Thursday, March 28, 2013

It's Not Too Early To Encounter A Grizzly

Snack time.

"Hey! You!"

That's what it sounded like.

What I thought I heard.

I couldn't be sure. It was a gruff sound, off somewhere. Muffled.

So muffled I wasn't sure I heard anything at all.

Or if I did, it could have been one pants leg grazing the other. I was snowshoeing after all, and wearing lots.

But I stopped. And listened. Just to be sure.

Nope. No sound. Aside from breathing.

Mine.

Everything was quiet around me, which was why I had put myself into the middle of it. Deliberately.

You don't find quiet much anymore. The world. Full of people and their things. Much coming and going. Much shouting about it all.

When I was younger, when each telephone had a cable coming out one end, and all were tied to walls, you knew when you saw someone walking, shouting into the air, that you had a nut job on the loose.

Some parts of the country had more than others, but you'd see one every now and then, no matter where you were. And you knew what the score was.

Not now.

The streets, the stores, every place you go. Full of these people now, day and night. A few are still the traditional wild-eyed, ravaged crazies.

The rest are moms and dads and their spawn, yelling their most private thoughts into cell phones, and spraying the rest of us with thoughts we do not want to receive.

So I get away when I can. To where it's quiet.

And in winter the backcountry is quiet. Genuinely.

No bugs. No birds. Nothing moves but wind, pushing an occasional snowflake around. No people.

But winter is nearly done, and today I saw something moving. Right behind me. When I turned to look.

A bear.

A grizzly. Bear.

Coming at me.

"Hey! You!" It said. To me. At me. Yes.

No. I hadn't been imagining. The bear was talking. With its mouth full.

"Hang on a minute," it said. I think it said. Hard to tell. With that meat in its maw.

Ripe meat. From last fall, or from winter. Meat returned from the dead. From far enough in the past to have a tang. Which came to me on the wind. Accompanied by bear stink.

No doubt about that one. Even though it was my first close encounter. Because there was only one possible source.

Which by now was an arm's-length away, staring at me.

The meat fell from the bear's mouth and sank into the soft, warming spring snow with a sound. Like "Shush!"

I didn't need a hint. I was not about to annoy this bear. Any bear. If possible.

I waited.

"Peanuts. I really like salted peanuts in those little crinkly packages. My favorite thing after a long winter of nothing. Even better than decaying moose. Much better, in fact. Got any?"

Unfortunately.

No.

I didn't.

Have any.

With me.

The bear waited, staring straight into my eyes. "Well, what you got? Do I have to eat you after all?"

Slowly, so as not to startle what should not be startled, I unbuckled my pack, then carefully lowered it. Opening the pack, I began pulling things out. Also slowly.

As I did, the bear sniffed each item with interest.

First, my gloves came out. Then my wool cap.

Both were clearly inedible, and not buttery or salty or spicy in exactly the way that gloves and a wool cap are not edible, and not buttery or salty or spicy.

A deep rumble rose from inside the bear and passed through me on its way to infinity. It was a deep rumble not indicating happiness.

I kept removing one thing and another from the pack until I reached food.

As I pulled out my lunch, the bear's jaws moved. Its massive teeth clacked together.

First its jaws shut. Then they opened. Then bear drool dripped onto my sleeve. I was OK with that, considering.

The bear snorted, then said "Don't hold back. I'm counting on you. No dumb tricks. I am really hungry today."

"I don't have much," I said, "but you're more than welcome to it. All of it if you like."

"Great," said the bear, "a few munchies from you, and this hunk of rotting moose and I'll be fine. I shouldn't have to eat you. I tried hiker once. Sour. Didn't like it, to tell you the truth. But if there's nothing else...well, you may know how it goes."

Unfortunately. I did.

I opened my lunch sack.

Inside was a tuna sandwich, an egg salad sandwich with lettuce, two bananas, and four Snickers bars.

Bananas I eat a lot, but not the rest, much, any more. No reason especially, I just don't.

And I don't know why, but this once in a blue moon I had a hankering for tuna, and egg salad. On the same day. On white bread, no less. And since it was a hiking trip I had splurged on a few Snickers bars, mandatory for any real hike, as you might know, if you hike.

"Ohgod," said the bear, "ohmygod, ohmygod. Oh my fricken god. Gimme."

Before I could lay the food out on the snow the bear was sniffing it, bobbing its head up and down. Wiggling its ears excitedly. Its back feet pumped up and down as it shifted its weight impatiently.

"Wait!" I said, "I have to unwrap the sandwiches. You don't want to eat this plastic wrap. Hang on a sec."

Suddenly.

The bear. Stopped.

Dead.

Not a hair of it.

Moved.

I looked.

It looked back.

Eye to eye. We were. The grizzly and. My puny self.

"Rrrraurph!" it rumbled with a basso profundo rumble so basso, so profundo, that all my joints came loose.

The rumble of a thunderstorm wearing fur. A thunderstorm with intense, intelligent eyes.

Which were glaring. At me.

"Very kind of you," it said, finally.

I unwrapped the sandwiches.

"More than anything that I hate, I hate being poked with a stick. But right after that, it's eating sandwiches in plastic wrap. You don't want to be around me when that happens," said the bear. "I tend to become impulsive. In an unpleasant way. For all concerned. Within a large radius."

Once unwrapped, both sandwiches were gone in a flash. The bananas too.

Which barely gave me time to skin the candy bars, but the bear took each delicately, and nibbled, slowly.

Considering its size, the size of its mouth, the size of its teeth, I'd say the bear nibbled, and with genteel precision.

It nibbled each and every Snickers bar.

First one.

Then another.

Until only one was left.

And this one it took whole into its mouth, and lay down, and rolled onto its back, and slowly chewed. Very, very slowly.

It chewed.

Grunting with delight.

As it did so.

And then, finished, it was back on its feet, with its nose touching my nose, and its eyes looking into my eyes.

It didn't move, and neither did I.

Until finally.

The bear grunted again.

"Now it's your turn," it said, its breath reeking of death.

"Have some rotting moose."

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It's not too early to encounter a grizzly

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