I awoke with a start. The shelter we had fashioned with fallen branches and sticks was loosely woven and leaned against a small granite cliff at the bottom of Embudito Canyon, on the west face of the Sandia Mountains. Everyone else was quiet in their sleeping bags. I didn’t know what had wakened me so suddenly.
I could hear the babbling of the stream a few steps away, and the gentle cascade of water over stone. I lay still, listening intently. Then a shift in the sound of the stream. Splashing. Splash, splash, splash. Then the crunching of gravel as though slow heavy steps were coming up the slope towards the shelter. The sound of my campmates breathing was constant.
Then a grunt, a soft woofing sound as the crunching steps came to a stop right outside the frail veil of branch and twig, just inches from my face. An intense, musky animal odor wafted through and infiltrated my nostrils. I held my breath as I lay motionless, or was I paralyzed with fear? A bear. I was certain that a black bear stood inches away. I could smell it strongly and its movements caused the decomposed granite gravel to crunch under its paws.
For some minutes it shifted its weight and sniffed and snuffled as I imagined it suddenly smashing through the dry branches and lunging in to crush my skull with its powerful jaws as its razor like claws ripped through my tender teenage flesh. I would be dead before my friends sleeping next to me were awoken by the sound of the bear tearing through flesh and bone, my warm blood raining down upon them.
The bear paced back and forth a couple of times before I heard its paw pads crunching away, back towards the stream. The odor subsided as my breath escaped in tiny hisses and my heart pounded like it was going to leap out of my chest, bear claws or not. A few more splashes stream side, then fading crunches of gravel as the bear moved away. I allowed myself to breathe. Was it gone? Would it come back? Should I wake up my friends?
I lay there, shaken and frightened, but also thrilled. I tried to relax and sleep, but feared for the bears return. I looked at the small doorway opening we had left and imagined waking to find the large, menacing head of the bear filling it. I quietly pulled my metal mess kit from my backpack, and hung the pot, pan, coffee cup and utensils in the opening. I imagined the noise they would make should some beastly intruder return as we slept.
I think I slipped into unconsciousness just before dawn. “What is this shit?” I heard Bob yell, startling me into wakefulness. The oldest of us at 17, he scoffed at me when I explained that we had an ursine visitor in the wee hours, and that I hung the doorway with an alarm in case of its return. “There are no bears in these mountains” he informed me with a tone of superior distain, “You are a (insert the slang term used by our current President for a part of a woman’s anatomy you can grab them by if you are a celebrity, in his opinion). The year was 1973.
Flash forward to 1980. It was evening and the phone rang. It was my brother, Steve calling to tell me that he and Heidi were going to camp at South Peak. Did I want to join them? Our friend Randy (whose nickname was Bear) was going to drive them up to the crest, perhaps hike a ways with them before returning to town. I decided to go for the ride and the short hike, but not to camp. They would pick me up in the morning.
That night I had a strange dream. The four of us were hiking along a trail in the Sandias, up where the scrubby Gambel Oak rises above your head. Large granite boulders the size of elephants loomed out of the thick brush here and there. “Lions and tigers and bears” I began to chant, over and over as we made our way along the trail. Suddenly, a good sized black bear appeared on the trail ahead of us. We scrambled up the closest boulder as quickly as we could. I woke up and chuckled at the odd dream before slipping back to sleep.
As I made my coffee the next morning, I picked up the newspaper to read before my chauffeur arrived. On the front page was a photo of a black bear in an apple tree in someone’s yard, near Central and Wyoming streets, a neighborhood we would drive through on our way to Sandia Crest. We were in drought conditions, and it was surmised that the bear had come to town in search of food.
Needless to say, that was the topic of conversation on the drive up. Though we had been hiking, camping and exploring all over that mountain for years and we had never seen a bear. My experience that night in Embudito Canyon was as close as we had come, but Bob had assured us it was my imagination running wild and scared.
Arriving at the Crest parking lot, we took to the trail at its southern edge and entered the woods. Randy and I hiked along with Steve and Heidi for an hour or so before deciding to part with them and turn back. There is an old stone building right at the rocky precipice at the top ridge of the mountain, a popular spot for day hikers. Below that is a large meadow with a small stand of scrub oak in the center. Another trail runs along the tree line at the bottom of the meadow, so we chose to take that one, avoiding hikers and tourists at the top.
We decided to take a break in the shade of the pines at the meadow’s lower edge. We could see people along the trail at the top. Our conversation returned to the bear in the morning paper, and we wondered how many were in these mountains and how they had managed to avoid us all these years. After a rest and a smoke, we stepped back onto the trail. We talked of things we had heard you should or should not do if you encountered a bear.
Do not climb a tree. Bears are expert climbers. Do not run. A bear can outrun a human. If you must run, run downhill as bear’s hindquarters make them clumsy downhill runners. No, that one was a myth. Make lots of noise, bang pots and pans and try to look real big. We wondered what we would actually do if we did encounter a bear in these woods.
And as we walked along the trail, just now exactly below the scrub oak thicket, a black bear came bursting out of the oaks, running full speed directly towards us. OH SHIT! It was like a blink of an eye, but also like slow motion at the same time. As black bears go, color is all over the place, and this one was a beautiful shade of cinnamon. As it charged towards us the shining fur shook in waves from the rear haunches over the shoulders to the base of the skull, and back again. The early morning sun illuminated the highlights and shadows as rippling waves of fur shimmered forward and back.
We were frozen in place, on flat ground, away from trees, with no noisemakers and the bear was closing in on us with great speed. We looked at each other. RUN! We both shouted simultaneously. And in the same split second we took our first sprinting step, out of the corner of our eyes we saw the bear turn in the opposite direction, full speed away.
We stopped in our tracks and watched as the bear ran away, no less grand in its exodus. The sunlight shimmered over the gorgeous fur as the hindquarters rose and fell with each leap. In no time the bear made it to the forest’s edge and it disappeared into the trees. Realizing that the bear was actually fleeing from the folks on the ridge, we stood still, hearts pounding, in absolute awe of what had just happened. Terror and joy are odd bedfellows. Who would believe us? Would Bob?
Over the next several months something like thirty or so bears came down from the Sandia Mountains, into town, looking for food and water. Sadly, some were hit by cars. One was filmed by a news crew as it climbed a telephone pole. When shot with tranquilizer darts, it fell into high voltage power lines which exploded in a burst of spark and flame, making national if not international television news. Most of the bears coming down from the mountain were trapped and relocated to another mountain range many miles away.
How does an individual animal, descended from generations in one habitat, cope with being placed into another? Many species develop territories with boundaries marked and defended. What happens to an animal dropped into unfamiliar territory that is the habitat of another of its kind but not kin?
We have learned too slowly what a foodshed is, or a watershed, and how bears and many other beautiful creatures have evolved with instincts that would take them to the valley, to the river where water and food might be found in times of scarcity. We have channeled the ever changing alluvial fans of the arroyos that were pathways, and once recharged our aquifers and dispersed seeds of native plants, into concrete channels that become swollen, muddy rivers of death in flash floods.
We have built our neighborhoods and strip malls where the wild things were. Species common when I was young are no longer seen or heard. And we continue to encroach upon the wild things, and complain when they come after our poodles and kitties when we move into their neighborhoods.
I am eternally grateful to have grown up where those wild things were, and to have had close encounters with some of them. I mourn the loss of habitat and species. But I retain the sense of wonder and joy at what is still with us, for the time being at least. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!