A cinnamon colored black bear, but not my black bear. Click image to see photo credit.
I’ve only had two bear encounters with a potential to go bad. The worst (best?) was in the Sierra Nevadas—in a wilderness area—at approximately the 5,000-foot level.
One peaceful fall afternoon, back in ’07, in a canyon in the backcountry of Plumas County, California, about an hour’s hike from camp, I was alone, test panning for gold along a narrow stream and standing knee-deep in a pool of cold water. Gently sloping, forested hills walled the streambed on either side, hosting the channel through which it flowed.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of movement. An oversized black bear (Ursus americanus californiensis) sporting a full and beautiful reddish blond coat was ambling down the hillside toward me; despite their name, black bears can be black, brown, cinnamon, blond, blue-gray, or white.
He seemed to be oblivious to my presence and without a care in the world (coming to lap his fill of water?). His belly fat swayed and jiggled and his overdeveloped muscles rippled with every movement. He was less than 200 feet away and closing. I knew that if he didn’t change course, soon, he and I would be getting to know each other, pretty pronto, in face to face negotiations over water rights—not an attractive prospect!
Running would alert him to my whereabouts. He could be munching and crunching my bones in seconds—I thought. So, in hopes of scaring him off, I banged my gold pan against a boulder jutting from the water; my ear-splitting melody drummed throughout the canyon; the colossal hairball froze in his tracks. I thought I had him buffaloed and expected him to whip around and streak for the back side of the hill—as from a frenzied pack of hounds. However, to my profound regret, he snorted his surprise, rose on his hind legs, turned his head side to side and put his ears and sniffer to work in an attempt to pinpoint the source from whence came that extraordinary noise.
Soon, too soon, he was back on all fours and moving forward–now with caution and attitude! He stopped every few yards to rise and test the air, cautious but seemingly intent on slurping down his full measure of water—no matter the risk. As a precaution, I pulled my 357 Mag from the holster that hung across my chest, promising myself not to use it unless mandatory to save my life.
Having no other prudent option, I stood up tall in the creek, pistol in hand, raised and waved my arms above my head and screamed like a crazy man, attempting to appear too big and too scary to mess with. Good luck with that, said the left side of my brain to the right side of my brain—run for it! The right side said, Hey! If you don’t have any better ideas than committing suicide—then get with the damn program. Let’s scare the crap out of the fuzzy goon and run ’em off. It’s worth a try–dweeb!.
In the loudest, most stern and commanding voice I could rally, I invited Mr. Bruin to transport his bulging buns back up the hill and leave me be. By then he was so close that I could hear his raspy breathing and clearly see into his empty little eyes. With my time left on planet earth in high jeopardy, you’d expect the only sounds louder than his breathing and snorting would be the rattling of my teeth and spasmodic knocking of my knees. And, yet, inexplicably, a profound calm swept over me; I knew I was going to be okay, whatever came my way. Go figure!
My wild gesticulations and deafening rant had given him pause; he again froze while standing his ground, snorting, sniffing and staring for what felt like a rude and cruel eternity. As a last resort, I banged my pan again—nonstop, not wishing to shoot my fellow forest dweller, despite his obnoxious and threatening behavior.
I suppose he didn’t appreciate my pan banging melody much, because, momentarily he swung around and moseyed, not ran, back up the hill. But the giant stopped several times to turn and stare as if to say, Want a piece of me? Just you bring it on; I damn sure ain’t afraid of the likes of you—twerp!
Moments later after one last stare down he casually made his way up and over the hilltop, out of my life and into the future–his dignity intact and honorably preserved–mine too.
I had one other encounter with an insolent black bear while traveling through Canada, back in ’92 or ’93, but it didn’t amount to much.