It was late June and there were still hours of sunlight to go. We soaked our feet. We washed our faces. I admired the reflection of my wispy, hard-won goatee in the still water tucked behind a rock. Eventually, we stumbled into the forest with our food bags and enough rope to suspend them from a tree branch in an arrangement called a bear hang—to keep bears from mauling our supplies. It took a few tries. In the best conditions, bear hangs weren’t easy, and on steep terrain in a forest with short, thin branches, it took a lot of looking and line-untangling and a lot of tries until the setup was high enough from the ground, far enough from a tree trunk, and sturdy enough to support our 15 pounds of provisions.

Duty done, we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and talking, maybe about late-period Jack Kerouac or early Ed Abbey or the best years of the Grateful Dead. I read a few pages from A Tale of Two Cities; I know I took a few minutes to memorize the opening paragraph because I thought college girls would think that was sexy. Yes, it all horrifies me now, but nowhere near as much as remembering the snap that followed—the loud crack of a branch that echoed down from the forest where we’d hung our food.

We were just out of high school. We were constantly stoned. We traveled in an ode to that particular brand of privileged American adventure, the cross-country drive, funded by savings from after-school jobs and graduation money from loving parents.

I don’t remember what was said next. When we took off running, I was holding a flare gun we’d packed for emergencies and Tim was banging a pot with its lid. As we got closer, we started yelling, “Hey bear!”

About twenty yards off, we saw the pale scar of a freshly snapped branch, the same one we’d carefully selected about an hour ago.

“Keep talking, make noise, and don’t run,” Tim said, remembering tips he’d read in a pamphlet we picked up at a rest area outside of the park.

“OK,” I said. “OK. Hey, bear! Hey bear!” I said. Then there was rustling. A cub popped to its feet 15 yards in front of us. “Hey bear! Hey bear!” My voice was higher this time, way up in my nose. More rustling. A mother grizzly, boulder-sized, head down, snout-deep in our zip-lock bags of oatmeal, pasta, and rice.

“OK OK OK OK,” Tim said.

“OK OK OK OK,” I said. I pressed my palm against his chest and began to slowly, slowly, cautiously step backward while keeping my eyes on the bears, hoping not to trip, hoping not to burst into tears, hoping that Tim would die first.

Back by the stream, it was getting cold. The sun began to fall behind the mountains, and we sat around our no-longer-anywhere-near-perfect campsite with nothing to do but worry and wonder whether the bears were still up there. Hunger and pride sent us to find out.

Again with the pots and flare gun. This time we wore our backpacks and hoisted them above our heads to look bigger. We weren’t talking, just yelling and trudging up the slope in the bouncing lights of our headlamps.

“Hey bear! Hey bear! Hey bear!” Furious this time.

We passed the 20-yard mark.

“Hey bear! Hey bear! Hey Bear!” Now a little worried. 

Fifteen yards and we’re yelling louder, banging harder. I pulled back the hammer of the flare gun, not really concerned that shooting it probably wouldn’t do anything to save us, and could, in all likelihood, trigger an attack that’d leave me horribly injured, or dead before Tim.

Twelve. Ten. Nine. “Hey bear! Hey bear!” Like last words. 

At about eight yards, what seemed like the biggest thing I’d ever seen rose from behind a cluster of pines: a male grizzly bear. Ursus arctos horribilis, with an emphasis on the horribilis. It was at least seven feet tall, thin for a grizzly, with matted patches of fur, probably diseased or very old. But still huge. From where we stood, its presence overwhelmed everything: the sky behind, the trees in front. Its arms, claws, teeth, and strength, the smell of wet wool and rot—all of that hit me as it broadened its shoulders and looked right at us.

Now the sun was down. It was cold. Our campsite was hostile, the mountains too, and same for the trees, the rocks, and the whole goddamn trip.

We backed away. Slowly, slowly, with muscles so tense I shook an Elvis leg with each step, heal bouncing, toe pointed, ass clenched—slowly, slowly, until the pitch began to level and we knew we were safer.

Now the sun was down. It was cold. Our campsite was hostile, the mountains too, and same for the trees, the rocks, and the whole goddamn trip. Our food was gone; we were 40 miles from finding more. We talked about walking out. We talked about shooting the flare gun. We talked about being really fucking scared of going back up there, but we finally did just that—it was the only option, the only way we’d make itthis time bundled in warm layers, propelled by the good fortune of our entire lives leading up until that point.

The bears were gone. Nothing was whole: plastic bags ripped to shreds; a peanut butter container torn in two then licked spotless; a broken Tabasco bottle; a crushed six-pack of Budweiser we’d bought with my fake ID; a mound of ground coffee that looked tan in the black dirt. We collected all of it, all the ribbons and chunks of scrap that shimmered in the artificial light, the film canister that once held our pot, the nylon stuff sack where it had all been packed. The only salvageable items were three Ramen spice packets, Oriental flavor, and two oranges with puncture wounds—maybe claws, maybe teeth.

When Tim and I talk these days, we still call our walk out the trail of tears: back-to-back 20-mile days with nothing but salty broth and segments of orange to fuel us. We passed a few groups. A father and son gave us a Powerbar. Some Boy Scouts contributed a single-serving packet of oatmeal. We talked a lot less. I don’t remember the scenery, but that we stumbled a lot; fell over some. Both of us got blisters on our toes from the heavy footfalls of one particularly long downhill section. It was miserable. It is still, to this day, and after dozens more camping trips and a half-dozen tows, the happiest I’d ever been to see my piece-of-shit 1991 blue Chevy Blazer.

For the last six hours of our journey, all we’d talked about was a can of Dole pineapple chunks that were sitting in a milk crate in the back of my truck. Before anything else, out came the Swiss Army knife. Tim pried off the top and in the dark we dunked our dirty fingers into the tin and scooped out every piece. When that was done, we passed the can back and forth, and drank the syrup, letting it dribble pleasantly down our faces like the freshest mountain water never could.

Then we both turned and vomited in the dusty parking lot. Too sweet too fast, I guess.

A few minutes later, driving north in search of more food, hunched behind the wheel with pineapple barf in my facial hair smelling like six days in the woods, passing signs that said things like, “WILDERNESS AREA” and “Be Alert,” I knew for sure there were bears up there, but also that another type of beast lived inside us.

TMN Contributing Writer Graham T. Beck is figuring out what’s next. More by Graham T. Beck