The Bear Necessities

‘You people from England?’ asked the bus driver. He was a grizzled old man with a grey goatee and thick spectacles. It wasn’t really a question; it was more like a taunt. We nodded. Martin followed up with, ‘Yes we are going to be walking in the Sierra Nevada.’
‘Hiking eh? Well you boys are in for a real treat,’ he said chuckling. ‘Them rattlesnakes are breeding like pine martens this year. All over the place. Get bit by a Mojave Greenback and you’s as good as dead,’ he continued laughing. ‘A full grown Mojave can grow to three yards in length and jump 10 feet. Catch you right in the neck. One of you Limey boys was over here last fall. Got bit in the face. Went back to England in a body bag. And then there’s bears,’ he continued. ‘Black bears, brown bears, grizzly bears. One don’t get you, the other sure as hell will,’ and he droned on.
I gazed out of the window at the flat desert. A mile further on we passed a large sign: ‘Welcome to Crook County California,’ it read.
Half an hour later, a lone figure flagged down the bus in the middle of nowhere. We stopped and the driver levered open the concertina doors. A young man, probably in his twenties, stepped on silently. It was like a scene from a Levi’s advert. He was tall (about six foot two inches) dark, with a shaved head and three days stubble on his chiselled jawline. He wore aviator sunglasses, a pristine white vest through which his tattooed biceps bulged, blue jeans and a pair of brown leather cowboy boots with steel heel caps. In his right hand was a green gunny sack.
‘Well lookee here!’ said the driver, smirking ‘Where the hell did you come from?’
There was silence. The young man dropped his bag and slowly removed a packet of Marlborough Lites and a silver Camel lighter from his pocket. He stuck a cigarette in his mouth, flicked his lighter open and lit up. He took a deep drag, savouring the tobacco and then leant forward and blew the pale blue smoke in perfect rings into the driver’s face.
‘The state penitentiary, asshole!’ he said quietly and threw a dollar bill at him.
Forty-eight hours later, we found ourselves in a meadow speckled with wild flowers where an abundance of brightly coloured butterflies fluttered. We were now 30 miles from Weldon where we had picked up the trail and were heading for the high sierras. We stopped in the shade for our first break of the day and dumping our rucksacks in the long, damp grass, slumped against the soft bark of a huge sequoia tree. I had just taken out our bag of trail mix and my water-bottle when we heard the distinct, alarming sound of twigs cracking under a heavy weight some 300 yards away in the thick woods, and looking up, we saw a huge brown bear, with two cubs in tow emerging through the trees and lumbering towards us. She must have weighed close to 600 pounds.
Just a week before, in the comfort of a London flat, Martin and I had watched the film ‘The Edge’ starring a bear stalked Anthony Hopkins lost in the Alaskan woods. With tubs of pop-corn and cool bottles of Peroni beer in our hands, we had chuckled at his bad fortune. But that had been fiction. Now it didn’t seem so funny: this was real and mummy bear was gaining on us with frightening rapidity. We slowly stood up and dropping our water bottles, I wondered which one of us she would maul first. There is no point in running from bears or attempting to climb a tree for that matter. They are perfectly adept at both in addition to being one of nature’s most efficient predators. Just the previous year, a bear had attacked an unsuspecting camper in Yosemite National Park and with one swift swipe from a heavy, clawed paw had separated the man’s head from his body.
We stood for what seemed like minutes, paralysed by the adrenalin coursing through our veins. And then she was gone, crashing through dense undergrowth off to our right. Seconds later, silence enveloped the woods, and I noticed the butterflies again and my heart beating a path through my rib cage. That’s when I had a sudden, irresistible urge to relieve myself

M Dalrymple

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