My throat was made of glue. The girl (let’s call her Ginger Dreadlocks) behind me on the verge of shrieking her head off. Ponytail-and-Manicure next to her was valley-girl-shushing her. There was nothing to be done, except:
“ROW ROW ROW YOUR BOAT!”
I was not even eleven and reeking of the day hike in the New Mexican mountains. The whole family had made the flight to Philmont Scout Ranch, NM, for my Dad and his bud to complete Boy Scout leader training. Mom was busy ziplining with the other spouses, the boys doing boy-things, and me?
I was a day’s hike into the woods on a camping trip with a dozen other pre-pubescent girls, staring down a mama bear and her two cubs. Our two counselors were younger than i am now.
We’d been strictly informed that, were we to see a bear, under NO circumstances were we to react with fright. We’d even had bear drills. No shrieking, no panicking, no fleeing into the woods without a guide. Instead, in an effort to keep us calm under duress but still, you know, let the leaders know a monster-sized mammal was in view, we were to sing “row, row, row your boat.” Loudly. But calmly.
Of course it was i who sounded the alarm, loudmouthed and lung-lusty even then. The two women in charge of us, all their lessons aside, flew into a panic. “Hey!” they screamed. “Back up girls, BACK UP NOW!” I yanked Ponytail-and-Manicure behind me, staring down the scream clearly welling up in Ginger Dreadlocks’ throat. Surely, these adult leaders knew what they were doing. Surely, they whom we had put our wisps of armpit hair and water-bottles half-full trust in, would take care of us.
“HEY, BEAR! RUN AWAY!! ARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!”
These “adults” were, quite literally, chucking rocks at the mama bear. Not exactly what i’d had in mind when i envisioned them ensuring our safety.
Shockingly, it worked. The mama bear barely gave them a glance before lumbering deeper into the woods, babies in tow. When at last her large brown rump was out of sight, Ginger Dreadlocks next to me broke out into sobs and Ponytail-and-Manicure gushed a stream of more EhMyGawddddZZZ than i had ever heard in my life.
I tried not to let my ear-to-ear grin explode. A bear! A real bear! I was really a warrior in the wilderness, saving my team with nursery rhymes!
We strung up our bear-bag that night, a white trash bag stuffed our snacks and the illicitly smuggled perfumes from Ponytail’s cohorts. If we heard a lumbering giant in the night, we were under NO CIRCUMSTANCES to leave our tent.
The next morning, the bag was slashed. Perfume bottles and chewed-into wrappers cluttering the roots of the tree the bag had been hung on. Luckily, there was enough food for breakfast and a slimmed-down lunch, pushing our hike back to base camp on a considerably less luxurious schedule than the hike out.
I don’t have any pictures of the bear itself, but here’s me about to head out on the hike.
That was to be only my first encounter with a bear.
The second was less rife with pre-teens: Jonathan and i were cruising along Skyline Drive, a chunk of the Blue Ridge Parkway that edges the Shenandoah Valley.
We were on vacation with his family, trailing behind them to enjoy the sun set while they made dinner. Naturally, we’d seen the placards warning not to feed bears (i’d like to keep my arm, thanks) but hadn’t expected to see any ourselves.
Until we rounded the corner on a dead stop in traffic.
“What’d going on?” i craned my head, trying to see past the truck ahead of us.
Jonathan swore loudly. “Look!! Over there!” his fingers indecisively jabbed out the window and tried to roll it down in one motion.
“What is it? I can’t – oh my God!”
Her arms, wrapped around the trunk of a particularly sturdy pine, looked bigger than my torso. “Quick!! The camera! The camera!!” Jonathan was scrambling with his arms, head locked on the bear.
Of all moments to have left the camera in the backseat, this was it. I handed him my phone with the scold not to chuck ANYTHING under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES at the mammal in front of us.
And then, to our bewilderment, the bear unlocked her arms and sauntered across the road. She didn’t seem to care there were five cars piled in either direction, tourists hanging out the windows with Nikons in hand. She stopped right in front of us. Turning her head back, she must have made some kind of magical bear-call because two little cubs came gallivanting out of the woods behind her.
They dipped down the side of the road, the knobs of their tails disappearing in the darkening forest.
And that was the last we saw of the Skyline Drive bears.
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in case you missed it: my favorite summertime 2013 blog, when my mom got arrested for moral monday.