WE WERE in Yellowstone Park in April with melting snow, cold nights and bears slowly emerging from hibernation. The first bear encounter was charming. Driving from our campsite to view the spectacular Yellowstone River gorge we rounded a bend to meet a mother and three cubs looking as if they'd just wiped the sleep from their eyes; as bemused to see us as we were delighted by them.
Our next encounter was less pleasant. Walking the trail back from the river gorge we saw that our car, the only vehicle in a parking area 200 metres ahead down a steep wooded hill, had acquired an admirer and was being circled and sniffed by a large black bear. Thrill faded quickly into anxiety as the bear bounced hard on the roof then scratched and thumped at the windscreen. We had followed the advice of not keeping food in the tent at night and had left all our provisions in the car. This bear was hungry.
The trail branched immediately left through thick forest to connect with the highway less than a kilometre north. We set out that way to wait for a passing car. However when a clearing in the trees allowed a look back we discovered that the bear was nowhere to be seen. We didn't know what lay ahead, but behind was a vantage point with a chance of seeing what was happening. We weren't alone in thinking that. As we retraced our steps and turned the last bend back to where we had first spotted the bear on the car, there he was, 20 metres ahead, his back to us, bent over, sniffing intently at where we had so recently been standing. There was a long moment of subliminal, silent communication, a combination of mime and telepathy, as we both turned around. Fighting the urge to run, we made for the highway as quietly as possible amid fearful backward glances and whispered assessments of the possibilities of tree climbing or bolting in separate directions if the bear appeared.
When a car arrived I could have kissed everyone in it although it might not have been appreciated by the rangy middle-aged Texan in a Stetson, his wife or their three tall sons. They scorned our request for a lift to our car. "We'all know how to handle them bears," the father assured everyone as two of the sons joined him to provide our escort and walk us back to the parking area. He insisted on taking a position closest to where we had last seen the bear as we all walked down the highway in a line, their car following behind. The bear broke cover on the hillside and charged. "G'woan, shoo bear," shouted the father, waving and flapping at it. The effect was instantaneous. It doubled its speed towards us. The Texans broke ranks, piled into their car, and departed in a cloud of rubber.
The wild race for our car ended in a dead heat. The bear collided with the driver's side as I successfully fumbled a key into the passenger door lock and my companion bundled herself through and into the driving seat. I closed the door behind us as the bear climbed onto the bonnet, pawing at the windscreen. We all did well in the end. She managed to drive the car away, I managed to take a fuzzy picture and the bear managed to roll off into the ditch instead of smashing through the windscreen and biting our heads off.