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King of the Bears

by Dwight O. Krauss

part 1 of 2

I was fly fishing along Gunsight Pass in the Bridger Wilderness, a place unbothered. It’s why I go there. Rough country, discouraging day packers and weekend warriors. Lakes rise with the Continental Divide here and I follow their run off to the Gros and Green Rivers, depending on which side of the continent I feel like strolling.

I found it five years ago, after the third divorce and fourth board ouster. I was really, really tired of people and wanted some place bereft of them. At the end of a two-week aimless wander, I left the S600 at the Gannet Peak trailhead and walked my loafered and Prada’d self up to where the rivers slid away from each other at the top of Gunsight. “Wow,” I said. Since then, the S600 has given way to an S10 and the Pradas to army surplus, while I’m only part-time on some board or other and no more wives. Better.

It was afternoon. Sunlight here takes on mystic character and I was satisfied, truly satisfied. I had two cutthroats and one brook, dinner guaranteed (I am not a catch-and-release wuss), had lost only one nymph, was two beers down (the runoff keeps ’em cold), and knew this was the best of life. No demands, no deadlines, no longer Master of the Universe, true, but master of myself. Happy? No, that’s impossible, but content, yes, and I reached into a pocket for a pemmican stick, smiling, when I heard the grunt.

I knew what it was. I’d encountered bears here before, blacks mostly, which are curious and playful but generally leave you alone, and browns, which are morose and staring and won’t leave you alone. It came from my 4:00 and I stole a look, ready to jump in the water and let it carry me to freezing safety, if need be.

At first I couldn’t see it; the lodgepole was pretty thick, with layers of wild currant lacing the trees together. But then it moved; the entire mountain seemed to move, and I turned full around to see what the heck that was, a landslide?

No such luck. Silvertip. Grizzly. Standing up, leaning against an aspen for support and staring at me.

It was absolutely the biggest creature on the face of this earth, that judgment not due to sudden shock. It simply was. At least ten feet tall standing, at least two tons, huge for a bear, colossal for a grizzly. Grayer than most, so old, with great scarring across its belly and shoulders, so a fighter. Eyes that burned like coal and teeth bore back in savagery and claws gripping through a two-inch branch, so mad.

I was a dead man.

Which was a liberating thought. If you know you haven’t a chance in hell, you’ll try anything, instead of standing there, paralyzed, and hoping the King Kong of bears will just go away. As it dropped to all fours, I dropped the pole, unholstered the can of bear mace and let him have it.

Guns are usually the weapon of choice against bears, a Contender .44 or a Sharps .50, say, steady aim and fearless concentration placing the giant round through brain pan or heart while a locomotive made of fur and fury roars down on you. Jim Bridger, whose name graces this area, could do that, as could most of the other mountain men. But modern life has made those skills rare, and the requisite weapon rarer, so the modern age came up with bear mace. Damned effective, as I’ve proven to myself on at least three prior occasions.

Accuracy is not necessary and the first stream caught the charging bear in the chest so I adjusted full into his face. It’s something to watch a bear caught in the spray. It’ll actually knock one unconscious — I’ve seen that — at the minimum, stop ’em cold. A bear’s skull is nothing but a giant, hyper scent receptor so, imagine, hot peppers shoved up its nose at 120 feet per second. Gives it pause.

Did here, too, but not as I expected. The bear collapsed into itself, just the oddest sight, a writhing and screaming fur mountain twisting and tearing within the span of its bulk no more than 15 yards away. Power like that can start tornadoes and I leaped out of the way as the bear dervish whirled past me and to the edge of the run-off. The bear stood up straight, roaring the end of the world, its paws clamped hard across its eyes and snout, and then fell, like a downed redwood, face first into the water.

I thought it was dead. Or in a coma. I stood there dumbfounded, watching the shuddering bear as the counter-wake from its fall washed back over the top of its head. “No one’s going to believe this,” I said and fished around in a pocket for my phone to snap a picture. I was so busy getting it set that I didn’t really notice what was going on until I got the picture focused and framed, and, even then, it took a moment to register.

The bear was washing the spray off its face.

“No way,” I said, blinking at the picture, and I looked up to see if this was a trick of the light. It wasn’t. “No freakin’ way,” I said again, wondering what I should do, take more pictures or get out of there.

Should have run. Should have run very fast.

The bear rose straight up, rearing back on its legs and turning, the river falling off its face and down its chest. It looked at me. Now imagine your scariest beast-type nightmare — wolfman, the Hulk, the T-Rex from Jurassic Park — standing twenty feet away from you, face burned red from pepper spray, eyes squinted so hard with hate they’re almost gone, gigantic spiked paws out and turned towards you, the massive hump draped across its shoulders, fangs a foot long bared at your head. Multiply that by ten. Then add the most apocalyptic, spine-shattering animal roar of rage and revenge, and you’ll have some approximation of what I faced.

