First time I saw a bear I was 5. It was getting into a garbage can at dusk–about 25′ away from our parked van with us in it. It was a dark, blurry object clattering around. Rangers eventually had to chase it off. That was at Cougar Rock campground, Mount Rainier National Park. I hadn’t seen a bear at Rainier since. Until today.
Forecast calls for sun. I rise early from my tent at Rainier’s White River campground with a plan: day hike from Sunrise, a hiking and picnicking area far above White River. I arrive just as the sun is hitting the mountain: shades of rose and tangerine, with cerulean skies. It’s already a gorgeous day.
Though it’s very cold–especially at 6,400′ elevation–the sun quickly warms as it rises. Very quiet up here. Daytime crowds haven’t shown up yet. Just a few early birds in the vast parking lot. I don’t see anyone on trails. Wonder if I’m the first day hiker up today. Getting my daypack on, checking gear–including bear spray–I set off hiking along the ridge above Sunrise.
One of my primal fears is to be mauled by a bear. It may’ve begun after my first experience–fear of that dark, scary thing when I was young. Never kept me from hiking, but I’ve always been wary. Watching “Grizzly Man” gave me a new sense of terror about the beasts–though grizzlies do not exist in Rainier. I’ve not seen any bear here, having been hiking and exploring since that first encounter.
A year before today, I have the fortune of meeting a First Nations street artist in Vancouver, B.C., who asks what my biggest fear is. After some deliberation, I declare. He then draws a bear totem for me as a means of releasing my fear. I have it next to my bed.
Hiking Sourdough Ridge above Sunrise is glorious this morning: wildflowers in various stages, grasses, the occasional pika squeek in the distance. Views are tremendous; the tatoosh range and cascades lead up to the big show: Mount Rainier, front and center. Massive glaciers. Jagged peaks. Deep crevasses.
I shoot some photos and revel in the intense, herbaceous scent of subalpine fir. It’s getting warm. Time to drop extra gear back at the car. Down the trail, I hear a rustling in a rose leaf mountain ash near the parking lot’s restroom. Oh my. A black bear is in the bush, eyeing unobservant hikers. I see it from behind and make a noise so as not to startle.
A few others see what’s happening and advise of the omnivore right next to us. A crowd is gathering. Crackling bushes, whispers and clicking shutters can be heard. He seems content chewing on the crimson berries. There’s an abundance. Using a telephoto lens, I move away, as tourists move forward. I am very aware that the bear’s means of escape are becoming fewer and fewer.
Sensing something bad might happen to the thoughtless–who are walking right up to 300lbs of muscle, teeth and claws with cellphones–I attempt to inform a Park Ranger before blood is shed. Thankfully, the bear couldn’t care less and ignores them–until one almost touches him. Then he moves like lightning, charging around the corner and into the adjoining thicket. Whew.
After watching others harass the bear further, I decide I don’t want to be witness to a mauling. A scared animal who’s cornered will not react well to approach. Time to leave.
I’ve been lucky enough to see a bear. A real, live black bear at Rainier. I am grateful and humbled, watching the beautiful, furry creature go about its business. An unexpected benefit of arriving so early. I choose to forego the other hike I was considering, noting my great fortune.
Hordes are moving in fast as I glide down the Sunrise road back to White River. I am moved by such a profound encounter with something I have so much fear of. Yet, I don’t recall being fearful when the bear was nearby. Curious.
I wonder if it’s the bear drawing materializing.
IF YOU GO
MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK is located about 3 hours’ drive from Seattle, and is truly spectacular. Summertime crowds can be overwhleming. Consider visiting on a weekday or arriving early/late. Regardless, when you enter the Park, you agree to be respectful of its wildlife and accept greater risk being in its presence.
Everyone who hikes in bear territory should familiarize themselves with recent activity, warnings, and sign. I carry bear spray. I have not yet needed it. Bears are generally scared of people, only becoming aggressive when provoked or defending cubs.