Manataka American Indian Council™
The Bear and Me Up A Tree
By Lee Standing Bear Moore
I have been interested in bears since childhood. So it is no wonder I became one. It all began a long time ago.
My first encounter with bears was in 1950 at the Los Angeles Zoo. Oh my! They were big and ferocious looking! They scared the beejeebers out of me. There were black ones, brown ones and great big white ones. They paced back and forth their cages as if brooding or in deep thought. They loved one another that was plain to see. My young mind wondered, "maybe they could love me too."
I became obsessed with bears at a young age. My little brown teddy bear took on a special aura after seeing the real thing up close. I begged for books with bear pictures inside and my folks bought me a bear t-shirt that had to be wrestled off of me -- every night. Stories featuring bears were always at the top of my list. By the time I was seven, I knew a lot about real bears.
At the age of 13, my family ran away from home leaving me to stay with relatives. That did not work out well, so months later I struck out with my thumb and a knap sack to see the world. Four days later I found myself deep in the Death Valley desert dehydrated, blistered and starving. An old Paiute man picked me up from a ditch and took me to a shack way out in the desert. After recovering and spending weeks carrying rocks for a stone wall, he took me to a gathering of other Indians. After a purification ceremony, I was led into an arbor completely closed in with 10 foot high reeds. A big fire was lit in the middle of the circle and shadows appeared in the tree tops. The shadows were moving and they looked like monsters! Then the shadows disappeared and bears danced into the circle. But the bears had human legs! The Bear-men danced from dusk until dawn. As the last song before daybreak began, I was summoned into the circle where a bear robe was draped over me and I was led to dance with the other bears.
Many years past and life went on, to other, more important things, like girls and cars. So, the preoccupation with bears faded away. There were times when I visited zoos as a teen and young adult that memories of childhood bears slipped between thoughts of casual observation and turned on familiar feelings inside. Every time I saw bears over the years I said, "Hello, old friends," (in bear talk, of course). Sometimes they replied in a low growly way, "Yoh na!" (Bear in bear talk). Others did not like talking to humans, so they just grunted or remained silent.
Time passed and life was on a fast train, so idle thoughts of bears were far and few between. That is until one day when an old Indian guy encouraged me to take a trip north of Ozark, Arkansas to his favorite spot in the mountains. He said there was a small lake nestled between two mountains where many varieties of flowers, berries and trees grew abundantly, and there were a bunch of bears. "Do what?" I said. That is all it took. The next weekend I packed up the car and drove to find this special place.
After two full days of driving up and down bumpy dirt roads, I thought the weekend was a bust when I discovered the lake early Sunday evening. I was about ready to give up, when something in the corner of my eye caught my attention. I stopped the car, backed up, stopped and got out. Looking through the thick green forest I caught a glimpse of something that was shimmering orange and red. Ah Ha! There it is! About a mile off the dirt road, down in the valley below the setting sun glistened off the water. Jotting down the landmarks, twists and turns down dirt roads, I mapped the location and made plans to return.
The special place in the forest was everything the old Indian described, and more. "This is Eden!" I said aloud to myself. On opposite sides of the lake-filled valley, two magnificent forested mountains loomed over the most spectacular display of color I had ever witnessed. "There is no where on earth like this very special place," I thought. A thousand varieties of wildflowers grew in a frenzy everywhere. Blackberries, muscadine grapes, prickly pears, crabapples, persimmons, black raspberries, black walnuts, chokecherries, pecans, and probably a dozen more food plants grew in the small valley. Red maples, redbuds, white and pink dogwoods, witch hazel, black gum, sassafras, red mulberry, laurel oak, willow oak and white oak all joined in a chorus of color and delight. The air was sweet and a gentle wind blew through the valley.
After sitting on the side of a hill over-looking the lake for several hours, it occurred to me that I had seen no sign of humans. The old Indian guy must not have left his footprints or told others of its location. There were no footpaths, campsites, trash or any other sign of man. I felt very blessed at that moment and there was no thought of bears until a black spot on the opposite mountainside moved. It was a big brownish black bear moving slowly down the mountainside. He was a long ways off it seemed and I was upwind from where I sat, so there did not appear to be much danger. At least I thought so anyway.
I decided to stay put and watch the big guy come lumbering down the mountainside. It did not take him very long to find a nice patch of berries along the bank. I must have watched him for an hour or more 300 yards across lake when a number of black spots on the mountain caught my eye as they moved toward the lake. Wow! This is great! The whole family is having a reunion and they will feast for hours. The bear family ate berries, sat in the sun, fished for awhile, took a nap and began the same process again after they awoke. As dusk neared it was a sign to start moving back to the car about a mile away through the woods. It was a beautiful day!
Over the years, Lake Eden (that is only what I named it) became my special get-away. I never saw a single person during these jaunts into the forest within ten miles of Eden. I watched their habits and quietly moved around with the wind direction so not to alarm the bears. The family was comprised of one grandpa bear, a young male, five ladies and three or four cubs. Roaming outside the clan circle was one or two young rogues that I spotted in the area several times. You cannot trust the rogues. They eat well enough, but they are always in a bad mood. So is grandpa.
