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The Bears and Me

My maddening, thrilling, terrifying journey through the ursine universe.

Photo of a bear wandering around
Dave Toussaint/Flickr

Last August, my husband and I went on a weekend camping trip to California’s Sierra National Forest. On our first night there, we stayed in a campground that was easily accessible and seemed to cater to families—lots of campsites, lots of bathrooms, a swimming and fishing hole, and a grove of breathtaking sequoias just down the road. Upon arrival, a friendly park employee greeted us and handed over some papers with a map, general guidelines, and information on bear safety. 

“This is bear country,” she told us. “Make sure you read that.” 

She nodded toward the papers. We smiled, said thanks, and I tucked them between our car seats to read later. 

The second night of our trip was extremely different. On the second night, we drove up, up, up on what was essentially a one-lane road on the side of a mountain, full of stressful turns and terrifyingly close calls with cars we met along the way. Our tiny Honda Fit was absolutely taken to its limit on a path populated almost entirely by SUVs and trucks. 

When we finally got to the new campground, it started to rain. Then, it started to pour. Then, it started to hail. We circled the site and scanned the reservation numbers at each camping spot. None of them matched our information, and there didn’t seem to be a parks department employee stationed at this remote location.

Among the items we threw in the fledgling embers was the flyer from the previous day on bear safety. I distinctly remember watching it burn along with the other information—the edges slowly curling over a simple black and white drawing of a serene bear—and thinking “I should have read that.”

We fretted for a few hours while eating cheese sandwiches and drinking Miller High Lifes in the car as the rain pelted down on us. We laughed about how unprepared we were for this. We acknowledged that we might be sleeping in the car.

Eventually, a camp manager appeared, and told us we could take any available spot. She didn’t anticipate anyone else arriving that night. We weighed our options and I made a hard push for the spot that was as far away from everyone else as possible. There were plenty of great sites further enmeshed with other campers, but I wanted isolation. I mean, look at this: 

My husband agreed and we set up camp. We walked around, played catch, and then we spent an agonizing hour trying to light a fire in a fully drenched fire pit. Among the items we threw in the fledgling embers was the flyer from the previous day on bear safety. I distinctly remember watching it burn along with the other information—the edges slowly curling over a simple black and white drawing of a serene bear—and thinking “I should have read that.” Eventually, impossibly, we somehow got the fire going and made what I think are the best homemade tacos I’ve ever had (halloumi, onion, tomatoes, avocado and jalapeno). Then we drank far too much Jameson, looked at the stars, and stared out at the woods beyond our circle of warmth and light. At about 11 p.m. we called it a night. 

At approximately 1:50 a.m. I woke up to the sound of screaming. Specifically, I woke up to the sound of several voices screaming “BEAR! BEAR! BEARRRRRR!” 

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I won’t go through every excruciating detail from the next 3-to-4 hours, but trust me when I say they were among the longest hours of my life. We stayed very still and very quiet and listened to people scream “BEAR!!!!” over and over again. We heard banging pots, vehicles driving around, car alarms going off, loud music, and honestly, just a lot of people screaming, “BEAR!!!” over and over again. We saw lights flashing. Things would die down for a while and we’d listen to the silence like our lives depended on it (we thought they might!) I convinced myself several times that I could hear breathing outside of our tent. Then, just as we’d start to relax, the screaming would return.

My husband didn’t tell me until the next morning, but during those harrowing hours, as he was googling “how to fight a bear” in case we needed it, he discovered a few, quite embarrassing and quite enormous mistakes we’d made. Among them 1) peeing near the tent (I’m not proud of this) 2) sleeping in the clothes we’d cooked in and 3) sleeping with toothpaste in our tent. The pamphlet we burned probably had some information about this, but I’ll never know for sure. He also, in doing his under-the-sleeping-bag search, found himself reading story after story about bear attacks and the people who often did not survive them. Pretty much all he said to me during this long night was, “Hand me the car keys. If we need to, I’ll set off the alarm.” 

I should also say that throughout these hours, while I was wide awake in a full-body clench, convinced we were in grave peril, Tony was occasionally dozing off. It’s really a true skill to read in detail about the many ways in which you might have inadvertently plotted your own grizzly death, keep that information to yourself so as not to terrify your anxious wife, and then fall asleep. I mean this sincerely. 

At around 5:30 a.m., having spent the last several hours truly high out of my mind on adrenaline and with a full bladder of booze, the sun started to rise. An hour or so had gone by without the chorus of “BEAR!!!” and so I decided to try to make it to the restroom on the other side of the campground. (I would later learn that dusk and dawn are prime time for bear migration, naturally.) As I made my way to restrooms, the haze of the preceding night began to shift into clear focus. Outside of the restrooms, the dumpsters had been ripped to shreds. Things had been toppled, torn, tossed, and investigated in great detail. Most notably, as I approached the scene, I began to spot food containers of all kinds. The bears hadn’t been attacking people, they’d been attacking the trash—and all the leftover food from the campers that came before. 

I’m drawn to bears because they are wild and unfamiliar and I know they actually could destroy me if ever they ever had the chance.

Later, we’d see numerous posts on social media recounting nights that sounded exactly like the one we had at the campground. It became clear that the local bear population had gotten wise to the steady stream of grub provided by campers like us who hadn’t read the damn pamphlet. I joke about it now, but it’s not actually funny at all. If anything bad had happened to us, or the bears, or the natural space we’d enjoyed, it would have been entirely our fault. 

