Last night I was too tired, too overwhelmed by the journey of the day to make it out to the hot tub. I watched a re-run of the original Star Trek series and then Mission Impossible, falling to sleep a few times on the couch, here at Buffalo Peak Ranch. I awoke this morning on the bed which lies adjacent to a large, east facing window, my face warmed with the rising sun. It’s an incredible way to wake each morning, naturally, without alarm. Just the increasing heat saying, “It’s time.”
There is a voice in my head which often declares, “I need to work. I don’t deserve to relax,” and the thought of sitting in the hot tub in the morning was today, initially pushed aside. But then it became clear to me that this was an old voice, perhaps that of a prior generation. I work each day. But there are no rules as to when, no right or wrong hour in which to engage. And so I walked to the platform on which the large tub sits, lifted one half of the heavy, water logged cover, and climbed in.
The steam rose from the surface of the water and molded edge of the tub. I settled in for no more than a minute when I heard the snap of a branch behind me, up the hill maybe a hundred yards or so. I spun ’round, attempting to locate the cause. I could not see far enough to recognize what was happening for the land drops into a gully of aspen and ground cover too thick to traverse without a struggle. It opens again on the far side, into a mixture of standing and fallen pine trees.
It happened again. Louder. Something very large was moving through the trees, but out of site. My heart pounded, but I logically assumed it was the three horses pressing against a fallen tree for a morning scratch, or a deer rubbing its antler.
I turned back to face the cabin, settling deeper into the water, only my head exposed.
Another crack, silence, and then what sounded like a tree falling, the echo of its crash resounding for a few seconds before I could hear only the humming birds again.
The top of a tree shaking, on the far side of the aspen grove. I stood up, sweating not from the warm water but from the simultaneous rush of fear and curiosity. I looked to my towel on the rack, over my shoulder to the cabin, and back again to the West, over the rail fence. What if it was a bear?
I waited, holding my breath. Nothing. Not a sound. I sat back onto the edge of the folded hot tub cover. I waited longer still. Horses. It must be the horses.
Then I heard the unmistakable bark of a bear, for I had hear them a few times when sea kayaking at Glacier Bay, Alaska six years prior. The top of a tree nearer to me moved while the others stood still. Then another closer. Still, I could not see what was moving through the thicket. Another bark. Another broken branch under heavy foot.
It came into the clearing between the fence and the trees, just thirty yards from me. It was massive. Not a cub, but a full grown black bear. Both beautiful and awesome, more than four foot tall at the shoulders. I had never seen one this large before.
It did not see me, at first. I slowly sunk back down into the tub. It noticed the motion and stood on its hind legs to assess the situation. My heart pounded. I didn’t know what to do. It sounds crazy, but I wished for a pot and pan to bang together, anything to make a noise it would not expect.
The bear dropped to all fours, grunted, and then lunged forward. It was coming directly toward me.
I did what I had learned in the books I had read on bear attacks many years prior, before ten days solo backpacking in Denali, Alaska. I stood up again and waved my arms as only humans can do. We are not a part of their natural diet, I reminded myself again and again.
“Hey bear! Hey bear!” continuing to wave my arms. I tried to stay calm, relaxed. Don’t show any fear. They can smell fear.
I looked back over my shoulder and contemplated running into the house, but bears move fast and love to give chase. The only barrier was the wooden fence, three horizontal logs with an X brace every fifteen feet. The bear stopped at the fence and peered at me between the top two rungs. I hoped it was satisfied, and would turn to go a different direction.
Instead, it rose onto his hind legs again, paused, and with almost no effort dropped onto the top and then middle rung, crushing them both with ease. I could not break a twig with any less effort, and at that moment it was less than twenty feet from me.
I spun, reached back across the tub’s cover and pulled on the edge, trying to flip it over me. It was too heavy, the angle completely wrong. I nearly cried as air rushed from my lungs. I pulled again and again. I looked back to the bear. It seemed momentarily startled by my motion, considering what to do next.
I had no choice. I jumped over the edge of the tub, ran around the platform to the far side and lifted the lid. It rose up, tall and wide. While holding it vertical, I jumped back in. The lid came down with me, weighing heavy on my head and shoulders. I slipped and fell into the water. I wished immediately that I had turned on the light, for I was immersed fully in the darkness. My face was forced under water by the weight of the cover against the back of my head. I swallowed water and choked, but forced the panic to retreat. I turned side to side, trying to get my mouth above the water line, but could not. I threw my hands over my head, trying to find my bearing in the darkness but my feet kept slipping and I was running out of air.
