Bear Hunt

Note: After 13 years of monthly column deadlines, I am taking some time off so that I can meet the demands of my teaching and tutoring responsibilities. For the time being, I’ll be posting previously published columns. The one that follows was published last September.

Of all the characters in the books I read to my children before bed when they were young, bears top the list. We must have at least 20 illustrated storybooks with the word “bear” in the title.

And none of them are grizzly.

The title character in “Little Bear” wants to bundle up in winter outerwear to play in the cold winter snow and discovers that his bear fur is good enough. In “Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?” an insomniac bear eventually falls asleep to his father’s voice telling him a story. And in “When a Bear Bakes a Cake,” the bear throws the cake in the lake. These immense mammals are often depicted with human traits and foibles, except of course for their thick, fuzzy coats.

That’s just the books. I haven’t even mentioned the number of bears of the stuffed variety. (Note to parents of young children: Stuffed bears make excellent returns on their initial investment. You may be pleasantly surprised when your child insists on taking them with her to college.) They are the protectors of little sleepers, along with all of those pillows.

So when my daughters and I went to Colorado last summer to visit my sister and learned that bears were roaming her neighborhood, the danger didn’t register at first. I must have been doing a great job of staying in a vacation mindset, focused on the image of bears behind iron bars at the zoo.

Until our second day. Proof that bears were close was made clear by large leavings in the middle of the road. Far bigger than a dog’s or horse’s. Locals told us that you could always tell if it was bear poop because you could see bits of berries and other vegetation in it.

Sorry. Ew.

I couldn’t have felt more like a city girl during our time there. Bears are berry eaters? Don’t bears come after people?

Yes, I learned, but not to make appetizers out of them. Only because bears are smart and know that where there are humans, there is most likely food. And just a few months before they are entering winter hibernation, food is on their mind, 24/7.

During our time in Colorado, we never received consistent instructions for what to do if we got close to a bear. Some said stay still; others said run. Some said stay quiet, others said scream. We put it out of our minds – except for poop sightings.

Until our final day. As we were lounging by my sister’s pool — me, my sister’s husband and their 13-year-old son, my 15-year-old daughter and a neighbor family — a lumbering, black fuzzy blob came into view. It was a bear all right – we later judged him to be a teenager in bear years – and he couldn’t have been more than 8 feet from us. Blessedly, the pool was surrounded by an iron fence, but not a very high one. The bear lifted his front legs and glared at us. We looked back, silent. Everyone stopped talking (probably stopped breathing too), but, a moment later, my brother-in-law gathered his wits about him and held his cell phone up to take pictures. I think I gasped loudly. The bear was either frightened by the phone, or the sound of me gasping, or who knows what else, and he quickly galumphed away.

People say that being at close range with real danger is never what you think it will be. You can’t predict how you will react. You think you’ll scream or run madly. Yet we all stood there, silent and unmoving. Without zoo bars, that bear was far from a fuzzy line drawing from our storybooks. I could sense his power. He could put me in the hospital with one paw.

But he didn’t. (And I am so grateful.) But I’m left with the feeling that it was a near miss and that shouldn’t be ignored. To live in perpetual fear of danger certainly would put a crimp on your day and most likely, negatively impact your quality of life. But I think that eye-to-eye meeting with a member of the animal kingdom – especially in “civilization” – as well as other acts of nature (flooding and tornadoes come to mind), is a chance to remember that we aren’t the center of the universe. We are also not alone and we aren’t always in the control seat.

And that afterwards, it makes a great bedtime story.