Thursday, August 2, 2012

Bears in the Middle of the Road

Who cares why the chicken crossed the road?  Nor do I care why a mama black bear and her three cubs crossed the road in front of me near the top of Jack Mountain yesterday morning, but I definitely care that I was there to see them.

I wonder if bear cubs usually come in threes.  And I wonder about the last cub to cross, who was lagging behind, not quite as sure or as brave as his siblings . . . or maybe just stopping to enjoy the smells of the mountain day while the others bounded forward, sure never to lose sight of mama.

Life is good:  Grizzly bear scratching his back on a tree in
Glacier National Park.  Photo by Glacier NPS at FlickrCommons
They look so cumbersome but move so gracefully.  And even we people of the mountains who know they’re there, receive the actual laying eyes on them as a gift.

Years ago a friend had a series of questions supposed to elicit something about one’s psychological makeup.  The first went something like this: You’re driving on a road when you come upon a bear in the middle of the road.  What do you do?

I thought the answer was obvious – drive around her.

Little did I know then that other people would turn back and still others would simply stop and watch her for awhile.

This question was supposed to determine one’s approach to problem solving: my own technique was assessed as ‘plowing through’ them, probably a pretty accurate insight.

But most of the bears I’ve seen in my lifetime weren’t on roads, literal or figurative.

Photo by Glacier NPS at FlickrCommons
Most of the bears I’ve seen are of the grizzly variety when I spent a summer working in Glacier National Park in Montana.  If you’ve never been, it’s well worth your time and trouble to get there.  

During our orientation to life in a national park, one of the rangers told us bear avoiding and surviving strategies.  When he finished, I noticed that he had made no mention of the bells we sold to guests in the lodge store.  Responding to my question about the efficacy of bells (as a sort of warning to the bears, reputed to be shy, that humans were approaching), he smiled and as gently as he could, told me that when bears hear the bells, what they think is “dinner!”

Needless to say, I saved myself the cost of the bells.  Nor was I comforted when a fellow worker, a man young enough to be my son said with a grin on his face, “Beth, I don’t have to outrun the bear.  All I have to do is outrun you!”

I saw lots of bears that summer, most of them from a safe distance.  The most compelling sight was a mama grizzly and her three cubs crossing the river far below where some friends and I sat enjoying the sun.  Mama crossed with confidence, either not knowing or ignoring the falls just a few feet away from her and her babies.  Inculcated with the instinct to follow mama, all three cubs went into the water, one by one.  And one by one, all three were swept over the falls, accompanied by our shouts and screams above, as if we could somehow communicate the impending danger to them.  Of course, we could not.

We then watched as mama, discovering none of her cubs behind her on the other side, made her way searchingly down landward to the base of the falls, calling out to the cubs.  One emerged and then another.  But not the third.  She spent a long time walking the water’s edge calling for her third cub, but he never came.

Maybe he made it to shore farther down.  Maybe.  But somehow I doubt it.

We cried with her, my friends and I that day.

Life and its ending are like that: sudden, inexplicable, safely in hand one moment, gone the next.  All we’ve got in this bodily form is the here and the now, which is never to be taken lightly, never, ever, for granted.

I saw three bear cubs today and remembered the day years ago when once there were three and then there were only two.  And I was blessed – blessed by their sheer existence.  And I wished them well.

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