I held what remained of my breath and remembered there was six inches between the bottom of the lid and the surface of the water. I would only be able to breathe if I flipped over onto my back with my hands and legs spread beneath me for support of some kind.
I slipped a few times, choking on more water inhaled, but found a position which allowed me to breathe. I opened my eyes and tried not to panic. It was dark and hot. I could barely see. My mind raced, How long could I remain here? How long should I wait?
Fortunately, I had placed the tub’s automated circulation on stand-by. Everything was quiet. I could hear only my heart beat in my ears. Pounding.
My eyes adjusted. I could see the edges of the tub inside, the surface of the water just beneath my neck. I turned my head left and then right, one ear and then the other dipping into the water as I looked for the source of the light. It was on the south side of the tub, the side that faces the barn that there was an opening, a break in the cover where it hinged.
I felt a little more calm, for that also meant there was fresh air too. As long as the water remained warm, I could stay here for a while. And I did, for what felt like an hour.
I listened intently, holding my breath from time to time. Was the bear still outside? I could hear only the sound of my body half sitting, half floating in the water, my nose pressed to the underside of the cover. I was stretching my back and legs, trying to relax when I heard the deck moan and felt a subtle movement of the entire platform.
I looked to the gap, but it was dark. There was no light.
Oh shit! It’s right next to the tub! Shit! shit! shit!
Then the light returned, something moved outside from left to right. I could hear it breathe. It pawed the surface of the deck and the entire platform shook, sending ripples through the water which I felt in my chest. I hoped only that the weight of the cover would be enough to keep me safe. There was nothing I could do. I wanted to cry, or scream, but knew either would only make my situation worse.
I held my breath again. Waited. The bear circled the entire tub. I could hear his pads and claws. He was slow, almost contemplative. I imagined he was trying to learn how to get inside.
I began to shake, as though the temperature had dropped fifty degrees, I couldn’t stop. I thought of being in Kenya, malaria overwhelming my body in just a matter of minutes. I felt out of control. I couldn’t stay here. I panicked, held my breath, rolled over onto my stomach, and moved to stand up.
The cover lifted, just a bit. I peered out into the light, looking again at the direction from which the bear had come. The fence was shattered, reminding me of the strength he deployed.
With my hands and arms overhead, the majority of the weight on my neck and upper back, I looked to the left, to the right again, and then directly ahead.
It was right there, in front of me, it’s massive nose over the lip of the tub. I could smell its breath and it looked directly into my eyes.
I slipped and fell back into the tub, the full weight of the lid crashing down onto the bear’s nose, which it immediately withdrew. I was submerged for a moment and inhaled more water. I tried to stand up, but my head hit hard against the underside of the cover. I remembered that I needed to roll on to my back, and forced myself to breathe, slowly, pressing my lips together when I exhaled. My heart was in my eyes, in my hands and head. I waited. I heard nothing.
What came next was confusing, for I thought I heard someone crying. Subtle at first, and then much more bold. Yes, someone was outside, crying. I must have hit my head harder than I realized, or perhaps I was dead. Was someone else out there? The hot tub repair man was not slated to arrive or another two hours. It didn’t make sense.
I looked to the opening and the slit of light.
The crying stopped. But was soon replaced with sobbing. A deep pain expressed by a deep, dynamic voice, “Oh! My nose! My nose is broken!”
What the –?! That’s impossible.
I held my breath, rolled back to my stomach, face in the water, found my balance and stood up. Just part way at first, and then fully, the lid of the tub now balanced in the up right position.
The bear was off the deck, sitting in the grass, upright, his paws covering his nose. Tears streamed from his eyes when he looked up at me, “Why d-d-did you do that?”
Startled, “Do what?”
“My nose. You, you broke my nose!” he growled, the back of his paw stroking the side of his great face.
“I’m, I’m sorry. I slipped … here, inside,” pointing to the tub in which I obviously stood. I felt horrible. “Just a moment. Please.”
I thought, What am I doing? but moved ahead. I sat on the edge of the tub, holding the lid so it would not crash down again. I stopped, turned to the bear and asked, “Are you … are you going to eat me?”
“What? Are you kidding? Look at my nose! I coul–I couldn’t eat a mouse if it jumped into my mouth, let alone eat you!” It paused, the tears fewer than before. It shook its giant head and again I was scared. One bite, one swipe of his massive claws and I would be dead.
Talking more to myself than to the bear, “Ok. I am. Um, I am going to just get out of this … the hot tub … now. Ok?”
The bear looked at me, and then again to the ground.
I stepped slowly to the deck, lowering the lid until it came to a close. Drops of water fell from my body to the deck, each releasing a small puff of vapor against the morning light.
