The Imagined Bear

by Kimberly Moynahan

Or in the night, imagining some fear
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
______________– Shakespeare. “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”

The rain had started before bedtime. Now in the dark of night, it whipped itself into a full out storm; heavy drops pounded the shingled roof of the three-sided lean-to and wind snapped the tent fly we had hung over the front opening. With each gust the fly billowed, launching a light spray onto our sleeping bags and faces. Between lightning flashes the dark was so thorough it seemed solid. With everything but our imagination drowned out by the beating rain we strained our ears, listening for the bears.

I trembled.
“Mom, are you scared?”
“No,” I whispered. “Just cold. It’s okay. Try to sleep.”
I wasn’t scared. I was terrified.

Still shaking, I snuggled my sleeping bag closer to Xan’s, pressing her small body against the side wall of the shelter. Glenn moved closer on my other side. We lay still and quiet. Listening.

It was our first backpacking trip that summer and we had hiked into Lake Colden, a popular camping destination in New York’s Adirondack High Peaks, earlier that day. Expecting rain overnight, we claimed one end of a first-come, first-served shelter. Only halfway through our five day trip, there was a lot to be said for keeping the tent dry. The lean-to, a sturdy log structure, perched on a slope overlooking the lake. The hewn logs held the dusky scent of damp wood and decades of campfire smoke and bore the carved inscriptions of scores of hikers who had enjoyed its shelter before us.

By the time we arrived, Lake Colden was already abuzz with backpackers – a term I use loosely to describe the scrabble of people who had walked in from the parking area seven miles up the trail. Lake Colden didn’t attract backcountry hikers but was more an overnight destination for families and partygoers. They arrived in loud groups, men hefting coolers of beer between them; women with loaves of bread and cook pots strapped to their packs; teenagers munching through crackling bags of Doritos; and children dropping M&Ms and tossing crackers into the water to attract ducks.

Glenn and I had backpacked together for more than a decade. We preferred the isolation of the backcountry, but now, with Xan only in her third summer of hiking, we kept our trips local. She was a spunky hiker, preferring a good rock scramble to a mundane forest trail, but whatever the terrain, there was no rushing an exploratory seven year-old. To her, backpacking was an adventure. In a photograph from that trip, she stands barefoot on a log, her pink sweatpants and “I Climbed Old Rag Mountain” t-shirt looking the way you’d expect after three days spent clambering over rocks, trying to catch tadpoles and crouching next to smoky fires. Her blonde hair captures a bright spot of sun falling between the trees and she holds up a shredded blue nylon sack in one hand and a Ziploc in the other. She grins at the camera, looking not at all frightened, considering what we had just been through.

That evening the talk in camp had been about black bears. Apparently they had raided the camp the night before taking everything edible. This was surprising. We knew that bears frequented camping areas, but we had never had any trouble with them. We had ways to protect food.

The American black bear (Ursus americanus) is the most common bear species in the world, once ranging across North America, from northern Mexico to Alaska. Hunted relentlessly for fat, meat, pelts, bounties and trophies, black bears were all but exterminated by the late nineteenth century. Only in the last century, through conservation efforts and the bears’ own resilience, has the species recovered. Today, close to a million bears thrive across North America; four thousand of those make their home in the Adirondacks.

The wild black bear is a reclusive and resourceful omnivore with a strong vegetarian leaning. In the spring and early summer it browses tender shoots, roots, grasses and leaf buds. Later, as the summer days wane, the bear turns its attention to more calorie-intensive fare – insects, grubs, honey and a variety of berries. Come fall, acorns and other nuts add the final layer of fat needed to sustain winter hibernation.

But make no mistake; the black bear has no compunction against carnivory. Easily acquired animal protein – bird and turtle eggs, fish remains, or the carcass of a road-killed deer – make up a small but regular part of its diet. And, indeed, a black bear will kill for food. Young deer and bison, unwary beavers and nests of baby birds and mice regularly fall prey to black bears.

For most of us, this wild bear is like an image on Plato’s cave wall – a shadow cast by an animal we will never see. We know its name and shape, but are left to imagine the details of its being – its pungent smell, the coarseness of its coat, its warm breath on our skin. Armed with clear but indirect knowledge, it’s easy to imagine a bear that is as two-dimensional as the shadow it casts.

For many, the imagined bear takes a simple friendly form resembling a large sociable dog. This is the bear of folklore, entertainment and advertising. Embodied in such amiable fellows as Paddington, Winnie the Pooh and Smokey, this teddy bear persona is easy to approach. And, at their peril, many people do, leaving their cars to photograph roadside bears and feeding those that venture into their yards.

For others, the bear’s shadowy form takes on a more menacing temperament – that of a blood-thirsty predator, always lurking, ready to take down an unwary hiker. “Aren’t you afraid you’ll be attacked by a bear?” such people would ask me.

