I'm afraid of bears.
I wish I had an intriguing childhood story that explained it, like seeing Winnie the Pooh take off his head in the parking lot of a grand opening. Or nightmares that Sugar Bear stole my cereal (after all, he "Can't get enough of that Sugar Crisp"). But I have nothing but good memories of Yogi, Smoky and Teddy. Why, then, am I afraid? A wild 200-pound beast with huge claws, sharp teeth, and no sense of right and wrong ... the better question is why isn't everyone afraid of bears?
I try not to let the fear prevent me from family hikes, so I build courage by memorizing safety tips from the National Park Service. For example:
1. Avoid startling the bear. I do this by whistling, singing or incessantly asking two questions: "Is that a bear?" and "Why did I agree to this?"
2. Do not approach the bear. This bares repeating, as it were, because most Americans instinctively applaud and take pictures, mistaking a bear in the woods for a Country Bear Jamboree.
3. Don't run. The original draft by the National Park Service probably read, "Don't bother to run." Instead, slowly "increase the distance between you and the bear." OK, increase, not decrease ... what am I, an idiot?
4. If the bear keeps following, try to intimidate it by talking loudly, shouting, making yourself look as large as possible and throwing non-food objects. Coincidently, this is also advice for shoppers during Feline's bridal gown sale.
5. "If it's after your food, separate yourself from the food." At that point, I'll be separating myself from my food in more ways than one. I'll also separate myself from rational thought and bladder control.
Before a recent biking trip in the Great Smoky Mountains, I reviewed the above rules with my family. When I got to the last item, my husband said that throwing food should be avoided "because feeding a bear is tantamount to killing it." First off, I resent that implication about my cooking. Secondly, isn't that the idea? I plan on throwing food, rocks, shoes, sticks, squirrels, hikers and a party, if I live to tell the tale.
The nice couple (Mildred and Martin) who rented us bikes offhandedly mentioned bear sightings.
Mildred: "You may see some bears this morning."
Me: "Excuse me?"
Martin: "Enjoy the show."
Mildred: "Except for the mama bears -- stay away from them."
Martin: "Enjoy the show."
Me: "Uh, Martin, I don't want tickets to that show."
The 11-mile loop also accommodated cars. When I saw traffic up ahead, I immediately knew the cause: a bear. Most people were able to "enjoy the show" because they could return to the safety of steel and glass. I, on the other hand, was protected by a cotton-blend tank top and drawstring capris. Regardless, I joined my family along the side of the road and fixed my eyes on the ground.
My naive daughter tried to generate interest by appealing to my maternal side. "Aww, look, Mom, three cubs." Swallowing a scream, I looked up. The mother bear stared directly at me, smacking her lips. I wish I hadn't used wild berry shampoo that morning.
After seriously considering jumping into a nearby sedan ("Scoot over, Grandma!"), I planted my shaking legs on the bike pedals and sailed down the road without so much as a "See ya." Within a minute I had passed my family, three cars, a quarter-mile of what I'm sure was breathtaking scenery and Lance Armstrong.
From then on, I whistled, sang, talked and made myself look larger by shoving big leaves in my helmet. That successfully kept away the wild bears, justifiable fear and embarrassed kids.
[July 22, 2009]
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