"They really are intimidated by humans," Sally said as we sat around the picnic table at Red's Meadow Resort eating our highly prized Red's burgers. "Just scare them off with loud sounds and act big."
I'd heard this numerous times along the trail. Brown bears--those bears we find in California--aren't interested in humans, but are interested in our food. How many evenings before bed since learning how to backpack three years ago were spent painstakingly going through the ritual of making sure that "everything that goes in or on your body" is safely sealed into a bear-proof canister and stashed some distance from the tent?
So many hours spent fretting about having residual mint fragrance from toothpaste lingering in my mouth or the scent of lotion on my dry cracked hands. Was it enough to be detected? Images of the young camper who awoke to a crunching sound--which turned out to be the sound of his own head being munched by a bear--repeatedly forced their way into my head. I shuddered every time.
I was halfway through my adventure when I arrived at my resupply spot, Red's Meadow. Surveying the campground, I opted against the backpacker's campsites, as they were crowded and I heard loud music from a nearby site encroaching.
I eventually tucked my tent next to a large Douglas Fir tree at another site, ensuring afternoon shade. It was the first campsite adjacent to the trail that ran between the campground and the resort. Beyond that trail lay wilderness and the view from my tent a lush expanse of brilliant green meadow.
My neighbors were a newly retired first grade teacher, her husband and their two adult grandsons. "We've been coming every summer for over twenty years now. There's about six active bears in the campgrounds this year," explained Sheila. "They make their rounds around dusk foraging through untended ice chests, BBQs and unlocked garbage cans. Lots of first time campers this year who don't seem bear smart!"
I stashed my whole backpack in the large bear locker assigned to my site. Why take the chance when you have the luxury of a big secure space?
Evening came and I sauntered up to the hot spring pool behind the old bath house. A group of three trekkers--Jacob, Steph and Tim--arrived and I perked up as the clamoring of banging pots and honking car horns moved through the campground. The bears' evening rounds were underway.
The spring was hot--too hot to submerge in without cooling it down a bit. There was an abandoned pipe that used to feed the individual bath rooms, each with a tub, shower and hooks. I splashed the water high in the air as Ted, a car camper that fell in love with Red's Meadow many years before, shared his bear experience from the night before that included the bear leisurely exploring his large, two bedroom tent while he looked on. Needless to say, he would be sleeping in his SUV for the rest of his stay this year.
The heat from the clear, light blue water slowly seeped to the core of my body, melting tightness and soreness from every muscle, as if by magic. A perfect way to end my first seven days of hiking and ready me for a good night's sleep.
Thunder rips through my dream and I'm pulled out of a dreamy deep sleep. Earth trembles as a large creature gallops past just feet behind my head.
Boom-rumble! Boom-rumble! Boom-rumble!
My instincts knew and I bolted upright in a panic--something very big is galloping straight toward me! Heart racing and breath shallow--an earthquake was releasing it's thunder all around me! But it was in rhythm. "Oh shit!"
It was mere feet from my head! "Holy shit!"
The earthshaking galloping continued past my tent and off into the forest. Boom-rumble! Boom-rumble! Boom-rumble! I hear breath pass by.
Through the lightly opaque tent screen, my body in panic, I see the fuzzy outline of a large figure slowly lumbering through the edge of the meadow, not 15 feet from my feet. It took off in a gallop returning the ground to tumultuous, but rhythmic trembling.
"A....a....a...bbbbear," I managed to stutter out. "A....bear," I said a bit louder the second time as I reached for my glasses and checked the time. It was 5:00 AM.
"Katy? Katy? Katy, did you hear that?" I offered in a low voice to the fellow backpacker who shared my campsite that night. No response. How could anyone not have heard or felt them go by??!?
I'm always amazed at how quickly the mind (and body?) can assess a situation. The bears were gone. There was no need to wake anyone that wasn't already shaking in their boots as I was. But, but, but.....
I was anointed.
Every element of my being analyzed and assessed what just happened and within seconds concluded there was no way in hell I could EVER intimidate and scare off these massive, though gallant and glorious beings. "They must weigh close to a ton," I surmised.
Ancient knowings deep inside and rarely stirred could assess by the very sound and breadth and depth of earth that moved as the bears galloped by that there was ABSOLUTELY NO WAY IN HELL I could scare off these magnificent and majestic beings.
The mind had made them conceptually big. The direct experience brought depth and dimension to my knowing that could never be touched by concept.
Awe began to take over my experience.
I was anointed to that which is bear.
I was humbled. Deeply, deeply humbled. Still am.
JoAnn Saccato, MA is a mindfulness teacher specializing in disaster and trauma resiliency and learning the self through nature. As a mindfulness-based life coach, she helps others align heart, mind and body with their deepest values and intentions to live a deeply authentic life they can truly love.
JoAnn lives in the hills of Northern California and travels the world over with her curiosity and teachings. She is the author of Companioning the Sacred Journey: A Guide to Creating a Compassionate Container for Your Spiritual Practice and Mindful and Intentional Living: A Path to Peace, Clarity and Freedom.
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