My answer was always, no. My own image of a wild bear took its form from biology. The true “wildland” bear is a solitary creature that would just as soon avoid people. As bear biologist Dr. Lynn Rogers wrote, they are ruled by fear and hunger, in that order. Should a well-fed black bear accidently encounter a group of hikers, it would likely retreat, dissolving ghostlike into the dark woods. In all my years of backpacking, I had never worried about wildland bears.

But on hearing the campers’ stories I realized these bears were nothing like the image I held. These were campsite bears – a brand of urban bear – the kind that meet us on shared ground. An urban bear is a formidable thing, bold and brash. It swaggers into camp and sets about rummaging through packs and snuffling tents while campers scramble out of the way and look on helplessly. Habituated to people, no amount of pot-banging or arm-waving fazes this animal. Short of physically repelling it with bear-spray, the only way to prevent a campsite bear from invading camp is to not create such a bear in the first place. That means making sure it is never tempted by human food, something campers at Lake Colden had long failed to do.

Twelve feet up and six feet out; that was the backcountry rule for hanging food out of bears’ reach. That meant finding a horizontal branch more than twelve feet off the ground and suspending food where it could not be reached by a savvy bear on the ground, tree trunk or branch above. But at Lake Colden’s southwest end, the towering grove of white pines offered no horizontal branches. Instead we fashioned a rope high between two trees from which we would suspend our blue nylon food sack.

After dinner we packed our food and empty containers into the bag. I mentally inventoried everything, trying to recall some forgotten item that might attract a bear. Opportunistic urban bears eagerly consume, or at least test for palatability, things that we don’t think of as food – soap, toothpaste, gum, hair gel, food wrappers, cooking utensils, medication, deodorant – anything with a scent that hints of flavor. I had Xan check her pockets and she handed me a granola bar wrapper and popped a lone M&M into her mouth.

A bear’s sense of smell, the primary means through which it discerns food from non-food, is seven times stronger than that of a bloodhound. A black bear can detect human scent more than fourteen hours after the hiker has left the trail. Even if a tent is food-free, a prevailing wind filling it with the tantalizing essence of a neighbor’s fish fry is enough to entice a bear to investigate. Who knew what tempting odors a bear would pick up in a well-used shelter?

Once we were satisfied that we had included everything, Glenn hung the food bag. Xan climbed up on his shoulders and tied off the anchor rope as high as she could reach. Then we tied dummy ropes to several nearby trunks, all within easy reach of the bears. If nothing else, maybe they’d get busy with those and miss the real bounty.

In our years of backpacking Glenn and I had never laid eyes on a wild bear. But in the backwoods, thoughts of bears are never buried deep so we had encountered our share of imaginary ones. Only two days before, our hike had taken us past an abandoned shelter. Many of the surrounding trees had fallen in a long-ago blow-down and the landscape was hauntingly barren and silent. Our uneasy feeling grew into alarm when we realized that every remaining tree in the clearing was marked by bears. Like gang graffiti in the bad part of town, claw marks declared this bear territory – leave or else. We left.

But claw marks are nothing compared to encountering a ghostly ursine image. In Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains we once spent ten heart-pounding minutes motionless on a rainy mountain trail trying to make out a shadowy bear-like image in the fog. With unsteady hands we unbuckled our hip belts, preparing to sacrifice our packs if it came to that. Finally, the mist cleared just long enough for the shadowy shape to resolve into the upended roots of a fallen tree.

There is a dark place in our psyche where predatory creatures lie in wait. Humans have been hunters since Homo erectus developed stone weapons a million and a half years ago. Hunting moved us up the predatory food chain, but it didn’t change our position as prey for the animals that had stalked us across Africa for the previous two million years. Some twenty-nine large carnivores including saber-tooth cats and giant bear-dogs fed on our unfortunate ancestors.

Coming of age as prey indelibly imprinted a healthy visceral fear of tooth and claw onto the human psyche. An ancient part of our brain, the amygdala, maintains memories of ancestral threats. Poised to act on our behalf, it checks incoming sensations – the whisper of movement in tall grass, a subtle shift in activity around us, a low rumble in the dark – against known dangers. At the slightest hint of trouble, even before we are conscious of the threat, it springs to action, flooding our bodies with adrenalin in preparation to fight or flee.

Today we don’t live in a world where cave bears make off with our young, but our imagination still harbors this dark space. Now we layer its surface with modern fears – public speaking, job interviews, final exams. But long removed from our wild origins, we are still haunted by the ghosts of predators past. Perhaps this deeper well is the source of a child’s closet-monsters and a sleepless mother’s worst fears.

The thunderstorm settled into steady rain that kept up a patter on the roof. I dozed off and on, each time waking with a start, hearing or imagining grunts and scuffling outside the tarp. The metallic clang of someone banging a pot lid jolted me fully awake. I felt Glenn tense. We listened. Were they warning off a real bear or chasing their own ghosts? I guessed real. The imagined bears, I knew, were as dark as the night and were in here with us. We both pressed closer to Xan, our bodies between her and our night terrors. Finally exhaustion won over worry and I slept, my anxious dreams crowded with bears – dangerous, uncontrollable and terrifyingly near.

