I'm walking through a grove of Rocky Mountain aspen when suddenly, from a tangle of brushy oak trees just ahead, an animal appears. Not immediately recognizing the species I stop and stare; it's a black bear cub. Now a second, a twin, comes rambling out, and moments later a third cub. And all three are headed straight for me.
The adult bear doesn't keep me waiting long, appearing soon and silently through a curtain of aspen thirty yards up the way. Hump shouldered and autumn fat, the sow closely resembles a small grizzly. Her legs, head, and rump are patched with the same chocolate brown that completely clothes her cubs. Her back is draped with a straw blond shawl.
Rooted like a herded pig among her swarming brood, it strikes me that this encounter is a decidedly mixed blessing. I know, intellectually at least, that there is little to worry about. Black bears almost never act aggressively toward humans - at least as long as they're treated with the respect due large, well-armed, heavily muscled, lightning-fast, opportunistic predatory wild beasts - and as long as they aren't mothers with cubs. In fact, truly wild black bears - those that live outside the protective barriers of parks and other preserves and thus retain their fear of humans - are among the most reclusive wild mammals, almost always turning stubby tail and fleeing at the first sound or scent of human intrusion. That's why black bears are so rarely seen, even where both they and people abound, and why the blackie has survived where the more aggressive grizzly has not. Thus, I also know that in this century alone, scores of people have been mauled by black bears and some even killed. Worse, a few of the fatal attacks were determined to have been predacious.
I snapped out of my paranoid reverie when the cub nearest me squirts ten feet up a slender young aspen, his needle-like claws carving deep scars in the soft white bark. Now the climber looks down and howls, apparently trying to tempt his siblings to follow. But they don't, and after a few seconds the little rascal shimmies back to earth. The three cubs continue to romp all too close to me. Their mother feeds even closer. But as close as she is, the big bear remains unaware, relaxed, upwind, and preoccupied with sloughing her face. Since I'm standing as still as a statue in the shadows and wearing no bright clothing, she's not likely to spot me. But then, with a nose that would put a bloodhound to shame, it isn't much longer before she stumbles into my scent and thus we approach the denouement of this little adventure.
I long for an exciting climax; my sudden discovery by the mother bear ... her growling, teeth-baring charge ... my miraculous and heroic escape. But lacking melodrama, the simple wrath will have to suffice. Mother bear, like most females I meet in passing, simply cruises right on by without giving me so much as a sidelong glance. At least until she gets fifty paces downward, when she suddenly stops, spins around and howls like the proverbial sheep. Hearing this urgent and familiar alarm, her cubs scurry to her ample flanks. Obviously, the sow has finally caught my scent and, typical of the species, chose flight over fight. A good bear, as most are. I watch with mixed sorrow and relief, as the four bruins waddle down the valley and out of my life. A few moments more and the bears are gone, their dark chocolate forms swallowed whole by the forest. ^
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.