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April 14, 2020
Eyeball Bear
Eyeball Bear, sewn from a pattern drawn by my 4-year-old son in 1983

I like bears, in theory at least. I have had countless teddy bears, including a peppermint pink bear named Sally that I received for my birthday one year.  I liked Sally so much, fact, that I, who never tidied my room except under duress, cleaned and rearranged the shelves just to make a spot for her.

In addition to my love affair with Sally and her compatriots, I enjoyed visiting bears at the zoo. I looked forward to visiting the black bears, brown bears, spectacled bears and the zoo’s lone grizzly bear. The bears sat around looking cute – even the grizzly, whose enclosure label described it as one of the most vicious bears of all. My favorite bears, however, were the polar bears. Unlike their cousins, they did more than sit morosely in their pens. Not only were they cute, polar bears played. They played with toys and with each other. They played in the water and seemed almost human in their childlike glee.

My unconditional affection for bears was challenged during a visit to the Smoky Mountains. I was delighted to see whole families of black bears browsing along the roadside, looking as cute as the teddy bears on my shelf back home. In addition to the bears, however, there were also ominous signs posted at intervals along the roadway cautioning visitors to keep away from the bears.  Danger! they warned, Bears are wild animals. Do not approach the bears. I was more than a little unnerved by one such sign: it was splintered and scraped with huge claw marks. It looked like a ruined scratching post. Bears were becoming a little less cute in my mind.

On the same trip, I made friends with some kids at the resort where we were staying. The resort offered a movie night, and we gathered to see the current film: Night of the Grizzly. I remember nothing about the film except being terrified. The terror was made worse on the way back to our cabins when the boys jumped, growling out of the bushes at us girls and made us scream.

I forgot about bears until years later, when my husband and I decided to take up backpacking. We read up on all the skills needed to have a safe and enjoyable trip.  One thing common to every book and magazine article was an extensive discussion about bears. A bear is not your friend, I read. I should avoid them at all costs. The books taught me how to keep bears away by carrying pepper spray, wearing bells, and singing while I walked. I studied it all, but all I could think about was Night of the Grizzly. I was a wreck even before we hit the trail.

On our first trip out, I heard a bear snuffling in the undergrowth near the trail. Or at least I’m pretty sure it was a bear. I didn’t wait around to find out. John says he’d never seen me move as fast as I did that day –running back the way we’d come, with my forty-pound backpack bouncing up and down, while I desperately sang Ninety Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall as loudly as I could until I reached the safety of our campsite. It wasn’t until preparing for our next backpacking trip that it dawned on me that a campsite isn’t particularly safe.

So, I hit the books again, and I learned about hanging your food bags off the ground on a rope tied high between two trees (there was never any advice on how to climb the trees to get the rope high enough). I learned never to eat a candy bar in the tent. And I learned once again about singing and bells and pepper spray. The articles I read were also fond of bear-backpacker jokes. One advised that you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just need to outrun your hiking buddy. Another was about avoiding a bear encounter by being alert to the different kinds of bear scat. It ended with the punch line, “Black bear droppings are smaller and often contain berries, leaves, and possibly bits of fur. Grizzly bear droppings tend to contain bells and smell like pepper.”  I laughed at that one, but to me, it was no joke. It reminded me that I really might encounter a bear, and it really might eat me.

On our first major backpacking trip, two weeks in the Colorado Rockies, we discovered that I could no longer sleep while camping. Four nights into the hike through bear country, I had not yet slept, and I was becoming even more irrational about bears than usual. Bears would claw through the tent in the night and eat me, I reasoned, and I should be awake for the occasion so that I could jingle my bells and squirt my pepper spray. Clearly, I had lost it. So, ten days early, I staggered out, covering ground twice as fast as I had when we hiked in, John gamely keeping up the rear. We spent the rest of that vacation visiting tourist sites from the safety of our car. We don’t have many photographs of our hiking trip, but I do have a postcard of Pike’s Peak.

John continued backpacking with my blessing, so long as I didn’t have to accompany him into the wilderness. I remained happily at home, playing with my son and his teddy bears. In all the many years he backpacked, John only once encountered a bear. But that’s a story for another day.






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