I have seen the face of death, and it is furry and has marshmallow residue on its nose.
It was July 1993. I awoke around 2 a.m. to find a bear standing in the middle of our campsite, eyeing me as if my tent was a candy shell and I was the chocolate filling. Apparently it’s possible to still look appetizing after spending six days paddling into the wind, portaging through swamps, lacquering oneself with bug spray and braving latrines that have been dubbed “The Dysentery Dash.”
Growing up, I’d always had a fascination with bears. During family camping trips on the North Shore of Lake Superior, my sisters and I would take shifts wearing down our parents’ resolve until they finally saw the wisdom in spending part of our sojourn from civilization parked at the Tofte dump. Ah, the memories I have of that place: My face plastered to a dirty car window, wondering at the singular majesty of these mammals from the family Ursidae as they rooted through garbage and had candy bars thrown at their heads.
I spent all such trips looking for bear tracks. My plan was to find the master cave where all bears congregated and slowly, patiently (over several hours if necessary) convince them that I was a kindred spirit, more bear than boy, and get accepted into their pack. Later, my parents would see me on all fours, roaming the wild with my new family, and nod with understanding and pride as they got into their car and drove away.
This all came back to me, some 20 years later, as I was at last face to face with my boyhood obsession, about to be eaten. It was smallish, as bears go, and seemed to be having a bad fur day. Nettles and burs stuck to it here and there, as well as the remnants of our food. Its smell was overpowering — a mélange of anger, fear and those Cheez-Its I’d been saving. I looked for a flicker of recognition in his eyes. Something that said: ‘Oh, here is a bear-man. He is one of us and not to be messily devoured.’ But I saw only the bear’s primitive instinct to eat processed packaged goods and the humans who bought them.
While most of my brain was occupied with thoughts of my imminent demise, a tiny corner of it was, of course, thinking about pulleys. My dad and I had been taking trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for 15 years or so, and had always taken great precautions with our food. Future generations of scientists would study the elaborate pulley system my dad had designed for hanging our food pack from a tree. Done in such a way that even the inventor of said system could barely manage to retrieve it. Yet, somehow, here was all our remaining sustenance stuck to bear fur.
It occurred to me that this was a highly intelligent bear. We’d stumbled upon an evolutionary leap forward, a bear that had favorite opening moves in chess. That, or we’d forgotten to hang the pack up.
My reverie of pulleys ended when the bear took a step toward me, snuffing the air in a way that suggested it might just inhale me through its nose. Which is when we heard a low, guttural rumble coming from the far side of the camp. A noise that seemed to portend the coming bear apocalypse.
A second bear had arrived. And judging by the sound it was making, this one was much larger and less sated on Fig Newtons.
My ill-groomed friend jumped in the air like a startled cat and disappeared with a yipe into the woods. I remained frozen in place, crouched on the floor of my tent, waiting for the inevitable.
When the roar came again — louder this time — I realized what it was that I was hearing. I climbed back into my sleeping bag and tried to fall asleep.
There was no second bear. Only my dad — snoring.