Hillary Jordan on Her First Bear Encounter

When all else fails, run around like a raving lunatic while you swing a burning log

Stand your ground. Remain calm. Make yourself as large as possible. (Gallery Stock)
Animal Themes

In the summer of 1993, when I was newly married, my husband B. and I took his nephew and my two little brothers camping in the Sierra Nevada. Neither I nor the boys, who were ages 12 to 14, had ever been on a serious hiking trip—an unthinkable experiential deficit, in my outdoorsy husband’s view. My idea of a fun weekend in Northern California might be staying at a luxurious Napa inn with room service and down comforters, but that was only because I’d never experienced the joys of camping in the wilderness. As for the boys—they were boys! They were bound to love it, and it would be character building besides.

Parental permission was granted, plane tickets bought, multiple expeditions to REI made. B.’s excitement was infectious, and despite my misgivings, I found myself looking forward to our adventure. This would be a chance to make some fun memories with Jared and Erik, whom I saw too rarely. And everyone said the mountains were breathtaking.

The five of us drove up from Los Angeles in fine spirits to a trailhead on the John Muir Trail. We hiked for maybe four hours that first day. The laboring of our lungs and the scrape of our boots were the loudest sounds. The air had the clean, blade-sharp scent of pine. The forest around us teemed with mysterious life: the rustlings and chitterings, queries and flirtations of unseen creatures.

Some of them, B. warned us, might be bears, drawn by the scent of our food. He coached us in bear-encounter behavior: Stand your ground. Remain calm. Make yourself as large as possible. Wave your arms and speak in a soothing voice so they know you’re human and not a prey animal.

We set up camp, caught a few trout, and cooked them over a campfire. After we ate, we hung our food on a high tree branch and hit the hay. B. and his nephew were in one tent, my brothers and I in the other. Jared and Erik were sleeping and I was reading by flashlight when I heard a low, unmistakable grrrrr on the other side of the tent wall. Something shook the tent, not gently, and I started yelling at B.: “Wake up, there’s a bear!” I cowered with my arms around my brothers while my husband investigated. After a few minutes, he told us we could come out. There was no sign of a bear, he said.

I assured him there most definitely had been a bear, and that it had growled and pawed the tent. He asked my brothers if they’d heard anything, and they said no. “Because they were asleep!” I protested.

B. was flatly dismissive. There was no bear, had never been a bear. I, nervous novice camper that I was, had imagined the bear. He patted my arm, shooting the boys a rueful glance that said, What can you expect from a girl? We went back to bed. I lay in the tent feeling stunned, hurt, and, finally, angry. We’d been in real danger and my husband hadn’t believed me.

It took the bear coming back—with friends this time—to convince him. The rest of that night is a blur. I remember B. running around like an asylum escapee, waving a flaming branch at the surrounding darkness and roaring, “Go away!” while I stoked the fire and imagined calling my father and stepmother to inform them that their sons had been mauled. The bears did go away eventually, and at dawn we took a short nap and packed up. Our visitors had climbed the tree and taken all our food. The camping trip was over.

That Christmas, I made a funny commemorative plaque about the trip for my husband. It said something to the effect of: In praise of B. the Fearless—Bear Fighter, Flame Wielder, Defender of Innocent Women and Children.

B. the Unbeliever, who became my ex-husband four years later.

Hillary Jordan is the author of Mudbound and When She Woke.

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