Originally published Oct. 30, 2008
By Ron Judd, Pacific NW magazine writer
PARADISE, Mount Rainier — The bear could not have cared less.
He didn’t care that we stood 4 feet in front of him on a trail. He didn’t care that, for his own good, I yelled at him and — in an attempt to save him from camera-flash blindness — tried to shoo him away before the dozen or so tourists coming down the path had a chance to see his ears protruding from the brush.
He didn’t care about anything but eating.
It’s that time of the year, when that shivering chill at night triggers a primal instinct in many warm-blooded species, from Homo erectus to Ursus americanus altifrontalis.
We stow away the lawn furniture, batten down the cover on the Weber, plant the fall bulbs. Black bears spend the shortening days eating what’s left of the berry crop, trying to fatten up for the long winter ahead.
This one was munching red berries that dangled atop 3-foot-high stalks on a trail not a half-mile from the Paradise parking lot. He was a yearling, about half-grown, maybe 100 pounds, tops. Like a lot of “black” bears, this one was dark brown, with a thick winter coat highlighted by frosted tips of hair along his spine. As fine a specimen as you ever might see.
The bear was busy grabbing plant stocks with one paw, pulling them toward him, to the ground, stripping them of berries, then letting them spring back up.
We stood transfixed for a few moments by the graceful efficiency by which this youngster was feeding his face. But after about 15 minutes, with the sun dropping somewhere behind one of those suddenly appearing, impenetrable Rainier cloud layers, we left the bear to its own devices and headed for the parking lot.
A Park Service employee was coming out of the new Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center — a big, impressive building that surely will be useful but, sorry, looks almost as out of character to me as the old saucer-shaped one it replaced.
She wanted to know whether we’d run into any bears. Yep, I said: little one, brown with white tips, not exactly people-wary.
She shook her head knowingly, and sighed.
This particular bruin apparently had tried to turn a Dumpster behind the Paradise Inn into his own pic-a-nic basket a while back. He was shooed off by Park staff, who hoped he got the message that fall fattening is to commence on alpine slopes, not in the French-fry grease repository.
This bear essentially is on double-secret probation. He might have gotten the message. When we saw him, he was doing exactly what he should be doing. But the fact that he’s so accustomed to close contact with humans doesn’t bode well for his future.
We see stories almost every day of black bear/human interaction. Sometimes hilarity ensues, as in the case of the bear in 2004 that reportedly was found passed out, sleeping, after having consumed about three dozen cans of beer from a cooler at Baker Lake.
This bear, legend has it, had a fondness for Rainier; he tried one can of Busch and left the rest untouched.
I’m still not sure I believe that. But your average bear — the ones in Yosemite that have learned which makes of cars are easiest to break into and loot come to mind — is pretty smart, or at least resourceful.
Sometimes too much for their own good. Black bears rarely tangle with humans on purpose. But an alarming number of them of late have met an untimely death after succumbing to the urge to loot all those handy food sources left unattended by people. Bears have been caught wandering in suburban neighborhoods of the West this year, particularly in the Vancouver, B.C., area.
We’ve all seen on television news how this normally ends — in a bad way for the bear.
It’s tragic, really. Bears are just doing what bears do: looking to survive. We’re the ones throwing the kink into the natural order.
Which is why it’s always so refreshing, and inspiring, to see a bruin out where he’s supposed to be, doing what he’s supposed to do — oblivious to all the human-created chaos unfolding, often just a few thousand feet down below. Something about it just put me at ease.
When the world, as it surely will, seems upside down this winter, I’ll think about that little silver-tipped bear up on Rainier, dozing away in a nice den.
He’s already come close enough to humanity to risk his future. But I’m pulling for the guy, and feel fortunate to have literally crossed his path.
Just knowing he’s up there, in a place still safe and sound — a furry, living example of nature marching on, oblivious — fills every day down here with that much more hope.