Thursday, September 6, 2012

Bear Essentials: Where are the Bears?

    Bears have a special fascination for Americans. People here wrestle all the time between being ultra cautious - not letting children walk to school and exterminating every germ in the house - and yearning for a time when life Stateside really was an adventure. There’s something about bears that epitomises all that. Americans love to go camping in the National and State parks and the greatest prize is to see a bear.  Here in western New York we have black bears, which are smaller and shyer than the fiercer brown bears and grizzlies out west.  But they’re still exciting.  At our local State Park they warn you to be “bear aware” and not leave “bear attractants” like food, toothpaste and suncream in your tent or car. “This park is home to black bears. We are their guests.”…and so forth.  Indeed, a few years ago, a girl scout camping in neighbouring Pennsylvania woke up to find a bear tugging at her sleeping bag.  Screams saw him off and she was OK, but still...
    Now I wouldn’t fancy a pillow fight with a bear but I must confess I would like to see one.   The State Park shop sells pottery bears, plush bears, bears on T-shirts, bears on hats. There’s a stuffed one in a glass case.  But I sometimes wonder if there are real bears here at all. Or if it’s all a scam for tourists and befuddled foreigners. Yes, they drop stories in the local press about the bear that walked into supermarket  and the one that turned up at a local high school. Children keen to see the bear, said the local paper, were “smashed against the windows”. Relax, that’s just an Americanism. 
   I’m a bear bore – asking everyone I meet whether they’ve seen one. It’s amazing how they all say, yes, they’ve seen one, or their husband has seen one or their brother-in-law’s cousin has seen one.  My dental hygienist: “Lots of times! This one time we were cycling along the trail – it was a foggy morning - when we saw this dark shape in front of us. …and there was the other time a mama bear and her baby were crossing the road….”   (“Uuuuhhh,” I spluttered,  wanting more information but by the time I could talk,  she’d changed the subject.)  My neighbour:  “Oh yes – someone once saw a bear at the top of the road. That was”, she thought for a bit,  “About thirty years ago.” My sister in-law: “We were taking the dog for a walk and there was one at the end of the drive.” It seems everyone’s seen one except me.

    The perceived wisdom is to go to the State Park at dawn and hang around the rubbish bins.  Now I once visited friends in Canada and they swore that, if we sat in the car at the rubbish dump, we would definitely see a bear. We sat there for four hours until we gave up and went home. So I thought I’d try a different tack. I set off up a forest trail, reluctant husband in tow.  “I’ve got a bear attractant” I said, breezily waving an apple.
 “Don’t even think about it!” 
“Joke” I muttered. We climbed further.  I started to feel just a bit uneasy. Supposing we did actually see a bear?  What should we do? Play dead? Climb a tree? The advice is inconsistent.  I started to see dark shapes round every corner. We heard a rustling in the bushes. I clutched hubby’s arm. My heart pounded. Then with a swish, a tiny chipmunk scurried across our path. I thought, if the Lord had meant me to see a bear, he would have meant me to see a bear. There’s something called pushing your luck. We turned round and legged it back to the car.                                                                   

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