Close Encounters

John Treadwell Dunbar

Among my life's fondest memories are hiking innumerable miles through alpine tundra and deep evergreens of the Rocky Mountain high country. Usually it was just me, the love of my life, Maya, and day dreams that mountain meandering invariably conjures up. We often stumbled across wildlife; the lone, stout, panicked elk charging headlong down a timbered slope so steep I'd pause in wonder as the loud pounding and thrashing receded into the distance followed by the rush of wind in the trees, and then silence. Black bear sightings were surprisingly frequent. The bears turned and ran as often as they stood their ground. I was fully aware that on rare occasion black bears have been known to eat a man alive.

One beautiful sunny day a few miles outside the quaint town of Ouray in the rugged San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, early in the summer while snows clung to most north-facing slopes and weeks before fields of columbine, paintbrush and daisies bloomed, I was returning from a failed attempt to climb a mountain of no real consequence. The going was steep as we headed back down through the evergreens treading softly over pine needles. As was our custom, Maya took the lead when all of a sudden we stumbled upon a large black bear defending her cub. Ears flat, she roared out of the low brush and up the steep slope straight for Maya as I froze behind her in a surreal moment of time. I distinctly recall divots flying as her paws tore up the soft ground in lightening-fast leaps and bounds.

We imagine ourselves heroes, we hope to respond under pressure with grace, but this was not to be as I threw chivalry out the door, dropped my day pack and scrambled up the nearest tree. When my pack hit the ground it did so with a loud clatter which in turn sent that black bear and her cub in the other direction as fast as they appeared.

In time the rustle and growl died down and I gingerly ventured out of the tree. Pounding a branch against my water bottle I crept down the steep slope, and then looked up and saw the bear and her cub in profile clinging to the top of a spruce, framed against a royal blue sky and white snow-capped peaks. I took a photograph with my mind's eye that has remained with me to this day, and then with little hesitation and a healthy fear at my back, I bolted down the mountain in graceless high-stepping fashion. This time Maya followed wagging her tail and drooling that large pink tongue of hers at the heart-pounding excitement that kept me on an emotional high for a week.

Brown bears on the other hand are an entirely different matter. They earn all of my respect, from the incredibly beautiful but cantankerous white Toklat grizzlies of Denali National Park in Alaska to the lumbering behemoth coastal brownies made fat on legions of returning salmon and acres of wild and plump berries. I've encountered numerous brown bear, more so than black bear. Brownies are without a doubt my favorite mammal, and they can be thick as flees in the north country where I ran across the formidable bruin pictured above in the wilds of western British Columbia.

But something was not right with this bear, I thought, between shutter clicks as I captured the moment. Perhaps I had invaded too much of his space, gotten too close and was pushing the boundaries of my good fortune. Perhaps he was demented, perhaps he was a protective she. Either way, he was indicating his displeasure, pacing back and forth, casting annoyed glances in my direction, swaying his lumbering head from side to side. And then he stopped and rotated those broad shoulders until he faced me head-on. His beady little brown eyes locked on to my big baby-blues. His ears went flat, the yellow teeth bared and then he shifted into an unmistakable crouch.

I'm thinking, rather rapidly, that this was my day, the last one to be precise. My mind leaped forward. I could already smell his torrid breath, hear the deafening crunch of incisors gnawing on my skull, and feel my face being peeled from the bone in dangling bloody strips as I wailed my farewell in tongues. But somehow I managed to gather my wits and ever-so-slowly lowered my camera and did the only sensible thing under the circumstances. I took my foot off the brake, hit the gas and drove on down the road.

More Bear Photos

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer.