I marvel at the ability of the dog skipping ahead in front of me as I lean forward into my stride, lungs burning. She sends another scattering of dust into the air behind her as she scampers up the sun-scorched path ahead, disappearing behind another of the magnificent trees that loom over us like ancient totem poles whose distant tips erupt green chaos into the vast sky . Several hours into the walk have witnessed steeper inclines and gnarlier ground underfoot, but my competitive spirit prevents me from stopping for a rest. The sweat is a subtley sweet taste in my mouth as I turn and see my five friends still far behind me. There is something about leading a hike, as if discovering the walk for the first time, shrugging off the weight of modern life like an unnecessary jacket and inhaling smells that no air freshner could ever truly imitate. The sweet-pudding scent of the Ponderosa Pine, its vanilla tones whipped delicately by the light breeze coming from the mountain, is delicious.
I stopped clapping and yelling about an hour into the walk. An evening of teasing by my American colleagues the night before about the perils of the Cascade Mountain wildlife had me slightly terrified, and the advice that all would be well if I made as much noise as possible along the way was adopted within 5 minutes of starting the walk. But my confidence grew alongside the impatience of my friends and I decided I didn’t need to be so raucous. Besides, I have the dog.
As I pause, Ana runs loyally back to where I am, playfully wriggling around my boots as if yet to be taken out for a walk. The world falls gently behind me in an undulating carpet of green, greys and browns while the ancient voice of the Cascade mountains beckons me forward. Ana looks up at me lovingly and I decide to carry on, afraid that I’ll lose my impetus and struggle for the final few hours. We have to get to camp before dark, to eat ,and to store everything safely from the wild animals to whom this territory really belongs.
Looking ahead I can see where the trees start to thin and the mountain-side begins to bald. Ana runs ahead but suddenly she begins to act strangely. Her tail whips quickly between her legs and she runs ahead, then runs back to me, agitated, before running ahead again. I’m intrigued. I can barely hear the voices of the other five as I tread softly around the corner to where Ana is.
Everything is still. A huge dark mass sways unsteadily before me. Only a couple of metres away. My heart stutters, and as my body threatens to run my mind desperately tries to remember the advice on the leaflet crumpled up in my back pack.
‘Is it run from cougars, and stand still for the bear, or the other way around’?
Her eyes are locked to mine, anticipating my next move and in spite of the terror threatening to split my chest in two, I can’t move. So in the meantime we stand and watch each other. She crouches between standing and sitting at a distance I can almost touch, with one paw reaching out into the air as if she weren’t sure either.
‘Was it run from humans, or at them’?
As the week-long seconds tick by and the silence that seems to have settled over us like a blanket of fear roars in my ears, I can smell the bear. And though the rest of her body doesn’t move at all, her nostrils tremble as she inhales my scent. We appraise each other silently, her warm, brown eyes set in black fur tinted with cinnamon in the sunlight, mirror my own uncertainty. It is a terrifyingly exhilerating moment, broken only by the dog’s frightened bark that sends the bear lumbering away onto some rocks above us.
She watches amusedly as I slowly begin to clap, waiting for my friends to arrive. An applause for her bravery? For mine? A poor attempt at warning her that I’m not to be messed with? It is little protection against her enormous form that could knock me down with one blow. But she stays where she is, to be pointed at unthreateningly when my friends finally arrive, and admired for the beauty of nature that she is. I decide to stay a little closer to them from now on.