Of mice and men - and big old bears

In camping areas across North America, bears are a topic of heated debate. For neophytes, they are the "Jaws" of the backwoods, lurking at every turn, lying in wait for a sweaty snack. Seasoned outdoorsmen scoff and say:

"Why, they're more scared-a you!"

In my mind, that seemed impossible. Although I loved to hike and fish and all those other invigorating activities, sleeping out was another matter. At night, swaddled in my sleeping bag, given up to all care, I also felt given up to any bears that might casually pass the tent flap.

On my first trips to the woods I hardly slept. I would lie miserably, scrutinizing the night, trying to parse the myriad rustles, crunches, and sighs of a typical forest into noises that could definitively be called "bear." A twig crack sounded like an artillery shot. I'd sit bolt upright, and my heart would pound for the next half hour.

One night, my vigilance was rewarded when I heard a rasping behind the tent. It was a faint but clear shifting of leaves. In a heartbeat I was up, still swaddled in my sleeping bag, clasping a Swiss Army knife.

I positioned myself to one side of the open tent door and felt my blood race. Could I stab a bear? I would know soon. It was do or die.

The sound worked its way around to the front of the tent, toward the door. I stopped breathing. I clasped the knife so tight my knuckles hurt.

Then: pop! The tiniest mouse I have ever seen hopped over the lip of the tent, did a quick circuit, then ran out again.

After that, I embraced the "seasoned outdoorsman's" school of thought. Bears were there, of course, but they were as much an imminent danger as a tree falling on you. I later had several encounters, all at a distance, that only confirmed my opinion. A berry patch would lie across my path where a bear was tamely supping. We'd size each other up and the bear would lumber away, disgusted.

So another night, a few years later, I drove out to an isolated camping spot north of Vancouver without giving bears much thought. I was returning from a bonfire party, tired and merry. I thought only of sleep. With my bear phobia out of the way, I had come to love sleeping under the stars. I found the cool air soothed me like a lullaby and the deep black sky swallowed my cares. I parked the truck and clambered into my camper, crawling past an old cooler full of bacon, cheese, fruit, vegetables, and other aromatic comestibles. I fell into bed. Zoe, my bull terrier, crawled in after me and flopped her head on my stomach.

I had been blissfully asleep for perhaps five minutes - or maybe it was five hours - when I suddenly woke with a growling in my ear.

"Quiet, Zoe."

She was staring out the open door of the camper. I peered out sleepily. The dirt road was dappled in the timid moonlight, and my tired eyes swam with blotches. I saw a pretty big blotch that wasn't swimming with the others, but it could have been anything. This was a forest, after all.

My head fell back on the pillow. "Go to sleep, Zoe."

I woke again. Now she was standing, her forelegs planted aggressively, and barking. I looked out the door. I could still make out only an undefined patch of blackness in the night - much, much bigger than I remembered. Its outline seemed to shift like an amoeba. "I must be really tired," I thought. I pulled the sleeping bag over my head, but as I drifted off to sleep again, I knew deep down that I was not handling this well.

Zoe was now beside herself, and there was no hope of avoiding the situation any longer. She had moved to the end of the bed toward the gaping door, and was barking ferociously. I looked out again, and saw ... an ominously large shadow.

"Stay calm," I told myself as I flew into a panic. "Socks! I've got to find my socks." My hands flailed around the mess in the camper. I found a kitchen knife and held it with one hand like a life preserver while pulling pants on with the other.

What to do? What to do? I thought of those "Bear Safety" pamphlets they give out at National Parks. "Don't leave food lying around the campsite," they said. I glanced reproachfully at the cooler. "Don't run away. Don't climb a tree. Don't make eye contact." Plenty of don'ts; what were the dos? Get dressed?

After that, it was a blur. Zoe ably took charge. She advanced to the edge of the doorway, barking as she did. She must have forced the bear back far enough to let me whisk around to the cab, because the next thing I knew, I was pumping the gas pedal with a bare foot and calling out for Zoe to join me. She leapt over me into the passenger seat, I slammed the door, and we screeched away. I felt like the getaway driver in a perfectly timed heist. I swear Zoe was barking "go, go, go!"

And me? When I remember darting ridiculously around the back of my truck, all I think of is that mouse, making a frantic turn of my tent. I can't really say who was more scared.

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