One thing that spending time around bears teaches you is that attitude matters. As a yoga teacher, and a fan of Cesar’s Millan’s work/philosophy with dogs, attitude could more aptly be referred to as “energy”. In a world without words, communication between animals has to do with the energy that an animal projects out into the world. Is that energy one of confidence, dominance, submission or power?
The bear I came to refer to as “Nervous Bear” was just that – nervous. Her energy screamed insecurity, indecision, hesitation and fear. We had observed Nervous Bear for close to a week in August. The chum salmon had arrived and we spent most of our time at the river watching the bears fish. There was usually a group of bears at the river during low tide capitalizing on the fish run. Nervous bear was always one of them, however we didn’t see her actually fish even once.
For several days we noticed that a medium sized female bear (Nervous Bear) was hanging close to a group of bear viewers. This one particular group was from a bear viewing boat that was anchored in the bay. The group would come to shore twice each day to photograph the bears, and they always sat in the same general spot on the same side of the river. Nervous bear would approach the group whenever they arrived. She would stand very close to them – maybe ten to twenty feet away – and watch the fishing action from the sidelines of the river. Over several days we began to notice that she was always hovering near the group of people, and although she was vigilantly watching all the successful fishing in the river, she never once got in the water to try to fish for herself. She also spent a lot of time lying down behind the bear viewing group, often napping with the humans situated between her and the other bears in the vicinity.
One evening at low tide John and I were sitting on the side of the river that this particular bear viewing group usually occupied. The group was absent that day, and sure enough Nervous Bear walked right up to us. She stood less than ten feet in front of us between where we sat and the edge of the river. Although we had been watching her all week, this was the first time I had been so close to her. What I immediately noticed was her frenetic and insecure energy. She practically buzzed with an air of insecurity and physical indecision. She stood watching the flurry of fishing in the river, shifting her weight from one foot to another – as if at any moment she might take off running. Her eyes darted furtively from one bear to another, her gaze unsteady and shifty. When another bear came charging through the water after a fish that was swimming our way, Nervous Bear jumped and took a few paces back from the river.
John and I started to get nervous, because although Nervous Bear was clearly using us as some sort of security blanket, she also seemed preoccupied with the activity around her. We worried that she might take off in fright, forget we were sitting right behind her, and run backwards without looking and wind up on top of us. I made a few loud snorts in her direction (John and I had at this point decided to experiment with using bear communication instead of the human voice). We had observed that bears loudly snort with their noses to signal mild displeasure or annoyance. I thought it might be an appropriate bear noise to remind her that we were sitting behind her and that she was getting just a little too close. My snorts seemed, however, to fall on deaf ears. Nervous bear didn’t seem to notice at all. She continuously shifted between sitting on her haunches and standing up, unable to relax. Her body language appeared that at any moment she might take off running. John inadvertently shifted around in the sand and moved one of our backpacks. This made a loud crunching noise, and immediately Nervous Bear looked over her shoulder at us. Ah hah! We realized Nervous Bear would respond to a footfall sound that mimicked a possible bear approaching in the sand behind her. So we squirmed around in the sand which seemed to successfully remind her that we were sitting just a few feet behind her.
Nevertheless, I continued to feel nervous around Nervous Bear until she finally moved a little further away from us and off to the side. She continued to scan the action in the river, but I was amazed and confused by the fact that she never tried to fish or even get in the water herself. She had devoted a great deal of time and energy to being down at the river, often for days on end. Yet she never once fished. It didn’t seem to make sense to me. If she wasn’t going to fish, why didn’t she stay in the meadows and at least get some grass calories? She was a perfectly plump, healthy looking bear so she didn’t seem to be struggling to get enough food. However, she not once entered the water, at least during daylight hours when we were at the river.
Nervous Bear was standing off to our side when an adult male bear who we were familiar with (Bob) suddenly exited the river and headed her way. She immediately jumped backwards a few steps in retreat. Suddenly, Bob took off after her, running at full speed. Nervous Bear ran as fast as her legs would carry her, hauling ass across the mud flats with Bob on her tail. We spun around watching them in amazement. Why was Bob chasing her? They ran and ran across the flats away from the river, their muscular limbs going so fast that the back legs would fly in front of the front legs with each powerful stride. Nervous Bear maintained a lead of about ten feet and Bob didn’t seem able to catch up to her. She dodged right and curved away from the ocean heading inland, maintaining her lead. Not slowing down, they rose over the berm and driftwood and disappeared over the other side and out of our sight.
John and I looked at each other in amazement. What had prompted the chase? Why would Bob abandon all the great fishing that was going on in the river, and expend so many calories chasing down Nervous Bear? What was the history or relationship, if any, between these two bears? Neither of the two bears returned to the river for the rest of the evening despite the fact that the salmon continued to flop left and right, and the remaining bears continued to catch meaty meals until we had to leave the scene – prompted by the sun setting behind the jagged peaks of the mountains looming behind us. The sun dipped below the mountains and the glacier, the light turned golden and refracted off the water pooling in the divots of sand cutting across the mud flats. The flats turned magical, and popped in a light that shifted from gold to pink, to a fading soft purple, and then a darkening blue. These beautiful soft hues always signal that its time to go but in the peace of sunset I wanted to stay planted forever on these magical flats full of bears, and eagles, gulls and fish. Reluctantly, we gathered up our packs and followed the ripples in the sand, the footprint of the waves, that point our way home.
© 2008 Jessica Teel