Gateway to the Classics: School of the Woods by William J. Long
School of the Woods by  William J. Long

When You Meet a Bear

T HERE are always two surprises when you meet a bear. You have one, and he has the other. On your tramps and camps in the big woods you may be on the lookout for Mooween; you may be eager and even anxious to meet him; but when you double the point or push into the blueberry patch and, suddenly, there he is, blocking the path ahead, looking intently into your eyes to fathom at a glance your intentions, then, I fancy, the experience is like that of people who have the inquisitive habit of looking under their beds nightly for a burglar, and at last find him there, stowed away snugly, just where they always expected him to be.

Mooween, on his part, is always looking for you, when once he has learned that you have moved into his woods. But not from any desire to see you! He is like a lazy man looking for work, and hoping devoutly that he may not find it. A bear has very little curiosity—less than any other of the wood folk. He loves to be alone; and so, when he goes hunting for you, to find out just where you are, it is always with the creditable desire to leave you in as large a room as possible, while he himself goes quietly away into deeper solitudes. As this desire of his is much stronger than your mere idle curiosity to see something new, you rarely see Mooween even where he is most at home. And that is but another bit of the poetic justice which you stumble upon everywhere in the big woods.

It is more and more evident, I think, that Nature adapts her gifts, not simply to the necessities, but more largely to the desires, of her creatures. The force and influence of that intense desire—more intense because usually each animal has but one—we have not yet learned to measure. "Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or will he abide by thy crib?" would seem to be the secret of that free life "whose home is the wilderness," if one were quoting Scripture to prove an unprovable theory, as is sometimes our pleasant and unanswerable theological habit. The owl has a silent wing, not simply because he needs it—for his need is no greater than that of the hawk, who has no silent wing—but, more probably, because of his whole-hearted desire for silence as he glides through the silent twilight. And so with the panther's foot; and so with the deer's eye, and the wolf's nose, whose one idea of bliss is a good smell; and so with every other strongly marked gift which the wild things have won from nature, chiefly by wanting it, in the long years of their development.

This theory may possibly account for some of Mooween's peculiarities. Nature, who measures her gifts according to the desires of her creatures, remembers his love of peace and solitude, and endows him accordingly. He cares little to see you or anybody else; therefore his eyes are weak—his weakest point, in fact. He desires ardently to avoid your society and all society but his own; therefore his nose and ears are marvelously alert to discover your coming. Often, when you think yourself quite alone in the woods, Mooween is there. The wind has told your story to his nose; the clatter of your heedless feet long ago reached his keen ears, and he vanishes at your approach, leaving you to your noise and inquisitiveness and the other things you like. His gifts of concealment are so much greater than your powers of detection that he has absolutely no thought of ever seeing you. His surprise, therefore, when you do meet unexpectedly is correspondingly greater than yours.

What he will do under the unusual circumstances depends largely, not upon himself, but upon you. With one exception, his feelings are probably the reverse of your own. If you are bold, he is timid as a rabbit; if you are panic-stricken, he knows exactly what to do; if you are fearful, he has no fear; if you are inquisitive, he is instantly shy; and, like all other wild creatures, he has an almost uncanny way of understanding your thought. It is as if, in that intent, penetrating gaze of his, he saw your soul turned inside out for his inspection. The only exception is when you meet him without fear or curiosity, with the desire simply to attend to your own affairs, as if he were a stranger and an equal. That rare mental attitude he understands perfectly—for is it not his own?—and he goes his way quietly, as if he had not seen you.

For every chance meeting Mooween seems to have a plan of action ready, which he applies without a question or an instant's hesitation. Make an unknown sound behind him as he plods along the shore, and he hurls himself headlong into the cover of the bushes, as if your voice had touched a button that released a coiled spring beneath him. Afterwards he may come back to find out what frightened him. Sit perfectly still, and he rises on his hind legs for a look and a long sniff to find out who you are. Jump at him with a yell and a flourish the instant he appears, and he will hurl chips and dirt back at you as he digs his toes into the hillside for a better grip and scrambles away whimpering like a scared puppy.