I could not believe this was happening.
I looked to my right and saw the door of the cabin. I could probably make it inside, if I ran. But I knew that a bear this massive could crush the door, no matter how I locked it. I accepted that If he had wanted to eat me, I would already be his meal.
I looked back to my left. The bear remained where he was.
I walked closer, one step at a time. He sat upright and dropped his paws from his nose, asking, “Does it look bad?”
I smiled, hesitantly, “No, it doesn’t look bad at all. It’s not bleeding. Do you mind if I take a, um, closer look?”
He shook his head, lowering himself a bit. I stepped from the deck, noticing that his hind feet were larger than mine, his front pads and claws much larger than my hands. I reached out to his nose, but withdrew. He looked up and into my eyes to say it would be ok.
“This may hurt a bit … I want to see what kind of break you may have. Ok?”
“Ok,” he responded.
I reached out again, touching the bridge of his nose, lightly at first and then with more pressure. He flinched, pulled back and bared his teeth. I involuntarily took a few steps back, tripped and landed onto the platform which held the tub. I automatically retracted my feet and arms, rolling into a defensive ball.
He almost seemed amused, apologized, and promised to hold still.
I gathered myself and rose awkwardly back to my feet. I walked forward and touched his nose again, pressing on the top and sides. It was a massive, beautiful nose, and it did not feel broken, just deeply bruised. There was a soft, swollen spot on top but no sharp edges or fragments that moved.
I explained as much to the bear, and he seemed to be relieved.
“Good. That’s good,” he said.
I sat down again on the wooden platform, my elbows on my knees. I just stared, not knowing what to say. He too seemed short on words, sometimes looking at me, sometimes over my shoulder to the bird feeder outside the front door of the cabin.
After a few minutes, he offered, “I like humming birds. I wish I could move they way they do. I feel awkward, sometimes.”
Surprised, I didn’t know quite how to respond, “Oh?”
“Why are you out here alone?” He was kind, careful with his words despite his size and power.
“I lost someone a few days ago, someone I love very much. This place is healing for me.”
He looked puzzled, “Where did you last see him? Maybe I can help you find him. I have a good–rather, I had a good nose, you know.”
I sensed humor in his words and laughed, “Not like that. She is not missing, rather, simply no longer a part of my life.”
“Oh. I see.” He rose from his seated position onto all fours again. I was instantly reminded of his incredible build. Eight hundred, maybe a thousand pounds or more. The buffalo in the pasture across the road were almost small in comparison, despite their broad heads.
He continued, “What did you do?”
“Everything I could.”
“Maybe that was too much.”
“Yes” I looked to the ground, “maybe that is true.”
He paused, and looked over his shoulder to the ridge to the south and west, “I lost someone too.”
I was taken back, just getting used to the presence of a talking bear when I was again caught off guard by the depth with which he did communicate. For a fleeting moment the scientist in me realized how much we had incorrectly assumed about the animal world. Would this bear be willing to conduct an interview?
“Yes. A wonderful she-bear. Beautiful to me in so many, many ways. My best friend too.”
“I can only imagine,” I nodded my head and then looked to the ground, “What happened?”
“We were unable to confront our fears.”
“Scared? A bear?”
“Yes, even bears get scared. We put on a good show, crashing through the brush, knocking down trees, scaring campers (which is great fun, by the way). But ultimately, we are very soft in the heart, and we have a lot to say.”
“I am surprised, and very pleased to learn this.”
He moved closer to me but I was no longer afraid. I reached out to stroke the top of his broad head, and rub his ears. He seemed to like this a lot, and to the best of his ability, smiled. He licked the palm of my hand until the salt was gone. We didn’t say much more than this, for the day was young. I went back inside, changed clothes, put on my hiking boots, and requested that the bear show me his domain.
We hiked for countless miles, learning about the terrain I had only begun to understand. The bear was a great teacher, and I felt, a healer of some kind. He had many questions about humans too, mostly why we encroached year after year on their land. He seemed embarrassed to admit he had rummaged through human garbage, in tough times. I apologized as best I could, on behalf of our selfish kind. He said it didn’t matter, in the long run, for all things worked out in the end.
The sun set upon the bear and me, sitting on a giant, fallen pine. We watched as the shadows grew long, the warm rays cooling until there were none. He thanked me for the day, and apologized for the broken fence, explaining that he was rather clumsy, for a bear. He wanted only to talk, all along. His nose was feeling better already, and my heart was lifted too. We promised to meet again some day, in this friendship that was new.
There were encounters with other local residents too, as described in When the Coyote Calls
© Kai Staats 2011