On our way down the mountain the next day we were bleary-eyed and simultaneously full of appreciation for life, while also feeling a bit like death. We recounted every moment of the last 24 hours and despite the terror we had felt when we believed we were under threat, both of us agreed that we sort of wished we had seen a bear—at least for a second. Just then, like clockwork, as we rounded a wide corner on the road circling Huntington Lake (an area that mere weeks later would be engulfed by the devastating Creek Fire), a large black bear scampered out onto the road. This exact thing had actually happened to us once before in Northern Michigan, but that black bear was nothing like this one. That one waddled and this one bounded. That one was shaped like a football; this one looked like it could knock over a towering redwood with its pinky. 

Tony slammed on the brakes and we sat slack-jawed and silent as the bear raced by, showcasing its incomprehensible strength and power with each movement. The bear climbed a steep hill on the other side of the road and in no time, its deep black silhouette slipped over the hedge and into the forest. We looked at each other, enthralled. It reminded me of the time I saw the Pope, but this was much better. It was probably only five seconds, but we talked about that bear, and all the bears we didn’t see, for nearly the entire car ride home. 

For months, we told everyone about our gripping, but ultimately superficial, brush with the wild bear population. We read even more about human-bear encounters and safety precautions to better guard ourselves, and behave more responsibly, on future camping trips. As the pandemic continued to escalate, our camping reservations kept getting canceled by the state parks department. Armed with better knowledge and a greater respect for our position as wilderness visitors, we found ourselves stuck at home. 

Then, earlier this month, a California black bear moseyed on in to our Los Angeles neighborhood.

Upon hearing the news of a bear sighting from some friends nearby, Tony and I hopped in the car. I’m tempted to try to explain the thought process, but there really wasn’t any—we were propelled by a force I don’t know how to name exactly. Curiosity? Thrill seeking? Psychosis? Maternal instinct? I really don’t know what we thought was going to happen, I just knew we had to go. Within minutes, we were on the road, following the helicopters up above. We then spent about 30 minutes circling the streets of Eagle Rock along with a few news vans and other amateur night crawlers—our eyes scanning dark lawns and alleys. We refreshed Twitter, where there was a minor frenzy over the news, desperately searching for new information. It didn’t take long for the pointlessness of our venture to creep up. Seriously, what did we think was going to happen? What, exactly, would we do if we saw this bear? 

As the helicopters started to pull away from the neighborhood, Tony asked me what I wanted to do next. “Let’s go home,” I said. He nodded. I felt foolish. After all that, I was happy we didn’t find the bear. In fact, I kind of hoped the bear had never existed at all. 

(A minor mystery I have yet to solve regarding this night involves director James Gunn, who posted a nearly identical photo to the one above, crediting his sister-in-law as the photog. The solution to the mystery could be as simple as “she was in a car with the guy who posted the tweet,” but my research into this solution fell short.)

I spent the next day reading everything I could about the bear, who, in a development I don’t totally understand, managed to disappear despite being tracked and surrounded by the Los Angeles Police Department. Days later, a bear was spotted once again in Eagle Rock before reportedly wandering over to the Ventura Freeway and disappearing once more. A state Fish and Wildlife spokesperson told The Los Angeles Times, “It’s entirely possible it’s the same one, but we can’t say for certain.”

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what that bear did during its days in the neighborhood (we might not be able to “say for certain,” but I’m gonna go ahead and assume it’s the same bear) and how a bear ends up in suburban Los Angeles in the first place. It’s not exactly a brainbuster: there are mountains and forests relatively nearby, plenty of accessible food in the city, and humans are ever-encroaching on the wilderness many animals call home. But I still dwell on what it must be like for a creature like that to find its way here, with its miles of concrete, loud cars, loud humans, and general lack of serenity. It might be a little like someone screaming “BEAR!!!” repeatedly in the middle of the night. For days I watched surveillance videos and helicopter videos of the Eagle Rock bear trying to make its way through the grid of neighborhoods under a bright spotlight.  It made me deeply sad for the seemingly placid beast, who never sought to be a spectacle, and it made me lonely for all of us. I hope the bear safe somewhere now in a place where there are no tall fences or looming choppers. 

As a young adult in need of a coping mechanism for social anxiety, I developed a bit in which I’d ask the same question to everyone I met at parties: if you had to get eaten by an animal, which animal would you want it to be? I didn’t mean this in a gruesome way, I wasn’t asking people how they wanted to horrifically die. I wanted to know what people would find most satisfying if their fleshly form was to become literal fuel for an animal. Basically a “provocative” way of asking “what’s your favorite animal?” I always said my choice would be a bear (yes, it always led to a discussion of Grizzly Man), even though they aren’t actually what I would name as my favorite animal. The truth is, I can’t fully put my finger on my own obsession with the ursine among us. But I keep circling them (and they, me) in a sort of long, improvised dance. It’s mostly just a story I’m telling to myself. A legend I’m constructing in real time. 

We went into bear country and found a bear, and a bear came into human country and found us. Increasingly, the distinction between the two is becoming less and less clear. Increasingly, our human actions make their way into the wilderness, encroaching on animals from afar in invisible and catastrophic ways.

Even after chronicling all this, I know it’s not really all that deep. I’m drawn to bears because they are wild and unfamiliar and I know they actually could destroy me if ever they ever had the chance. I’m drawn to them, I think, for the same reason my father is drawn to hunting white tail deer and fishing for salmon in the Great Lakes. And why people go to zoos (which, ahem, should be banned) and why we went into the woods in bear country to begin with. It’s because humans are hell. It’s because nature is in fact healing. It’s because it feels comforting to know we haven’t destroyed everything yet. It’s because it’s good to be reminded how unbelievable this planet is. It’s because it’s good to feel like you’re not in control, even if it’s a lie. It’s because it’s good to look into the eyes of a stranger every once in a while and know for certain that you are actually very small.

*It didn’t really fit anywhere, but I also have to note that I fucking love Paddington Bear.