Once in a way, as you steal through the autumn woods or hurry over the trail, you will hear sudden loud rustlings and shakings on the hardwood ridge above you, as if a small cyclone were perched there for a while, amusing itself among the leaves before blowing on. Then, if you steal up toward the sound, you will find Mooween standing on a big limb of a beech tree, grasping the narrowing trunk with his powerful forearms, tugging and pushing mightily to shake down the ripe beechnuts. The rattle and dash of the falling fruit is such music to Mooween's ears that he will not hear the rustle of your approach, nor the twig that snaps under your careless foot. If you cry aloud now, under the hilarious impression that you have him sure at last, there is another surprise awaiting you. And that suggests a bit of advice, which is most pertinent: don't stand under the bear when you cry out. If he is a little fellow, he will shoot up the tree, faster than ever a jumping jack went up his stick, and hide in a cluster of leaves, as near the top as he can get. But if he is a big bear, he will tumble down on you before you know what has happened. No slow climbing for him; he just lets go and comes down by gravitation. As Uncle Remus says—who has some keen knowledge of animal ways under his story-telling humor—"Brer B'ar, he scramble 'bout half-way down de bee tree, en den he turn eve'ything loose en hit de groun' kerbiff!  Look like 't wuz nuff ter jolt de life out'n 'im."

Somehow it never does jolt the life out of him, notwithstanding his great weight; nor does it interfere in any way with his speed of action, which is like lightning, the instant he touches the ground. Like the coon, who can fall from an incredible distance without hurting himself, Mooween comes down perfectly limp, falling on himself like a great cushion; but the moment he strikes, all his muscles seem to contract at once, and he bounds off like a rubber ball into the densest bit of cover at hand.

Twice have I seen him come down in this way. The first time there were two cubs, nearly full-grown, in a tree. One went up at our shout; the other came down with such startling suddenness that the man who stood ready with his rifle, to shoot the bear, jumped for his life to get out of the way; and before he had blinked the astonishment out of his eyes Mooween was gone, leaving only a violent nodding of the ground spruces to tell what had become of him.

All these plans of ready action in Mooween's head, for the rare occasions when he meets you unexpectedly, are the result of careful training by his mother. If you should ever have the good fortune to watch a mother bear and her cubs when they have no idea that you are near them, you will note two characteristic things. First, when they are traveling—and Mooween is the most restless tramp in all the woods—you will see that the cubs follow the mother closely and imitate her every action with ludicrous exactness,—sniffing where she sniffs, jumping where she jumps, rising on their hind legs, with forearms hanging loosely and pointed noses thrust sharp up into the wind, on the instant that she rises, and then drawing silently away from the shore into the shelter of the friendly alders when some subtle warning tells the mother's nose that the coast ahead is not perfectly clear. So they learn to sift the sounds and smells of the wilderness, and to govern their actions accordingly. And second, when they are playing you will see that the mother watches the cubs' every action as keenly as they watched hers an hour ago. She will sit flat on her haunches, her fore paws planted between her outstretched hind legs, her great head on one side, noting every detail of their boxing and wrestling and climbing, as if she had showed them once how it ought to be done and were watching now to see how well they remembered their lessons. And now and then one or the other of the cubs receives a sound cuffing; for which I am unable to account except on the theory that he was doing something contrary to his plain instructions.

It is only when Mooween meets some new object, or some circumstance entirely outside of his training, that instinct and native wit are set to work; and then you see for the first time some trace of hesitation on the part of this self-confident prowler of the big woods. Once I startled him on the shore, whither he had come to get the fore quarters of a deer that had been left there. He jumped for cover at the first alarm without even turning his head, just as he had seen his mother do a score of times when he was a cub. Then he stopped, and for three or four seconds considered the danger, in plain sight—a thing I have never seen any other bear imitate. He wavered for a moment more, doubtful whether my canoe were swifter than he and more dangerous. Then satisfied that, at least, he had a good chance, he jumped back, grabbed the deer, and dragged it away into the woods.

Another time I met him on a narrow path where he could not pass me, and where he did not want to turn back, for something ahead was calling him strongly. That short meeting furnished me the best study in bear nature and bear instinct that I have ever been allowed to make. And, at this distance, I have small desire to repeat the experience.