Sometime in the early morning the rain must have stopped. I woke to the comforting smell of campfire and sounds of campers zipping out of their tents and talking among themselves. Had the bears come? We peeled back our damp sleeping bags and pulled aside the tarp. I squinted in the daylight. The morning had broken clear and warm and the long view was serene. Lake Colden gleamed in the morning sun. On its mirror surface, Avalanche Pass, neatly cut between the flanks of Mt. Colden and Caribou Mountain, formed a postcard perfect reflection.

But the near view told a different story – ripped plastic bags; bent and battered Tupperware, shredded cereal boxes, frayed segments of security straps, mangled toothpaste tubes – the remains of an ursine feeding frenzy. Xan picked up something from the mud in front of the shelter: a well chewed granola wrapper.

Weary campers picked garbage from the wet pine needles and searched for their belongings. But as discouraging as the mess was, I couldn’t help but marvel at the bears’ ingenuity. They had moved rocks and dug up buried caches, opened peanut butter jars and licked them clean and had chewed ropes to let food bags fall to the forest floor. They had even retrieved and opened a sealed cooler that had been anchored in three feet of water out in the lake.

Our food fared no better. The anti-bear techniques we had successfully deployed in the mountains and woods of Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire and Maine had failed in the face of these New York bears. Only a bit of unraveled anchor rope on a tree trunk remained. Our decoy ropes hadn’t fooled them.

Xan found the shredded remains of our food bag up the hill behind the lean-to. A few feet away a red squirrel chattered from the middle of a pile of Rice-a-Roni, the grains presumably too small for a bear to care about in the face of the surrounding smorgasbord. We salvaged a can of tuna, a Ziploc of teabags and a bottle of Advil. Xan stepped up onto a log and held the remains aloft. I snapped her picture.

Bears have captivated human imagination for much of our recorded history. Our ancestors coexisted with cave bears and brown bears in Eurasia for at least a million years. Over thirty thousand years ago our Pleistocene progenitors painted cavern walls with red ochre cave bears and other great beasts of their time. Each image was artfully placed so that the natural features of the rock gave it a three-dimensional aspect and the flicker of firelight brought it to life.

In the same way we have shaped today’s urban bears, painting another dimension onto their shadowy profiles. We have aided their evolution into creatures that easily partake of our generous lifestyle. When we venture into their territory bearing bags of irresistible delicacies, they meet us and accept our unintended offerings. Then, perhaps impatient with our slow and seasonal delivery, they advance onto ours.

Today bears are moving into our cities in unprecedented numbers. New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the nation, is home to the tightest intermingling of black bears and humans in North America. Where there were only fifty black bears in 1993, today some 3500 adult bears and their offspring share the state with nine million people, a number that is growing as urban bears enjoy unprecedented reproductive success. This crowding results in several thousand uneasy “nuisance” bear incidents every year, dozens of which directly result in the deaths of bears. The story is similar across the United States and Canada.

The bears are moving in, not because we are driving them from the woods, but because we tempt them to our table. When we open our communities to them, they amble forward, eagerly helping themselves to our leavings. At our implicit invitation, they walk into towns, scavenging Dumpsters, knocking over trash cans, pulling down bird feeders and rooting up gardens. Now bolder and wiser and no longer content with our leftovers, they go right to the source, breaking into cars, campers, cabins and homes.

In providing for black bears, we have changed their very nature, in some ways making them more like us. Why roam an entire forest in search of berries and nuts when the same calories can be found in a single McDonald’s Dumpster? With little else to do, why not nap? And that they do, sleeping up to five hours a day more than bears that have to forage widely. Predictably, this languid lifestyle has made urban bears fat, some weighing up to thirty percent more than their wildland cousins.

With no compelling reason to leave, many urban bears never leave the city, even to den for the winter. They prefer instead to settle under porch decks or in culverts – that is, if they den at all. Some stay active all winter, partaking of our year-round bounty. Those that do den tend to start later and emerge sooner, knocking up to six weeks off the typical denning time and further increasing the chances of human-bear conflict.

Along with their newfound brashness and couch-potato existence, urban and campsite bears have changed in one other alarming way: they have become nocturnal. Unlike their wildland cousins, these animals take advantage of us under the cover of night. In truth, the bears are simply avoiding us. But in our imaginations, these newly nocturnal animals become the solid form of darkness, invisible but acutely felt. They are the bears that haunt our dreams.

After packing up our much-lightened packs, Glenn, Xan and I sat on a log overlooking Lake Colden and shared the tuna and tea for breakfast. Now it was our turn to answer to fear and hunger.

[Exit, pursued by a bear]
–Shakespeare. “Winter’s Tale”

Kimberly Moynahan is a freelance writer and blogs on natural history and science at “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” (kimberlymoynahan.com.) Her work has been published online at The Center for Humans & Nature City Creatures blog and in print in Scientific American’s Best Science Writing Online and in “WOLVES Magazine.” – kimberlymoynahan.com

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