Fear and Loving, far from Las Vegas

A few days ago I hiked with my friend Natalie on the new cross-trail--a wide gravel path disappearing down from the high school into a shaded maze of greens and streams and sounds with no origins other than the hanging tangle of the Tongass rainforest. When we hike, she pushes her ten week old twins in their Chariot, a bright yellow stroller with bike wheels, and I lead her black cattle dog, Lydia, on a leash until we enter the forest where we attach a cow bell to her collar and set her free. Between puddled forks in the trail and patches of sun on the clumps of smushed stones, you can hear the dog's neck ringing with delight and warning the bears: We're here! We're here! Every time we came up to a pile of scat, I'd ask, "What do you think?" or "How new are you?" or nudged it with the tip of my shoe to see if it would steam or break into days-old pieces. Natalie would say, "It's ok, I saw that scat last week," or "Can't really tell." She's braver than me. I don't want to be afraid of bears, but I am.

We saw one last week, small and dark as a wet rock, slipping his tongue around the reeds at the estuary. That bear didn't scare me because we watched him from a bridge and he wanted to eat plants, but the hidden ones, the ones who eat me head-first in my imagination, do. Like the sow with her four cubs, plucking salmonberries in a friends' backyard who I know would shred me just to protect her young, or the one who knocked a woman off her bike, pinned her down, then ran away, or the one my neighbor warned me about when she flung the door open and said, "Get inside, don't you know there's been a bear on this street all afternoon?!"

Thing is, I wasn't even thinking about bears until she said that and bravery must be innate, like ignorance, until questioned by something bigger. I was on my way home from swimming laps, swinging my bag of shampoo, devil-may-care, but now I scurry home from the gym and check my hands for honey strings before I leave the house.

I know that groups of three or more (that can be three humans or two humans and one dog) have never been attacked by grizzlies. Bears would rather not bother with humans, it's just that when you come out of nowhere and startle their status quo, they're apt to start something right back. I understand that. I am afraid of stepping on bear toes. The trails we take through the trees are on the cusp of crossing some sacred line. I can feel it, like fog. We might even cross it. The scary thing is how much we don't know we don't know.

There are more bears in town this summer than this town's ever seen. Healthy sows have adopted neglected cubs because the rivers are dry and the bears' lifesource, salmon running upstream to spawn, are late. The bears come hungry and begrudged. They leave hunted. The police have shot at least one already.

The times this summer that I've actually seen bears (in the flesh, not tearing my flesh in the narrative my imagination illogically returns to), when they're standing on their hind legs and sniffing the tips of tall grass, I love them. Their hulk and silvery coats, their toes which can be larger than my entire foot. Their hangdog lips and gleaming teeth, eyes the color and sharpness of copper fish hooks. I keep hoping I'll see one while we're hiking even though I know I might crap my pants and fiddle so much with the bear spray, I'll shoot it straight at myself.

I wish the police would leave well enough alone. I wish I knew what well enough alone meant. Seems to me that well is always enough. Seems to me that bears only make big trouble for people who haven't been careful. I secretly (and I know, stupidly) wish I were Natalie's friend who had her arm gummed by a grizzly before her boyfriend yelled, "Hey bear! Get outta here!"

I'm sure there were bears who saw us while we walked the other day, but we didn't see them. The Chariot crunched the gravel, and the twins made happy little gargles under their polka dot blanket. Natalie said she'd like to think that the sows understand she has babies, too, and they won't mess with us.

When we hike, I mistake everything lumpy and dark for the hunched back of a brown bear about to rear up for a false charge. Natalie mistakes confidence for safety. No matter. Moving and pretending are two things we do more effectively at steeper levels of resistance, and maybe I like hiking so much because it affords us the pleasure of holding tight to our illusions.