Years ago the last editorial The Sunday New York Times ran each week was an essay on the changing seasons. As a boy I would page through the Week in Review section to read the weekly sketch of natural history. I identified with the writer’s fascination with the natural world, and read in the hope that I could pick up his eye for shifting details of landscape, plant and animal life. I failed to acquire that kind of sensual acuity, but those editorials did instill me with a taste for nature writing I have retained to this day.
A few years ago Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote a column for the Times under the title Rural Life that was reminiscent of those long-remembered Sunday essays. He collected many of them in a small volume, and I have taken to reading them month by month as the seasons progress. As I read the entries for August, a brief passage about a vesperal vision on a Vermont road stirred memories of woodland encounters of my own.
“It was the fragile end of dusk,” Klinkenborg wrote. “Out of the thick, sloping cover on the far side of the road the bear burst at a lope, visible for only as long as it took to clear the road. But that was long enough to see that its fur was the same color as the night sky and that the gloss on its fur had the same effect as stars shining out in the night.”
The description drew me back to an early summer backpacking trip with a Jesuit companion along Cold Canyon in the Sierras that began in 100-degree heat and ended in a driving blizzard. We were camped at a backcountry site at Glen Aulin, the main transit point for hikers heading into Yosemite’s north country. I was brushing my teeth when Don called out to me. On a boulder just above the camp stood a bear, sovereignly indifferent to Don’s whistling and gesticulating to drive it off. It was still lean from winter. Beneath his sleek cinnamon coat, you could plainly see his muscular flanks. I picked up my whistle too and blew ear-piercing blasts, but the bear stood its ground, unaware that his kind dislikes loud noises. No doubt, this bear was king of the forest, or, at the very least, the crown prince. In its own time, it ambled down the rock ledge alongside our encampment and out of view.
Beginning with that encounter, I had a different view of bears as emperors of the evening. The cinnamon-colored three-year-old had defied the backcountry rituals of territoriality, intended to keep the inquisitive animals away from human food and other smellables (toothpaste, sunscreen and the like). For a few moments we stood eye to eye, and we were in awe of the animal’s beauty, strength and self-possession. Animal though it was, it nonetheless embodied majesty. At that moment, it was easy to see the bear, like Old Ben in Faulkner’s novella The Bear, as the personification of the American wilderness, a creature that deserves reverence.
Over the years I have had many more bear encounters, mostly driving them off from camp. Once, in Tiltill Valley along the Tuolumne River, a cub raided the tree where we had hung our food. It was his third try of the day. My companions ran off to chase him, and I volunteered to watch the camp. In charged the mother bear at a gallop. I stood up, banging pots and pans to scare her off. She charged on. I rose to my full height and put up my arms to enhance my low profile. Then I yelled at the top of my lungs, “Get out of here!” The sow did an about face, running as fast out of camp as she had come in. I have never felt as commanding again.
Only once in 25 years of backpacking did I lose food to a bear. We were at the end of Lyell Canyon at the beginning of the ascent to Donahue Pass. There was a feeling of doom from the beginning. We had passed through the camp on the way up the mountain until we were driven back by a hailstorm. Around the site at least a half-dozen severed bearlines hung from the trees, signs of other campers’ defeats. Another look revealed many of the lower branches of trees had been gnawed off. Finally, we found a high branch above a steep slope to hang our food bags.
About 10 p.m. we could hear the bears. Every 20 minutes, they returned. We blew whistles, banged pots and pans. But they feasted on. In the morning, only one can of tuna remained uneaten. When I reported the incident to the ranger, he chuckled and said, “Ninety-five percent of the food that goes in there does not come out. We even had one bear there who learned to come up on backpackers from behind, so they would drop their packs and leave their food to him.” True? I don’t know. But I figure, from time to time the emperor of the evening is entitled to enjoy the prerogatives of command as well.