flying fur…and mud & gravel

Hallo Bay Alaska, we’ve been watching two teenage bears mock-fighting in the stream bed for about 45 minutes. Our guide, Jerry, believes they are siblings. Our other guide, Lance, who passed by about 10 minutes ago, just radioed in that a large female is headed in our direction. The two teenagers seem to not have a care in the world. Wrestling, inspecting clam shells, playing with tree limbs,

they seem tame, almost approachable.

Then the larger female comes into view and all hell breaks loose. One of the bears takes off like he was shot out of a canon and heads directly into the woods. The other, not sure what’s going on, stands on his hind legs and looks in the direction of his partner.

He then turns to see the female in full sprint and heading directly towards him.

At this point she is about 150 yards away and running parallel to our party. The younger bear decides to head directly for us, and she follows.

Bears can reach speeds of 30-35 mph and these two were closing fast. I was already on my knees behind my tripod and I quickly focused on the bear that was furthest away, the female. As I watched the bear getting larger and larger in my viewfinder,

my mind was racing, trying to determine the best option here. I knew I couldn’t get up and move. Any evasive action on our part could trigger a chase response in the bear and she may decide to come after one of us. But were we going to get run over ? Jerry was standing, yelling, and waving his arms and walking stick to make sure we were seen. All the while telling us to all stay close together. The bigger we looked, the better. Realizing I had no other option, I just continued firing off shots.

I finally took my eye from the viewfinder to see how close they were, maybe about 15 yards at this point. I never raised the camera again, just knelt there in awe as 1300 lbs of bear flew by us at full speed and passed less than 4 steps away. I’ll never forget the eyes of those two bears, catching us in their peripheral vision as they raced by.

There are certain points in some people’s lives when they suddenly find themselves in a situation where death, or serious injury, has just become a very reasonable outcome. Maybe it’s in a car, headed for a crash. Or falling off a ladder, or the side of a mountain. It’s in these brief moments when you are unwittingly and instantly assessing the situation. Am I going to be able to get up and just brush myself off ? Will this require a hospital visit ? Am I going to die ? All these thoughts racing through my mind. And the most intense adrenaline rush I’ve ever experienced was telling me, you never feel truly alive until you know you could die at any moment.

William Least Heatmoon, author of Blue Highways, traveling in a raging blizzard on Utah 14 near the Markagunt Plateau;

“At any particular moment in a man’s life, he can say that everything he has done and not done, that has been done and not been done to him, has brought him to that moment. If he’s being installed as a Chieftain or receiving a Nobel prize, that’s a fulfilling notion. But if he’s in a sleeping bag at ten thousand feet in a snowstorm, parked in the middle of the highway and waiting to freeze to death, the idea can make him feel calamitously stupid. “

One look at Jerry after the bears had passed and I could see this was not a common experience. “What the fuck was that ?” was all he could get out. His explanation; When the younger bear spotted our group, in his panic he may have mistaken us for a mother with cubs. Bears do not have very good eyesight. He instinctively knew that a mother would go after the aggressive bear to protect her cubs. So by luring the female towards our group, he was hoping the perceived mother would go after his attacker.

Looking back on this experience, there’s now so many things I wish I would have done differently. Tried to get the other bear in frame. try to get both bears in frame. But looking at the EXIF data from my camera gives some idea of how quickly this all transpired.

11:03:28
11:12:57

I had less than 10 seconds to work with. Flying fur

“The thread of life is not stretched taut between two points. It twists in unexpected and mysterious ways, not so much weaving-as poets would have us believe-as snarling and catching, creating the tangles and knots which hold our stories and the keys to understanding them.”

Renee Askins, Shadow Mountain: A Memoir of Wolves, a Woman, and the Wild

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