Each bear had its own personality and peculiar ways. Especially Grandpa who was the smartest fisherman among them and could strip a limb of berries in an instant. He was smart, alert and aloof. He did not associate much with the Mama bears and especially the other males. The cubs ran and hid whenever he came around as the mothers sat guard. Regardless, he was a good protector of his clan and the rogues always kept a distance.
One Spring weekend in 1978, I packed the car and could not wait to breath the air and listen to the silence at Eden. The bears had been denned up for sometime and my attention turned to tasting some of the local fauna. I ate until my hands and face were purple, red and yellow and then I searched for a place to take a nap. Finding a nice big tree to nestle between its big roots, I settled in and dreamed about the bears.
Wham! A big limb hit the ground next to me slamming my senses to full alert. In a single motion, I popped up grabbed my staff and took a giant leap. As my heart pounded like a powwow drum, I turned around in a complete circle surveying for any movement. Then, a bunch of black dots appeared across the lake coming down the mountain. I froze and slowly stooped down and then quietly sat down. Grandpa appeared first, as he always did, and began his normal patrol around his feeding grounds. The girls and the young male were nowhere in sight, probably delayed by something interesting along the path. Grandpa seemed slower than normal and bit more grumpy.
I lost sight of Grandpa Bear, but the girls entertained me when they made their grand appearance into the lakeside meadow, the eldest walking first followed by two others and a couple of yearlings. Romping and jumping around, two beautiful cubs ran to catch up with their mothers. Hmmm. No young males and no rogues. I watched the mothers and cubs until I lost sight of the cubs in thick growth and reeds along the lake. An hour or more had passed when I was startled out of a daydream by the sound of two cubs whelping up a storm up the hill behind me. A the same time, I saw Mama Bear sniffing the air and quickly moving her head back forth at the foot of the hill not fifty feet from me. At the same time she located the sound of her cubs, she saw me. Oh my gosh! I was sitting between Mama Bear and her cubs.
It is said that it is not wise to run away from a bear because his eye sight is poor and he will instinctually assume that you are prey. A bear can run faster than a human, so when he has to make an effort to stop you, like a big ugly policeman, he is not in a very good mood. That's what they say anyway. I had to make a decision... fast! Stay or run... In a split second I ran. As I ran across the side of the hill, away from the cubs, I could hear Mama gaining fast, grunting and roaring. The fear of being mauled or eaten grabs you from head to toe in situations like this. I do not remember screaming aloud, probably because I was concentrating too much on placing my feet and legs on the rough terrain to keep from falling, but I sure was screaming inside. Faster and faster she was coming at me. She is gaining on me, oh my!
As I crested the side of the hill, it dropped off into a small ravine filled with bushes over waste high. Bushes or not, I was not going to stop running, so I plowed through them at full speed coming down the hill. Wop! Thump! I was sitting on my butt looking up at Grandpa who was sitting there in a daze after being slammed into with my body. I recovered quickly, jumped up and started running before Grandpa could react. It was not long before I could hear him chasing me -- silently except for the pounding of his giant paws. The Mama Bear must have given up the chase after Grandpa got involved. It was a good thing that Grandpa was fat and old and did not run as fast as he once did, but he would catch me anyway if I did not do something. It was over a mile back to the car and I had been running in the wrong direction. I had no knife or staff to protect me. Oh help me God!
All of a sudden, a huge white oak tree appeared and scooped me up into her limbs. Just as I cleared the first fork, Grandpa reached up with his giant paw and took a piece of my shoe. Roaring at the top of his lungs and slobbering all over himself, Grandpa wanted retribution for my intrusion and threat against his family and assaulting him in such an embarrassing way. He was mad! He growled and roared as I moved farther up the tree away from his hot breath and sharp claws. He grabbed the tree with both paws and began shaking it violently. He spit and grumbled mightily as he circled the tree dozens of times. Then, he came to the low branch and made a huge jump, but could not lift himself up. He tried three times to come up the tree after me, but his age and fat kept him on the ground -- right where he belonged. Several hours passed as Grandpa angrily circled the tree as I sat on a limb thirty feet off the ground.
Then I realized darkness would come in a few hours and I did not like the idea of spending all night up a tree, especially with mountain lions in the area who lurked around the forest at night after the bears went to bed. After praying some and thinking of all my past sins, I noticed Grandpa had given up and gone away. Oh thank you God! I carefully descended the tree and was climbing down from the last limb, when Grandpa came charging out from the underbrush. Like Superman, I flew back up the tree in one mighty bound. "Hmmm, he's a crafty old fart," I thought.
More time past and again I could not be certain where he was. I asked myself if Grandpa had retreated again to hide in the brush, or had he finally gone back to the caves on the other side of the mountain? Pondering this question for a long time, I finally decided to give it another try. I slowly and quietly negotiated my way down the tree to the last limb when movement came from the direction of Lake Eden. I had scampered back up the tree and sat down on a limb when to my total amazement and wonder...
Grandpa came strolling up the path with two beavers at his side and a big grin across his massive face.
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