“Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos ssp.)” by Gregory ‘Slobirdr’ Smith

My dad said he was the smartest bear hunter in Kentucky, because he always hunted where he knew there were no bears. He never bagged the first bear, but he made up for that by never once having been bagged by the first bear.

I think he was happy with the trade-off.

I am my father’s son. I avoid bears at all costs which is pretty easy to do when you live in Central South Carolina. There’s not a lot of bears around these parts. Coyotes, bobcats and the crawly critters, yes, but bears – hardly any.

That’s why I was little surprised when my mom told me she saw a mother bear and two cubs by the side of the road a few miles from my farm. She wasn’t the only one who saw bears either. There had been a spate of bear sightings in the area. One bear was routinely raiding a trash can at a dentist’s office. The dentist thought it was a bunch of kids up to no good so he set out a trail camera to catch them in the act. The newspaper published a trailcam picture of a young black bear head down in the trashcan. No one can say for sure why a bear was interested in dentist office trash, but word was its teeth were fantastic.

“You don’t think a bear could make its way to our farm?” my wife, Marianne, asked me while we were taking our evening stroll through the woods by our house.

“Highly unlikely,” I told her. “Why do you ask?”

“No reason, really,” she said. “It’s just you’ve been wearing your running shoes instead of your hiking boots on our walks ever since your mother saw the bear?”

It is just like her to jump to ridiculous conclusions. My boots had been rubbing the side of my feet so I quit wearing them on our walks. I didn’t even bother to explain why I had been carrying a large skinning knife in my jacket pocket in the event I came across a really good whittling stick.

Avoid them as I may, I did have one close encounter with a bear.

It was late, late on a moonless night in my teens. I was taking the back way home and driving along a remote stretch of road that divided the Black Water swamp. Couth person that I was, I pulled over to the side of the road to relieve myself. I was in mid-relief, when I heard something moving through the woods a few yards inside the tree line. I figured it for a deer.

It suddenly stopped.

That didn’t bother me.

It woofed at me. Not barked – woofed.

That bothered me.

Deer don’t woof. They snort. They stomp the ground. They don’t woof.

I chanced a small, slow step back toward the car, which was a mistake. The loudest growl in all bear kind came billowing out of that dark tree line. It was the kind of sound that consumes everything around it. The world became that sound.

I’d like to regale you with some dramatic conclusion to this incident, but there wasn’t one. I was about two lines into the Lord’s Prayer, when it woofed again then bounded away into the swamp.

Later some folks suggested that what I encountered was a dog. I don’t argue with them other than to say, if it was a dog, it was a dog with a megaphone.

Thus ends my bear story. My brother in law, Bob, also a South Carolina native, has a much better one.

Bob worked on the Alaskan pipeline as a young man. He didn’t have money enough to make it home for Christmas vacation, so he said ‘yes’ when an Alaskan co-worker, we’ll call him Dave, offered to take him float fishing a river for the week. As Bob tells it, it was one of the best experiences of his life. Days were spent catching fish called graylings. Nights were spent camping out under the stars.

On the morning of day three, Bob, who tends to notice things of this nature, noticed they were floating straight toward a grizzly bear that was doing whatever it is grizzly bears do in the middle of a shallow river. Bob pointed out his observation to Dave, who was busily tying a new lure on to his line. Dave glanced over at the bear, said something to the effect of “Yeah, he’s a big one” and focused back on tying the lure on.

That was not the reaction Bob anticipated.

Bob, once again drawing on his well honed powers of observation, took note of the fact that, given the general distribution of a bunch of rocks and whatnot, there wasn’t a lot of room to navigate around the grizzly. None, in fact. It also occurred to Bob, and he considered this a vitally important consideration, that the grizzly bear, which, in terms of dimensions he described as looking like “a Volkswagen with fur,” did not seem all that interested in stepping aside and letting them pass.

Bob pointed out these new findings to his friend, to which his friend replied, “Have you seen my pliers? They were just here.”

At this juncture, the bear rose up on its hind legs in all its monstrous glory. It seemed to notice the raft for the first time. In fact, it was staring intently at the oncoming raft.

Various and sundry parts of Bob’s internal workings seized up at the sight of the standing bear. As for Dave, who was now standing up casting, he glanced at the bear, glanced back at Bob and said, “Relax. I’ve seen this guy for years. He’ll move.”

Thus assured, Bob instantly relaxed and went back to fishing.

This is, of course, a lie.

Instead of a fishing rod handle, Bob’s hand found the handle of a paddle. He knew swinging paddle at a bear was like trying to deflect a hurricane with a box fan, but he figured he might at least get a few good whacks in on Dave before the bear ripped him to the consistency of cat food.

They couldn’t have been thirty feet from the bear when it plopped down on all fours and trotted casually away through the river, across the river bank and into the woods.

Dave never stopped casting.

The float trip lasted several more uneventful days. Bob did not sleep a wink. All he could think of was bears.

My dad isn’t around anymore to ask, but I think he would be happy to fish for graylings so long as he did so where there were no bears. If there were no graylings in the waters he fished, that would be a trade-off he would be willing to accept.