Seeing Bears Eye-to-Eye

It was our second day of hiking in a row. Today we were going to hike the eyebrow-raisingly named Death Canyon in Grand Teton National Park.

“I hope we see some wildlife today,” Ethan said.

We turned to go to Moose Junction for some sandwiches. Cars were parked illegally, clogging up both shoulders, and a slew of out-of-towners hovered on the side of the road. I craned my neck and found the source of the commotion.

“There’s some wildlife for you,” I told Ethan, casually pointing to the moose grazing fifteen feet from the road. I chuckled. “A moose in Moose!”

“I’ve never seen a moose before,” Ethan said in awe. He declined my non-existent offer to park the car so he could join the crowd of gawkers, citing a pressing need to visit the restroom.

Sandwiches purchased and innards relieved, we bounced over a dirt road that might have contributed to my car’s $1600 tune-up (why, oh why, do they have to wait until they’re no longer under warranty to fizzle out?). After the longest mile imaginable, we reached the trailhead and geared up to go.

“Huh,” Ethan murmured, leafing through his backpack. “You have the bear spray?”

I snorted. “Sure do,” I said. “In Denver.”

“Oh,” he said, glancing nervously at the “Be Bear Aware” signs posted ominously throughout the parking lot.

“When was the last time you saw a bear on the trail?” I sighed, rolling my eyes.

“There was that one near the road two months ago. That wasn’t very far from here.”

“That was in the car, and he wasn’t on the road. You’re just letting all those menacing reports in the local paper get to you.” I shouldered my backpack and locked up the car. Ethan quietly did the same.

The trail wasn’t as steep as we’d been led to expect, at least not right away–my dad’s friend had told us that the first two miles of the trail were breathtaking in a literal sense–so Ethan blathered on for the first hundred feet. I nodded, paying the usual amount of attention I gave him, and scanned the trail ahead.

I thought I saw something moving just twenty feet ahead, but I shook my head. “Rubbish,” I said to myself, the inner monologue pleasantly drowning out my boyfriend. “That’s no bear, and you know it. Remember the last ‘bear’ you saw on a hiking trail?” Not two months earlier on a Yellowstone trail, I had rounded a switchback and stopped, nearly causing Ethan to slam into me.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

I took a deep breath, trying to gently point to the bear just off the side of the trail as I frantically tried to convince my bladder not to empty its contents. Then I took a second glance. It was a burned log with a couple of smaller branches atop it serving as the ears.

“I stubbed my toe,” I hastily explained, carrying on with an affected limp. I trotted away as quickly as I could so Ethan wouldn’t notice the little bit of urine that had escaped.

Since we’d just been talking about bears, I reasoned on the Death Canyon trail, obviously my mind was playing tricks. I took a determined two steps forward, coming around a slight curve, and stood shock still.

Ethan was blabbering on one pace behind me. I took a hasty step back and grabbed Ethan’s chest. “Bear,” I whispered.

He stopped talking and gawked. Sure enough, twenty feet ahead and right in the middle of the trail, a black bear leveled his gaze on us.

I raised my arms slowly above my head. “Make yourself look bigger,” I hissed to Ethan. “Avoid eye contact, and let’s just slowly back away.”

Ethan did as told, and we shuffled back three steps. I glanced up quickly each step to see if the bear was still watching. Each time, he was. The expression on his face seemed to say, “What are you two idiots doing here?”

I was wondering the same thing myself. I was also wondering if I could at least get a picture of him and post it to Facebook before he mauled us. Before I had the chance to slowly reach for my iPhone, however, he decided we were boring and bounded off into the woods.

Ethan and I looked at each other, shrugged, and kept going. Every time we passed someone going back the way we’d come, we’d exchange the usual hiker talk–“It’s a good, steep one, but it only took us two hours,” etc.–then I’d break into a huge grin.

“We came face-to-face with a bear less than a tenth of a mile from the parking lot!” I said cheerily. “Keep a lookout!”

And our fellow hikers, being generally as nuts as we are as evidenced by their already successfully ascents of something called Death Canyon, got a strange expression on their faces.

“I don’t know if we want to run into him or not,” they’d murmur, dreaming of Facebook posts of their own that would warrant innumerable exclamations of, “OMG!!!” “R u ok?!?!” and, “Scary!!!!!”

The only wildlife we saw on the rest of the trip included a few chipmunks and a Brit who was headed down as we were headed up the truly steep part. “Nahsty bit of work, isn’t it?” he asked sympathetically.

“Quite,” I couldn’t help but answer.

On the trip back, the moose was still in Moose, although it had moved to the other side of the bridge, and my bear spray remained in Denver. But at least my boyfriend could be satisfied that we had, indeed, seen much more wildlife than we had the day before.

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