feeling at home with ursus americanus

Eyes and ears: screen capture from the University of the South video.

(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reprinted by permission.)

The video camera used thermal imaging, so the animal appeared as a bright white creature in the short clip that the University of the South posted on its Facebook page. More importantly, the consensus is that the star of the film is a brown bear right here on the Domain.

This is believed to be the first video of a bear on University property. The Domain Manager set up the camera to catch horseback and ATV riders who might have been trespassing; as a result, we’re treated to a rare view of a special animal.

Upon seeing the video, I had two thoughts: The first was, “Cool!” The second was to remember what my dog Jackson and I had experienced about a week before.

We were on the Caldwell Rim Trail south of the ball park, above the large creek at the beginning of the counter-clockwise single-track loop. Jackson was doing his usual thing, zigzagging in pursuit of chipmunks and peeing on ferns. He was directly ahead on the trail when he did something I’d never seen him do in his two-plus years: he stopped, bristled, and bolted back in my direction.

I froze and peered carefully around us. The place that had spooked Jackson was in the middle of open trail – there was nothing to be seen. Eventually we continued on, without incident.

Later, though, when I mentioned the occurrence to my friend Ranger Jason, his first thought was the same as mine: Jackson had smelled a bear. As it turned out, the Facebook video of the bear was filmed in Lost Cove, which is down below the Caldwell Rim trail.

I know that there have been bear reported on the Domain from time to time, and I find it deeply reassuring. It’s good for woods to have bears in them, and it’s good for humans, too. Of course, that’s an easier position to take when it’s black or brown bears, and not grizzlies.

Some years ago I spent three weeks backpacking in Wyoming’s Absaroka Range, which is grizzly bear country. I’ll never forget the experience of visiting Mother Nature’s bathroom in the starlit darkness, carrying trowel and bear spray, saying “Hey bear, hey bear” in order not to surprise either the bear or me in an accidental encounter. It’s an entirely different way of existing as a human, knowing that you are not the top dog.

I’ll also remember discovering my first grizzly bear track. (I never saw an actual grizzly during the trip.) Imagine a medium-size salad plate: that’s the footpad. Now imagine five claw marks…each of which begins three or four inches out from the plate. That’s a grizzly print.

To kick things up another notch, I recently read In the Shadow of the Sabertooth, a book about (among other things) humans who lived in the Pleistocene Era of prehistory along with mammoths, sabertoothed tigers, and, scariest of all, the short-faced bear. A skeleton found in South American indicates that this bear was 11-feet tall and weighed up to 3,500 pounds. This longer, leaner, faster version of the grizzly should make anyone glad to be alive now, and not then.

It occurs to me that all of us identify things that make our habitat feel more complete, more satisfactory to our lives. For new parents or the elderly, it may be good medical facilities; for certain others, a nearby Whole Foods or Target may be the ticket.

Knowing that I inhabit a space that also can accommodate bears gives me just such a sense of completeness. Flawed though our world may be, scarred by humans’ activities in ways both detectable and not, it still contains a little room for wildness. The bears need that, and so do we.