It was on the Little Sou'west Mirimichi, a very wild river, in the heart of the wilderness. Just above my camp, not half a mile away, was a salmon pool that, so far as I know, had never been fished. One bank of the river was an almost sheer cliff, against which the current fretted and hissed in a strong deep rush to the rapids and a great silent pool far below. There were salmon under the cliff, plenty of them, balancing themselves against the arrowy run of the current; but, so far as my flies were concerned, they might as well have been in the Yukon. One could not fish from the opposite shore—there was no room for a back cast, and the current was too deep and swift for wading—and on the shore where the salmon were there was no place to stand. If I had had a couple of good Indians, I might have dropped down to the head of the swift water and fished, while they held the canoe with poles braced on the bottom; but I had no two good Indians, and the one I did have was unwilling to take the risk. So we went hungry, almost within sight and sound of the plunge of heavy fish, fresh run from the sea.

One day, in following a porcupine to see where he was going, I found a narrow path running for a few hundred yards along the side of the cliff, just over where the salmon loved to lie, and not more than thirty feet above the swift rush of water. I went there with my rod and, without attempting to cast, dropped my fly into the current and paid out from my reel. When the line straightened I raised the rod's tip and set my fly dancing and skittering across the surface to an eddy behind a great rock. In a flash I had raised and struck a twenty-five pound fish; and in another flash he had gone straight downstream in the current, where from my precarious seat I could not control him. Down he went, leaping wildly high out of water, in a glorious rush, till all my line buzzed out of the reel, down to the very knot at the bottom, and the leader snapped as if it had been made of spider's web.

I reeled in sadly, debating with myself the unanswerable question of how I should ever have reached down thirty feet to gaff my salmon, had I played him to a standstill. Then, because human nature is weak, I put on a stronger, double leader and dropped another fly into the current. I might not get my salmon; but it was worth the price of the leader just to raise him from the deeps and see his terrific rush downstream, jumping, jumping, as if the witch of Endor were astride of his tail in lieu of her broomstick. A lively young grilse plunged headlong at my fly and, thanks to my strong leader, I played him out in the current and led him listlessly, all the jump and fight gone out of him, to the foot of the cliff. There was no apparent way to get down; so, taking my line in hand, I began to lift him bodily up. He came easily enough till his tail cleared the water; then the wiggling, jerky strain was too much. The fly pulled out, and he vanished with a final swirl and slap of his broad tail to tell me how big he was.

Just below me a bowlder lifted its head and shoulders out of the swirling current. With the canoe line I might easily let myself down to that rock and make sure of my next fish. Getting back would be harder; but salmon are worth some trouble; so I left my rod and started back to camp. It was late afternoon, and I was hurrying along the path, giving chief heed to my feet in the ticklish walking, with the cliff above and the river below, when a loud Hoowuff!  brought me up with a shock. There at a turn in the path, not ten yards ahead, stood a huge bear, calling unmistakable halt, and blocking me in as completely as if the mountain had toppled over before me.

There was no time to think; the shock and scare were too great. I just gasped Hoowuff!  instinctively, as the bear had shot it out of his deep lungs a moment before, and stood stock-still, as he was doing. He was startled as well as I. That was the only thing that I was sure about.

I suppose that in each of our heads at first there was just one thought: "I'm in a fix; how shall I get out?" And in his training or mine there was absolutely nothing to suggest an immediate answer. He was anxious, evidently, to go on. Something, a mate perhaps, must be calling him up river; else he would have whirled and vanished at the first alarm. But how far might he presume on the big animal's timidity, who stood before him blocking the way, and whom he had stopped with his Hoowuff!  before he should get too near? That was his question, plainly enough. There was no snarl or growl, no savageness in his expression; only intense wonder and questioning in the look which fastened upon my face and seemed to bore its way through, to find out just what I was thinking.

I met his eyes squarely with mine and held them, which was perhaps the most sensible thing I could have done; though it was all unconscious on my part. In the brief moment that followed I did a lot of thinking. There was no escape, up or down; I must go on or turn back. If I jumped forward with a yell, as I had done before under different circumstances, would he not rush at me savagely, as all wild creatures do when cornered? No, the time for that had passed with the first instant of our meeting. The bluff would now be too apparent; it must be done without hesitation, or not at all. If I turned back, he would follow me to the end of the ledge, growing bolder as he came on; and beyond that it was dangerous walking, where he had all the advantage and all the knowledge of his ground. Besides, it was late, and I wanted a salmon for my supper.

