Where the Bears Are
This summer, I’ve been watching the brown bears fishing for sockeye salmon at Brooks Falls in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska via a live cam. The National Park Service provides this 24-hour live stream free of charge every year between July and August.
I shared the bear link with a girlfriend who subsequently invited me to spend the weekend at her mountain house in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
On the way in the car, she told me that she’d received calls from her mountain neighbors warning her not to walk alone in the woods because of the plethora of black bear sightings in the area. There was lots of evidence of rummaging through garbage cans, and one man walked into his kitchen to find a bear in his refrigerator.
Knowing I love to walk, my friend said we should walk together, or at the very least I should take her hunting dog, Millie. It’s one of those things you agree to because it’s easier than telling a likelier truth.
As it happened, when we arrived, my friend took a nap, and I ended up taking a walk alone. It began with stretching legs; the stretching turned to strolling, and the strolling turned into walking without the dog.
In no time, some distance from the house, I found myself sitting on a log bench staring deep into a clear pond that reflects the clouds and mountain above it, encasing schools of eating-size trout below (the sign had a limit per household that I didn’t recall). The trout remind me of the salmon in Alaska, which remind me of brown bears, which remind me of black bears.
And then somewhere in the woods in the massive blind spot behind my back, I hear a twig snap.
In one long, slow breath I come to understand that I never stopped to find out what to do if you come face-to-face with a bear. Do you stop, drop, and roll? Do you try to make yourself appear bigger by waving your arms and yelling “skat!”? Do you fall to the ground and play dead?
The cracking sound, I think, is probably just my conscience. So I continue my walk down the one-lane mountain road, picking wildflowers as I go. Though I am expecting bears and certainly feel bears in my chest every time the wind rustles the trees, I don’t see any bears.
Over a dinner of BLTs later that night, I disclose to my friend the 2.3-miles and 5,008 steps that registered on the health app on my iPhone.
“Dear Luke,” my friend glibly recites an imaginary letter to my 3-year-old grandson, “say bye-bye to Grandma Sibley.” And enclosing a picture of the bear that ate me.
She jokes then she makes me look into her eyes, which she highlights using her index and middle finger like laser pointers. “Promise me you will not go walking alone.”
“I promise I will not go walking again alone,” I say. “I’ll take Millie.”
The next morning I rise before daybreak, and take my coffee to a table outside, light a citronella tea candle, and wait for the sun to rise. I practice the “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in/breathing out, I know I am breathing out” meditation. Before long, the green moss-covered driveway emerges, framed in tall hardwood trees and thickets of waxy mountain laurel and rhododendron. I honor my promise to my friend and leash up her dog.
Millie is a hunting dog by breed but doesn’t hunt in the traditional sense. I have seen her catch mice and heard she once bagged a wild turkey and a few domestic chickens.
It doesn’t feel that much safer with Millie than without Millie, but she’s a sweet dog and fun to walk with while I turn the idea of seeing a bear over in my mind with multiple endings. Millie lunges for the bear; it runs away. Millie runs from the bear; it lungs at me.
We stop beside the pond with the fat trout and hike up the road to the very top of the mountain where there is no cell service, and where there are also, thankfully, no bears.
For some reason, I’ve completely forgotten about the fate of an eccentric woman I once interviewed who lived in the swamps of the Outer Banks without electricity or running water. She was known to locals as “Kay, the bear lady” and, for a pack of cigarettes, she’d treat visitors to a bear show, which was conducted using junk food like snowballs to entice the bears to her trailer camp and to get them to perform.
I saw one of Kay’s shows from the safety of metal trailer that had been pawed over at various times by “her” bears. She didn’t have much in creature comforts or companionship, but she did have her study of bears, which she took as seriously as if she were Jane Goodall. Long after that visit, I heard her bears eventually killed her.
Back home in Atlanta, where traffic on I-20 is the source of the ocean and wind-through-the-tree sounds, I pull up the live webcam in Alaska and listen to the hard shush sound of the white water beating the rocks. A salmon or two leaps toward the wall of falling water. Three cubs play on a rock while a big mama bear nearby dunks her head underwater and scans for fish.
Not only are the safety features on the live bear cam excellent there’s also a very high likelihood that you’ll see a bear every time you turn it on.