Old Bear

Below me an old grizzly bear, nicknamed Scarface, is moving sluggishly but methodically along the Lamar River corridor in Yellowstone National Park. At twenty-four years of age, he is gaunt and heavily scarred, missing most of his right ear; he is too slow and weak to bring down his own prey, surviving on old carcasses and digging up roots to eat. In a few minutes, I realize, the parking area I’m watching from will become chaotic, overflowing with cars. People slam their brakes and stop in the road; leap out of their rented RVs and abandon their screaming children, strapped into their car seats; spill coffee, drop ice cream cones, buffalo wings, tuna sandwiches; fumble about with their iPhones and cameras, all the while shouting, “Bear! Bear!” I know from experience that Scarface will probably cross the road a mile ahead, moving through the parked cars and people and onto his favorite trail, which skirts the low point of the river and will bring him onto the flats, where he will sniff around for old bones. He is so used to the crowds that he doesn’t pay much attention to us as he passes nonchalantly between our vehicles. Over the years, people have proudly shown me photos of themselves within ten feet of him. I fear that one of these days he will take a swipe at a person who has become so excited, so frenetic, so crazed at the sight of a wild grizzly bear that they step right in front of him. That’ll be the end of him, a bear who “attacked” a tourist and became a “problem bear”.

Old bear, I’ll be blunt. I hope you dig a deep den in the earth this winter, fall asleep, and never wake up. I hope the last thing you hear is the hiss of snow falling out of the sky above you and not the shouting of people so desperate for a touch of wildness that they lose their senses. It is ironic that we create such havoc while making pilgrimages to the wilderness in the hope of forgetting about the chaos in our lives, of briefly washing away the deep estrangement and hollow loneliness of our daily lives. We long to reconnect with the core of quietness in ourselves by seeking out places that flow on without us, places whose destiny we cannot change, cannot control, places whose sounds will sing us to sleep. And even in this crowded mass of people we might sense the presence of an absolute truth and beauty within ourselves and everything around us.
Today the bear manages to put off his execution date, safely lumbering through the frenzied crowds, beyond the noise of the excited chatter; but in October he will cross over Yellowstone’s park boundary and be shot twice in his head, at close range, by a startled elk hunter who stumbles upon him.

We should have been silent and peaceful in the old bear’s presence, and only whispered our thanks. We should have.

KATE SAUNDERS, Neskowin

Leave a Comment