Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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I walked down the trail talking to bears. It seemed the only thing to do. I tried singing, but after a while I ran out of songs. Or rather, song. I can only think of one song when I sing to bears, a song from a musical called Crosstown Bus written by a dear friend. The song, to wonderful music, has a line it that goes “Heading east, heading east in the morning, heading east, heading east all day.” I have to wonder whether there is something in the thought of grizzly bears that makes me think I should head east. New York City, for instance. Paris. Vienna. Somewhere without grizzly bears.

Yet, the reason I live in Montana is precisely because of grizzlies. Once, in the ‘80s, thinking I should be sure I really wanted to stay in Montana, I went to Innsbruck for a month (I’d lived there years earlier), and then to Paris for a month (I’d always loved it). In the end, I opted for Montana because I missed its wildness. In wild country you must be aware at every moment. Awareness matters more to me than the perfect trails of the Alps, more than the streets of Paris. Is it an odd choice for someone who loves Civilization? Perhaps I finally realized there is more to life than Civilization.

I was talking to bears in Glacier National Park where I’d accompanied David on a photography workshop. I go with him when his workshops are in places I like to hike. While he is out with photographers, I hike. I love hiking by myself . . . the silence, .the connection with the world around me. Connection doesn’t happen the same way when someone else is there. Still, hiking alone in grizzly country may not be the smartest thing one can do.

Years ago, when I was still working in Yellowstone, the outfitter I worked with, an educator, was asked by U.S. Fish & Wildlife to put together a bear course for outfitters on a nearby national forest because they, or their clients, were having too many encounters resulting in dead bears. I attended the course, part of which consisted of shooting bear spray at a large cardboard cutout of a bear being pulled toward one by a truck. (Bear spray deters bears, while keeping them alive.) I knew it was a cardboard bear. But as it began coming toward me, as it got into shooting range, my adrenalin was so racing I could hardly remove the safety from the canister of bear spray and let go the stream of spray. If my adrenalin was that high facing a cardboard bear, what would it be with a real bear? I suppose it is possible that, knowing what to expect, I might exercise some degree of control. Maybe.

The day before my Glacier hike, I went to an informal class at the St. Mary Visitor Center on using bear spray. The ranger giving the class was new, in her first year in the Park. She came from Maryland, where there are no grizzlies. The other people were families with young children. We all got a chance to try an inert canister, but the message she really wanted to get across was that the best deterrent is the human voice. Of course that makes sense. Bears want to encounter us probably even less than we want to encounter them. She was trying to encourage all those families to keep talking so the bears would stay away.

Fine. Except I was hiking by myself. I took the boats across Swiftcurrent and Josephine Lakes, then walked to Grinnell Lake. On this section of trail, there were many people, all of them talking. At the lake, people sprawled across any relatively dry spot they could find along the lake shore. (It was a long, wet winter here. When we arrived a few days earlier, people were skiing and snowboarding at Logan Pass.) Snow had only recently gone from the lake shore and the day was grey, raw, cold. “I’ve never before worn long johns on July 20th,” a photographer working near me said.

I’d intended hiking back to Many Glacier Lodge on the north side of Josephine Lake, the more popular trail, but missing my turn, I continued instead on the south side. Once I passed the turn-off for the boat across Josephine Lake, most people’s destination, there was no one else on the trail. Just me and the forest. And the thirty thousand grizzly bears I knew were hidden in high foliage along my route. At first, I sang to them, but then decided I could not keep repeating the same words over and over while walking the three miles or so still ahead of me. So I began to talk. That’s what this piece is. What I said to the bears . . . .

O.K. bears, let’s work out a deal. I’ll stay on the path and you stay in the forest. Make sure all your babies are with you, so we don’t have babies on one side, Mamas on the other. I really don’t want to walk between you. Anyway, you’ll like it better, having the kids with you, where you can see them, where they can learn about digging for roots. But you must be pretty happy here when the thimbleberries ripen. This trail seems to cut through all the thimbleberry in the world. I hate thimbleberry myself. There they are, looking for all the world like raspberries, which are the best food there is, but then you put them in your mouth and they taste like . . . thimbleberries. I’ve never seen so much thimbleberry. You must be really happy when they’re ripe. But, they’re not ripe yet, so you don’t really need to hang out around them. You can eat them later. I won’t come by then. So, as for our deal, you stay back there in the woods, because there aren’t any thimbleberries yet, and you’ll find some really delicious roots back there, some beargrass maybe, and who knows what else, but, in any case, good stuff. The kind of food you like. And I’ll stay out here and keep talking to you so you know I’m here, and then everything will work out really well. I have this bear spray with me, but I have no interest in using it. It stings your eyes and your nose, and you don’t need that. I tested it once, in a class, and using it didn’t really feel too natural to me. Maybe self-defense never does. Maybe I should take some sort of martial arts class, although I really don’t imagine using that sort of combat with you. It’s not as if I were some sort of gladiator. Besides, that really isn’t my style, although it might be good for building confidence. Enough maybe to use bear spray if I had to. I hope I never have to. I find you beautiful. And necessary. You are what make a place wild. You’re natural in this place, and fierce and magnificent and belong here. I’m natural, too, but I’m not fierce and I have to question whether, frightened, I belong here. Do any of us belong where we’re scared? Or is that exactly where we do belong? I’ve been frightened climbing some hard mountains, but in doing it I’ve moved through my fear. So, if I’m frightened of you, and walk here anyway, and just talk to you, I’ll get back to Many Glacier and feel triumphant. And you won’t have to deal with me. It probably isn’t irrational to be afraid of things that can kill you. Fear makes you aware. That’s what I missed in the Alps. Not the fear. The awareness. It is why I came back to Montana. I guess it’s good to keep talking to you, even if it makes me feel a little crazy, walking down a trail, talking to bears I don’t see. I imagine you back there among the trees, wondering why this woman is talking to herself. Or, do you know I’m talking to you? I may be frightened of walking between you and your cubs, but I’m happy to be walking through the beauty of your world, of your wilderness. There are people who have no word for wilderness because wilderness is home. I guess that is the word for wilderness. Home. So here’s the deal . . . you stay hidden at home, and I’ll just walk down this trail, knowing I am also home.

Copyright © 2011 Ruth Rudner