Friday, June 01, 2007

My Earliest Bear Memory

Way back when in probably 1960, my first bear encounter happened and I did not even see him. My father was working with a bear researcher named Dr. Charles Jonkel for the summer near Glacier Park. (Dr. Jonkel must have been a very young man at the time because he is still extremely involved in bear issues the world over as indicated by a google search. Currently, he is the founder of the Great Bear Foundation in Missoula.)

The process involved trapping bears with no teeth traps, tranquilizing them and stapling identification tags in their ears. For part of the time, my Mom, brother and I stayed with my Dad in a cabin in the camp where he was located. My Dad, ever the fisherman, found little places to go fishing in his spare time when he wasn't wrestling sleepy bears.

The four of us were at this gem green lake surrounded by thick trees for a picnic and some afternoon fishing. Not one other person shared the spot with us. A rickety raft was pulled up on shore and my father figured the fishing was probably better in the middle of the lake. After all, he could get out further that way than with his hip boots. The raft was obviously not safe or big enough for children so he and my Mom poled out to the middle of the mountain lake leaving my brother and me on shore. I was about 7 and my brother 10. I remember clearly that the lake was small so my parents were visible and within talking distance. Of course, in wild places such as that with the stillness and the water, whispers can be heard a hundred feet away.

Little Janet decides it would be fun to wade in the water. But rather than take off my shoes and socks and subject myself to glacially freezing water, I pull on my Dad's gigantic hip boots. I was holding them up as best I could with my hands while splashing and kicking around the rocks in the crystal clear waves. "Uh oh--slippery. Boots way too big for my feet!"

KERPLUNK! At this very moment, I feel the icy rush into both boots. All I could do was scream and break into tears piercing the silence of the wilderness. The frigid water swirls around my waist as I sit there bawling. My brother was probably laughing behind me--I don't remember.

"Janet, HUSH! A ...bear... is... behind... you," my Dad exclaimed with an emphatic whisper from the middle of the lake.

Immediately, I freeze. My crying shut off like someone had flipped a switch. I don't turn around; I don't try to get out of the water. Little Janet is completely and utterly terrified. My Mom and Dad maneuvered that raft to shore like it was a power boat. Evidently, my scream had caught the attention of a black bear who ambled down the bank and through the trees to find out what in the world had happened. He stopped not far from me to see what he could see.

But my Dad, ever the fisherman, was not about to give up on this particular lake or maybe he was a bit frightened of the closeness of the bear to his children. My parents loaded my brother and me with no life jackets onto the ridiculous raft consisting of a few logs lashed together and returned to the middle of the lake. The gaps between the logs allowed me to peer through the clear water to the bottom. I felt safe being with my parents but the deep deep water scared me. And I was still shaking from the cold soaking and the idea that I had attracted a bear.

As I write this and remember how frightened I felt and how cold I was, I shudder. I shudder because if a bear can swim two miles across part of Puget Sound........