I consider myself outdoorsy but it upset me that I’d never seen a bear in the wild. I’ve seen bobcat, rattlesnake, fox, moose, marten, and mink, but as I often complained, outside of a zoo the only bear I’d seen was on the streets of Mumbai, with a rope through its nose being led by its handler. It made it worse that a lot of my friends have seen a bear, and my wife has too, from a car. When my neighbor a half mile away saw a bear smashing her bee hive, I smeared honey on an oak tree, hoping it would come here. No bear.
That changed yesterday: I saw five bears. I was walking up a trail in the Poconos called Wolf Spring Trail, and thinking about all the social history in the trail, the animals that had found the spring in the first place and the people who had followed them and depended on it, and the modern conservationists who have preserved it, when the trail took a turn and revealed a very black bear with four cubs splashing silently through the sunlight along the spring a hundred feet away. It happened in an instant. There was no time to wonder, what was that noise, or to catch a glimpse of movement and think another hiker was approaching. No, the whole scene was revealed in silent mystery and I stopped and for a few seconds wondered if it was in my head. Because it was so tranquil and ordinary: a bear walking along with four cubs, two in front of her, two behind, all very black against the green forest. It was so much like what I’d wished for (a day before when I said to my wife on the road, this is where you saw that bear) that I wasn’t even sure it was real. I said to myself, Wait this is real and what you wanted. So open your eyes for once and get out of your head.
I took a step or two toward them and the mother became agitated. She rushed at the cubs in front of her and snorted with a dragonish throatclearing sound and the cubs ran up trees. Soon all four were in trees, then she was rushing off and they came back down the trees walking backward as rapidly as they’d gone up. Then one of them went back up another tree and a sibling on the opposite side of the same tree, and then right down again. There wasn’t a moment of fright; maybe it had to do with the collar she had on. She barely looked at me. In 90 seconds they were all into the trees on the other side of the spring.
I went on to the spring’s source and drank from the enamel cup there and thought how I’d announce it to my wife and her family. Well, I would do it as a guessing game. Then I rehearsed how I’d hold up my hand and splay my fingers. Not one. Five! The announcement was a great success, though questions were raised about the four cubs– they have two cubs, maybe three. I looked online later and they can have five cubs depending on the food supply. It’s lush country there.
I woke up this morning with a sense of satisfaction, and reviewed the triumph. Though already I find that I want to see more bears. Also, people around here claim to have seen a mountain lion. I’m jealous.