It was supposed to be an easy 2 mile loop to conclude a wonderful day at Black Canyon of the Gunnison park. I managed to convince Natalia that we do not really want to descent to the river which apparently involves sliding on a talus and 80 feet of chain. And I was quite proud of my accomplishment when we heard this strange noise. Something was moving through the bushes. Sounded bigger than a chipmunk. I looked around and here it was. A bear. Sitting in the bushes and looking at us curiously. We did not see it at first. But he made sure we knew he was there.
One sees all those warnings displayed in most of the parks we’ve visited without really paying too much attention. Both Natalia and I make it a point of honor to read each and every blurb NPS hands out or posts on the trail: from geological history of the area to what to do with human waste. And they do tell you in detail what to do if you encounter a bear. But being from Europe we do not really believe in large animals in the wild. They belong to different times of hunting and dragons. Our forests have regularity of a city streets with trees planted in rows and roads crisscrossing the area. So the bears do come as a surprise.
And of course the first reaction I have is the one that you should not submit to. I want to run. Or at least hide behind my lovely wife. This is why people get married, right? It’s easy to laugh but believe me: bears on the trail are not like these stuffed toys. Not huggable. But then we turn off the instincts and proceed to follow the official NPS instruction. We talk loudly - in Polish no less - and wave our hands to appear bigger. We have no agreement on showing our teeth so Natalia looks sternly and I try to smile. Bear seems vaguely satisfied with our idiotic display. We start to walk slowly, way too slowly if you ask me, away from the bear.
It’s a steep part of the trail with a couple of switchbacks and we suspect bear can just climb up across so we continue to talk loudly for 2 or 3 more turns. Then suddenly another creature appears. The wiry, determined, fast moving senior rounds the corner walking in the opposite direction. Towards the bear. He is armed with the two long walking poles. I want to warn him but we are kind of still in the middle of loud Polish talking, arm waving spectacle. And I am suddenly very aware that Natalia carries two large rocks. So here we are between the bear and the unnaturally fit 80 years old.
Still I am a good person. Be careful, there is a bear out there, I say. Make some noise I add. Natalia wants to be helpful: You may want to use these poles. I don’t think that grandpa gets it: Where are you folks from? he asks in a deeply accented vernacular. Even when threatened by wild animals the natives retain their natural curiosity. So we explain. And remind him about the bear. He nods. And takes off. Down. Towards the animal.
In a couple minutes we got off the oak grove and started to relax a little and admire the views again. Then we heard some yelling behind us. As I said many times before: we are good people - we stopped, looked back, Natalia started picking some rocks. It was the senior walking fast, a bit too fast, poles swinging at dangerous speed. He ran past us barely stopping. He was right in the middle of the trail he puffed accusingly I had to turn back. That’s what we were trying to tell you, I said trying to keep up with him. To no avail.
Soon all three of us ended up in a park visitor center. The ranger tried to calm us down and log some details. There is a special form to fill when you confront a bear. I realized how bad of an observer I am. I could not even tell what color the bear was (light brown, brown or black). I had no opinion on the bear age or size. It had ears I offered but my contribution was missed when Natalia and the senior were describing the encounter. Well - if you ever see a bear - make sure you stop and take some notes. They will ask you many questions. Including the one about how you smelled, how friendly or interested the bear was, whether you have had any toiletries or food with you, how fast the bear moved, who noticed whom first - the list went on and on for a good 10 minutes.
On a conscious level I know better. The bear was after berries on the edge of the trail. We were never in any danger. Unless we tried to eat the berries of course. The ancient part of my brain however tells a different story. Bears inhabiting it are huge and blood thirsty. It wants me to stay away from the woods. And - no less importantly - away from the ambulating elders.