“The best way of being kind to bears is not to be very close to them.” – Margaret Atwood
I’m face-to-face with a very upset, very large black bear, when I notice the expression on its face: the worried look a mother gets.
I know that expression well. I saw it on my mother’s face when I was a child, and now that I’m a mother, I feel it, often, on my own.
It’s early in the morning, and we’re camping with friends at Calaveras Big Trees, a state park located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. A bear has broken into our friends’ not-so-well-closed food locker and gouged the ice chest. We shout and bang on pots, trying to chase it off. In spite of the noise, it refuses to leave, retreating just a few yards from our camping spot.
“Why won’t it go away?” my husband says. The bear emits an urgent rumbling grunt. I hear another sound from behind our tents. The bear repeats the call, and again, I hear the sound from behind us, a high-pitched, two-note response, followed by snuffling. With a jolt I realize I’m standing between a mother bear and her cubs.
The park’s activity guide states “black bears are smart, resourceful, strong, hungry, have a highly developed sense of smell, and can weigh over 300 pounds.” In addition, “A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear!” We must “Report all bear sightings to park staff” as “Failure to follow these regulations may result in a citation with a fine of up to $1,000.” In spite of these warnings, I didn’t really expect to find myself six feet from a large, wild animal with her maternal responsibilities directly behind me.
The bear paces from side to side, slapping one gigantic front paw over the other as if she were on a treadmill. Her small black eyes are fixed on me. This close to her, I’m acutely aware of her size and strength. A few yards away, my two children are inside our tent, where we’ve ordered them to stay.
The bear’s stress is palpable. However, she does not show her teeth, arch her back, lower her head, or stomp her feet, which, according to the park’s activity guide, are aggressive behaviors.
The three cubs are now dangling from the branches of a slender Douglas fir directly over our picnic table. Unsure of what to do, we continue this awkward standoff with the bear for a few more minutes. It’s clear she’s not leaving, so we quickly secure the food locker and scurry back into our tents. As soon as I zip the flap shut, I hear the bear crash through the campsite. I unzip the flap and stick my head out. She has followed her cubs up the tree, which is now swaying under their weight. As she climbs, her claws pierce the bark, making loud pops.
A short time later, we get up and start breakfast. Our camping group, two families with children, engages in intense conversation about the bears over our heads. “What if they smell our food and come down?” One of us is dispatched to find the ranger but comes back empty-handed. Nervous at first, we eventually get used to the bears, who seem completely unconcerned with us. The three cubs tumble and play among the branches, hanging on to their mother’s fur and engaging in death-defying acrobatics.
Pretty soon, we’re the stars of the campground. Kids come by on their bikes, with parents behind on foot, to observe “our” bears. Every now and then, a load of dung plummets to the ground. In our new roles as bear experts, we try to keep up with all of the questions.
I’ve often heard that the most dangerous animal in the forest is a mother bear. According to nature writer James Rollins, “Always respect Mother Nature. Especially when she weighs 400 pounds and is guarding her baby.” This bear, however, seems to have no desire to harm us. Her only interest is the safety of her cubs.
The ranger arrives as we’re cleaning up the breakfast dishes. “Don’t worry about them,” he says, indicating the animals overhead. “They’ll come down as soon as you leave. Why don’t you go on a hike?” An hour or so later, we grab our backpacks, put on our boots, and head out of the campground for a day hike. When we return in the late afternoon, the bears are gone, just as the ranger predicted. The only trace of them is a little pile of dung at the foot of the tree.
I’ll never forget that bear’s face, or her urgent pacing. She was simply not capable of abandoning her cubs, even to the point of climbing up a tree after them. Her obvious love and dedication reminded me that mother love is universal.
Our friends still have the ice chest that she tore open, and they still take it on camping trips.
Erica Goss is a poet and freelance writer. She served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, CA from 2013-2016. She is the author of Night Court, winner of the 2016 Lyrebird Award, Wild Place and Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets. Recent work appears in Lake Effect, Atticus Review, Contrary, Eclectica, The Red Wheelbarrow, Main Street Rag, Pearl, Rattle, Wild Violet, and Comstock Review, among others. Erica is also the co-founder of Media Poetry Studio, a summer day camp for teen girls.