An Unquiet Bear in the Night
What had woke me? Whatever it was, something had told me to look at my watch from inside the sleeping bag so the light would not show outside the tent. What woke me? I laid there, involuntarily unwilling to relax. There! That! My breath went quietly shallow as I listened to the scuffle of gravel near the tent. Seconds later there was another scuffling shuffling sound. I guessed it to be the sound of a paw of some animal–a large animal–passing in these early hours of morning. Then came the sound I immediately knew had pierced my sleepy subconscious. I heard what awoke me.
It was an inhaling, a snorting, a sinus clearing rattle, and an imagined head shaking that all came together to make a noise that said “big!”; followed by another shuffling step or two.
Shuffle. Shuffle. zzhuonghullez… Shuffle… going away… almost inaudible.
“Are you awake,” came the whisper. The sudden shifting of attention let the tension leave and a sudden shivering started. How long had I been frozen in silence. “Yes. Did you hear it?” “Yes, grizzly?” A silent pause as we both listened to the only noise the night air carried. “Sounds like it’s going away.” Pause. “Stopped.” We listened to a scratching and scraping sound; a clang of metal on metal — “It’s checking food lockers to see if any are unlocked.” Silence.
I started feeling around for the flashlights and headlights, shoes, and car keys, as I waited for the next sounds. Part of my mind was picturing where the zippers were–one for the sleeping bag; one for the inside door flap; one for the outside door flap; one for the fly flap–four zippers. Four very loud zippers. The anticipated loudness of zippers in the quiet of the forest brought forth vaudevillian images of creaking floors and stairs and noises in an otherwise quiet night in the Rockies.
“Yes, it had to be a grizzly; nothing else will make that much noise.”
“Do we need to get to the car?”
Faintly—we could hear it again.
Shuffle. Shuffle. zzhuonghullez… Shuffle…
“Coming back.” “Quiet.”
We listened to it pause; listened to its claws scrape the metal of a “bear-proof” food locker; listened to it getting closer. My mind’s eye could see the car, the picnic table, the tent, the thicket, everything except the bear. It moved and now I could track it. It was between the car and the tent. Shuffle. I wondered if Kathy was holding her breath too. Shuffle. Quieter. zzhuon… very close. A second, quieter, sound of breathing; it’s sniffing the air. Oh, please smell some food, a bag of potato chips, anything some fool left on their table way over wherever.
Shuffle. Shuffle. zzhuonghullez… Shuffle…
I started undoing the sleeping bag zipper. I found Kathy’s shoes, pushed them to her, “Get ready.” We paused to listen. We could barely hear the bear. It was still going away. “Pull the flap tight.” The first zipper was unzipped. We paused to hear a welcome silence. The second zipper was unzipped. “Shoes on?” “Yes.” I pulled my shoes on. “I’ll undo the fly, roll out and hold it open. It’s light enough to see the car door. Get a car key in your hand. Get to your door.” “Okay.”
For the first time in ages, the fly zipper did not jam. It unzipped and I was out and standing–looking in the direction I thought Mr. Bear had gone. “C’mon!” The comedy potential of the goofy old couple stiffened from several hours on the ground in the tent on a cold night in October in Montana came to fruition as we “hurried” to the car. The giggling started halfway between the tent and the car. The dome light came on—both a good and a bad thing. Good in its telling me Kathy had her door opened and was getting in. Bad in that it was the only light around—would Mr. Bear be inclined to notice. The light went off. I heard the click as Kathy unlocked my door from inside. I reached the door, started to open it, but, for God only knows what reason, I paused. I suppose a part of my mind said, “If it was near, you would know by now.” I looked around. I held my breath for a few seconds to hear any sound the night had to offer. I heard nothing. I opened the door and got in.
Hi Kathleen. Hi John. How are you? I’m fine. How are you? I’m fine.
I looked at my watch — 3:39:21 — seven minutes? No, easily a lifetime.
Why are you breathing so loud? I thought it was you. It’s too cold to sleep. I know that. You want to flip a coin to see who goes to get the sleeping bags? No.
epilogue: We usually stay in a motel every fourth night. The following day found us staying in Billings, Montana. As soon as we were in the room we connected a laptop to Google. For the next hour or so, certainly more than seven minutes, we listened to animals sounds. We listened to black bears, old and young. We listened to Sun, Polar, Kodiak’s, Alaska Brown, and plain old grizzly bears. At the end of our searching and listening we were sure we had listened to a grizzly as it wandered through the campground way high in the Rockie Mountains near Two Medicine Lake in Montana.
We added “zzhuonghullez” to the spell checker on the laptop and went to bed.
———-Run Gently Out There———-