In 1846, as summer waned, Henry Thoreau headed north, for his now famous climb of Ktaadn. And as he entered those woods, he found a far wilder world than that of his Concord walks. In a way, Thoreau had gone back in time to an era when large animals populated the woods, an era long vanished in the farm-focus of Concord. Among those animals were bears, seen for their size and power to be fearsome. Now we know black bears as essentially timid animals, even as a few who come to link people with food in backpacks or bird-feeders can become more assertive and garner the label of “problem bears.” We will leave aside that discussion, however, and think only about being in the presence of the large and wild.
As Thoreau worked his way up Ktaadn, he arrived at the belt of black spruce that often defines the highest reach of forest in the north country. These slow-growing, ground-favoring trees can be so thick as to be walked upon (or they can be impenetrable). In this passage from The Maine Woods, Thoreau is atop the trees, looking down:
There was apparently a belt of this kind running quite round the mountain, though, perhaps, nowhere so remarkable as here. Once, slumping through, I looked down ten feet, into a dark and cavernous region, and saw the stem of a spruce, on whose top I stood, as on a mass of coarse basket-work, fully nine inches in diameter at the ground. These holes were bears’ dens, and the bears were even then at home.
This is, atop these trees, a bit of a flight of fancy, because bears don’t generally den at such heights on a mountain, but the point is that Thoreau saw himself in the company of bears. And the mix of treetop-walking in dense spruce and imagined bears made the day exceptional – a few lines later, Thoreau calls it, “certainly the most treacherous and porous country I ever travelled.” Which, given his foot-happy ways, is something.
All of this made me recall one of my own mountainside flights of fancy, when I too found myself in the company of bears
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At age fourteen I was off in the hills for the day with a friend; there, I encountered my first bear. That he turned out to be imaginary made him no less impressive, perhaps more so.
Brad and I were 9th-grade classmates, and on this late summer day, we were also valley neighbors in the pocket wilderness beneath midstate New Hampshire’s Cardigan Mountain. His parents had a small cape set on the side of Cream Hill, which rose above our ramshackle place not far from the Fowler River. Summer days, which always held “chores” – usually some form of cutting or dragging brush – also promised either time at the river and in its pools or rambles along the ridges that defined our valley.
On that day, we were climbing the north ridge of Firescrew, the sister peak of Cardigan, whose name casts back to an 1855 forest fire that burned off its crown. The fire grew so intense that the twisting screw of smoke rising from it was visible across the state; hence the name. The north ridge is largely unpeopled, even as, a half-mile away, Cardigan is often overrun with families ascending their first “big” mountain by a short route from the west. Over the four miles up to the ridge, Brad and I had seen no one, and a remote feeling had set in. In the quiet and absence, we’d stopped talking and drifted some yards apart. Each of us, I suppose, was in the strange and fevered little place where fourteen-year-old boys consider the world, which holds distant promise and makes immediate demands in unequal measures. Brad was somewhere up ahead; I was wondering about Lyndy, the girl next door, who sometimes responded when I flicked the lights of my room on and off. That was the closest I could get to speech.
All of this wondering was upended when Brad rushed around the corner, his eyes wild his mouth wide. “B…bb…b…,” he said as he ran toward me. Brad stuttered when excited, so I’d learned to wait for the word. “B…b…b…ear,” the conclusive syllable reached me just as Brad did; then they were gone, around the bend below, the sound of his feet dopplering away. I turned to look up trail, thought I heard something and a huge power-surge blew into my brain.
Later, I’d read about fight or flight response to fear, but the mild phrase does little to describe the moment. Below me, the trail bent left, and I ran toward that opening in the trees. But where the trail angled off, I went straight, running over a fifteen-foot sapling and bashing on through branches and bouncing off trunks. I was a human pinball, a panicked one, if pinballs can be panicked.
I would have kept on had I not pitched off a 3-foot ledge and landed face first. Suddenly, it was quiet; I strained to hear sounds of the pursuing bear. Nothing. Then, floating through the trees, I heard laughter. Bruised, scratched and a little stunned, I couldn’t figure this sound – what was funny? who was laughing?
Well, by now the story is clear to you, and it arrived not long after that in my woods. All those Bs added up only to Brad; there was no bear. “B…b…b…but that sure was funny.” Perhaps.
I don’t recall speaking to Brad for the rest of the day, and I took a fair amount of cleaning up and antiseptic when we finally got home. That night I dreamed of being chased by a bear. And, for summer’s remainder, whenever I climbed into the hills, I kept expecting the bear. That he never appeared made him no less real.
But some years later, when I really saw my first bear, I was so attuned to their possibility in mountain woods, that I simply sat down and watched him/her amble and mumble through some blueberry bushes.
So it is in woods imagined and real.