I have wondered since how much of this hesitation he understood; and how he came to the conclusion, which he certainly reached, that I meant him no harm, but only wanted to get on and was not disposed to give him the path. All the while I looked at him steadily, until his eyes began to lose their intentness. My hand slipped back and gripped the handle of my hunting knife. Some slight confidence came with the motion; though I would certainly have gone over the cliff and taken my chances in the current, rather than have closed with him, with all his enormous strength, in that narrow place. Suddenly his eyes wavered from mine; he swung his head to look down and up; and I knew that I had won the first move—and the path also, if I could keep my nerve.

I advanced a step or two very quietly, still looking at him steadily. There was a suggestion of white teeth under his wrinkled chops; but he turned his head to look back over the way he had come, and presently he disappeared. It was only for a moment; then his nose and eyes were poked cautiously by the corner of rock. He was peeking to see if I were still there. When the nose vanished again I stole forward to the turn and found him just ahead, looking down the cliff to see if there were any other way below.

He was uneasy now; a low, whining growl came floating up the path. Then I sat down on a rock, squarely in the path, and for the first time some faint suggestion of the humor of the situation gave me a bit of consolation. I began to talk to him, not humorously, but as if he were a Scotchman and open only to argument. "You're in a fix, Mooween, a terrible fix," I kept saying to him softly; "but if you had only stayed at home till twilight, as a bear ought to do, we should be happy now, both of us. You have put me in a fix, too, you see; and now you've just got to get me out of it. I'm not going back. I don't know the path as well as you do. Besides, it will be dark soon, and I should probably break my neck. It's a shame, Mooween, to put any gentleman in such a fix as I am in this minute, just by your blundering carelessness. Why didn't you smell me, anyway, as any but a fool bear would have done, and take some other path over the mountain? Why don't you climb that spruce now and get out of the way?"

I have noticed that all wild animals grow uneasy at the sound of the human voice, speaking however quietly. There is in it something deep, unknown, mysterious beyond all their powers of comprehension; and they go away from it quickly when they can. I have a theory also that all animals, wild and domestic, understand more of our mental attitude than we give them credit for; and the theory gains rather than loses strength whenever I think of Mooween on that narrow pass. I can see him now, turning, twisting uneasily, and the half-timid look in his eyes as they met mine furtively, as if ashamed; and again the low, troubled whine comes floating up the path and mingles with the rush and murmur of the salmon pool below.

A bear hates to be outdone quite as much as a fox does. If you catch him in a trap, he never growls nor fights nor resists, as lynx and otter and almost all other wild creatures do. He has outwitted you and shown his superiority so often that he is utterly overwhelmed and crushed when you find him, at last, helpless and outdone. He seems to forget all his great strength, all his frightful power of teeth and claws. He just lays his head down between his paws, turns his eyes aside, and refuses to look at you or to let you see how ashamed he is. That is what you are chiefly conscious of, nine times out of ten, when you find a bear or a fox held fast in your trap; and something of that was certainly in Mooween's look and actions now, as I sat there in his path enjoying his confusion.

Near him a spruce tree sprang out of the rocks and reached upward to a ledge far above. Slowly he raised himself against this, but turned to look at me again sitting quietly in his own path—that he could no longer consider his—and smiling at his discomfiture as I remember how ashamed he is to be outdone. Then an electric shock seemed to hoist him out of the trail. He shot up the tree in a succession of nervous, jerky jumps, rising with astonishing speed for so huge a creature, smashing the little branches, ripping the rough bark with his great claws, sending down a clattering shower of chips and dust behind him, till he reached the level of the ledge above and sprang out upon it; where he stopped and looked down to see what I would do next. And there he stayed, his great head hanging over the edge of the rock, looking at me intently till I rose and went quietly down the trail.

It was morning when I came back to the salmon pool. Unlike the mossy forest floor, the hard rock bore no signs to tell me—what I was most curious to know—whether he came down the tree or found some other way over the mountain. At the point where I had stood when his deep Hoowuff!  first startled me I left a big salmon, for a taste of which any bear will go far out of his way. Next morning it was gone; and so it may be that Mooween, on his next journey, found another and a pleasanter surprise awaiting him at the turn of the trail.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Partridges' Roll Call  |  Next: Quoskh the Keen Eyed
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2020   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.