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My First Bear Encounter

By: jarba

The summer I got my college degree in anthropology, I headed to a small ranch in Montana for a summer job. My employer, Jack, was a stout rancher in his 40s. He raised cattle and sheep, and two young sons, Roy 8 and Nick 6, with his wife Jean, a very friendly woman a few years his senior, on his family ranch. My responsibility was to take care Jean's Mom Ester who had been partly paralyzed by a stroke and had spent most of her time in a wheelchair for the last five years.

Every morning, after breakfast and a shower, I would wheel Ester out of the wooden ranch house for a morning stroll. The wooden house was in an enclave flanked by tall trees forming a natural fence around the building. Beyond the line of trees, a small gravel path led off into the high prairie, green with grass, where is quickly faded. Ambling along the path and beyond was the favorite part of our morning routine - the splendid view of the undulating landscape, occasionly disrupted by some far-off cliff or hillock, seemed to push the horizon far and away. The stretched immensity of blue sky was pierced by a distant rock formation darkened by caves sheltering small animals. The nearby farms were many miles apart, and occasionally their herds passed by and we waved good morning to our neighbours; Most of the time we chatted among ourselves as the soft morning breez whispered through the leaves of aspens. Sometimes, deer could be spotted springing away and dispersing in the undergrowth.

I normally got us back home before noon and prepared simple lunches for Ester and the boys. Jack and Jean wouldn't be back until early evening. The boys usually had some work set out for them every day, and they spent their time about the ranch house. After helping Ester to her bed for a nap, I enjoyed watering the flowers in the front yard with a big water jar. Those flowers were bit over-grown, but fit into their surroundings just right. The boys liked to fertilize the flower bed with whatever they could get their hands onto - once they were seen laying dung on it, another time I found them dump fresh corn - always something organic, I couldn't really see much nutritional benefit they had to the plants - but the flowers did look good.

The afternoon sun quickly raised the temperature into the 90s, this was the perfect time for a quiet reading session on my own - the boys frequently joined their friends for swimming somehwere in the nearby town - I would sit myself on a wooden bench in the yard, comfortably placed under the cool shadow of the tree canopy, the sweet aroma of flowers floating in the air.

It was on one of these idyllic afternoons, about a month since I'd first arrived on the ranch, that, after reading by myself for a little while and after checking upon Ester in the cabin, I went to refill my water jar to water the plants again. I loitered inside a little bit before exiting the gate. With the jar in one hand, and my book in the other, I made my way towards the bench about 30 feet away. when suddenly a great roar stopped me short. I looked up in horror at a fully upright brown bear staring down at me just a few yards to my right. I was never warned about any BEAR visitations! The bear raised its snout and turned it in every direction as if sniffing. Its round ears perked up to gather every minute noise. This was a huge fellow who stood a good 7 feet tall, at least 300 pounds in weight. I was frozen with apprehension, my heart pounding wildly.

Instinctively, I could sense something was wrong and this unexpected fellow was in bad humor. I franticly looked around to see if there was any safe path for a retreat, when suddenly a slight movement on the ground caught my eyes, I spotted another bear, this time a young one lying on its side, eyes closed, near one end of the flower bed. Something dawned on me, the cub was injured, or dying, while the grieving mother fixed on me as the perpetrator. Another frightening roar was directed at me, Mamma was in an ugly mood! God knows I didn't do anything to her baby! I couldn't tell the exact state of the cub, but I could clearly see the sharp teeth in Mamma's mouth, and could almost smell her stenchy breath. All my hair stood on end, and my blood gushed onto my face, my head was throbbing. I forced myself to think - wondered if Ester could hear the bear, but she wouldn't be able to help much. Female bears were most dangerous when with their young since mother bear was notoriously protective and vengeful. I've got to convince her I was harmless.

I started to retreat slowly away from where the bear cub lay, and shouted out loudly, "Hey Bear, Calm Down! I'm Leaving!" My voice was a little too faltering and squeaky for my taste, but that was best I could manage. The mamma bear raised her paw, her claw shining under the sun like a hook, and then she came upon me. I couldn't understand how a 10 yard distance could vanish in a matter of a second. It felt like tons of weight piling down on my shoulder, shaking me up, pushing me down like a little puppet. Her hot heavy breath was right next to my ear. I was fighting all I could, but in the next moment my book and water jar were out of my hands, and I fell to the ground on my back with a loud thump. I was too petrified to feel the pain, only one message crossed my mind, "I'm going to die", my eyes closed, waiting the ensuing slam to finish me off.

But it never came. It was just a few seconds, but it felt like a century, before I opened my eyes to a retreating bear. She proceeded towards her cub, who, stirred by the water jar accidentally landing on him and the water pouring out of it, was struggling to stand up. He looked, apparently not dead, not wounded, not sleepy, but disoriented! It was the most amazing scene in the world, the cub staggering up to his mamma! It was the corn, I later learned, which fermented in the hot, humid, air, which attracted the cub who subsequently filled her tummy with too much alcohol! He was literally drunk! I watched her limping a little, walking drunkenly away, with her mamma discreetly following, out of our ranch, till they disappeared into the far distance, never looking back once.

As to me, apart from a few clearly visible scars on my shoulders and arms, I fully recovered from the incident, and firmly discontinued from then on any further practice of using non-processed corn as organic fertilizer on the ranch.

The above article and its followup discussion are published on http://www.crossvoice.com (CrossVoice Magazine)

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