I ran. I ran very fast.

You cannot outrun a bear. There’s no way. And forget all those stories about bears unable to run up or down slopes: yes they can, especially when they are very pissed off. That’s why they say not to run but to fall down and play dead. Bears only attack people because we startle them or somehow present a threat. You fall down, no longer a threat, bear goes away after batting you around a bit. But this bear was fully intent on evisceration and my falling down would just make his job easier, so I pelted up the slope, beelining for the thickest part of the trees. I couldn’t outrun him, but I maybe could out-slip him.

I ducked under three or four aspens growing close together, the bear’s paw slapping past my head. He hit the trees behind me hard, roaring, and smashed them out of his way but was slowed, and I ducked under another close growth, the bear in pursuit, and getting madder with each new tree he had to break through. Good. If he gets frustrated enough, he’ll quit. I hoped.

My path took a zigzag up the ridge, from stand to stand, the bear crashing into each one like a souped-up bulldozer. But the distance between us grew so I pumped my elbows and knees and zigged and zagged through the thickest stands I could find up the ridge, ripping my shirt and chest across blackberry thickets, taking half of them with me in my terror. Someone watching from a distance would see a vine covered and bleeding crazy man bursting through undergrowth while a limb-festooned bear monster roared after him.

I was not tired. I was far too scared to be tired, even when the ridge angle increased. This was my advantage; a few more stands, some more acreage between us, a harder climb, and the bear would take solace in scaring the bejesus out of me and go away. That’s what would have happened if I had not suddenly crashed through the last of the stands and found myself in a glade. A wide-open glade, with far too much real estate between the next stand and me.

There was a roar of sheer triumph and I turned and saw the most terrifying of what had been several terrifying sights so far. The bear was standing again, yes, actually standing on the edge of the glade about ten yards behind, his giant paws thrusting aspens away from him on either side, his head bent at me and just roaring. My legs lost power and I collapsed, sitting on the ground, holding myself up on my elbows, the bear’s breath washing over me like a carrion breeze. I was dead. I could not get away. I think I said “Mama” a couple of times as I waited for it to fall on me.

But it didn’t. It stood, regarded me, and then, I swear, it smiled.

So maybe you’d say it was a snarl and that I imagined it. No. It was a smile, of victory, of contempt, of sheer disdain. The chills that surged up my back confirmed it, and also gave me a sense of sheer disbelief. Just who the hell did this bear think he was? I looked straight at the sneering face. “Up yours!” I said.

The bear dropped into the glade, his eyes murderous and rumbled towards me. “And goodbye!” I yelled and leaped to my feet like a gymnast and turned and ran towards the other side of the glade straight for a twenty-foot birch sitting right at the edge. The angle gave me the advantage in the start, but the bear would be up to speed and would have me in seconds so I rushed the birch, wrapped my arms and legs around it and shinnied up to the first level of branches like Cheetah escaping lions.

They say don’t climb a tree. They’re right, bears can climb better than you and all you end up doing is giving them the best opportunity to grab your legs and haul you down as a snack. But I gambled on two things: the birch was flimsy and the bear was gigantic, so it’d be too heavy to climb up and get me. That is, if I could get out of its reach.

Which was an issue. I grabbed the first set of branches to swing up and felt hot breath on my shoulder and looked and the bear’s face was in the branch just a foot or two away. I yelled (no, screamed. Like a little girl) and swung around the tree as a paw the size of a boulder destroyed the branch I had just been on, shrapneling the bark and covering my face with birch paper.

I yanked myself up as the bear screamed like a banshee, not a little girl, and came around that side of the tree. Terror can make you an athlete and I scrambled up in record time, giant blurs of claw racking past my head. But I made it, at the top, out of reach.

But not out of danger. I clung to the thin trunk and took in giant gasps of air. Had to get my wind back because this bear wasn’t going to quit and I needed to shout for help, hope some passing Ranger would hear and drive him off. I still had four more days on my permit and no one would come looking for me until the 6th and spending a week in a tree, no water, no food, while a demon bear stalked below... well, you can see the problem.

The bear looked up at me, eyes red and insane, and he put a giant paw on the trunk, testing it. Yes, Bruin, won’t hold you, and I breathed relief. The bear backed up out of the limb cover and sat down, staring me in the eye. I stared back, which you’re not supposed to do with any animal, too much of a challenge, but this bear was off script anyway. “What the HELL do you want?” I shouted at him and he snarled meaner, if that was possible, and looked over his shoulder. I followed his glance and gasped.

There were other bears.

Not just one or two, not his (or her) cubs, but seven or eight that I could see, suggestions of more back in the stand. All full grown. And not just grizzlies. Browns, blacks. Even, I swear, a Kodiak.

I almost crapped myself. The bear looked back at me, meaningfully. And I knew what he wanted.

To vanquish the enemy.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2010 by Dwight O. Krauss

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