Here's the Gibson family's most often told story, reworked for a writing project. Enjoy!
After checking the Ranger’s board at the entrance of the trail he took the lead, telling us all to follow him. Like fuzzy baby ducks waddling one in front of the other, they lined up, with me bringing up the rear. The trailhead began in a wide space skirted by tall pines and hardwoods, with a hard dirt floor packed down by all those who’d been there before. Off to the side of the clearing several families sat at tables, with their lunches spread out before them. Bright blue skies accented here and there with puffy, white clouds and the bite in the air that fall brings assured us it was the perfect day for a family hike.
Our pack started up the trail, with occasional comments from Don to ‘be quiet, keep it down or we’ll never see any wildlife.’ They tried, but being on vacation, armed with walking sticks, unspoken permission to splash in creeks and eat candy bars in the middle of the day didn’t make it easy to oblige. Within minutes they’d forgotten their instructions and were chattering back and forth, even singing rounds of songs that were usually welcomed in the confines of the van. Once in awhile Don would ask them to ‘sshhhh’ but it never did much to lower the noise level of our group.
The scent of evergreens and rotting vegetation, and the bubbling gurgle of the creek running back and forth across our path was a gift to the senses. The kids, more familiar with malls and airports, were used to being warned to stay close by, but today’s freedom to roam a bit had them poking and exploring moss-covered rocks and fallen tree limbs, and of course there was the always tempting creek bed, sometimes a muddy place to leave a shoeprint next to animal tracks and sometimes growing into a bubbling force to be reckoned with if you tried to cross it.
Their noise was just fine with me. Being the Mama, I couldn’t speak up and disagree with Daddy, but we’d had run-ins before. Maybe noise would work for us. On continued high alert, my eyes swept back and forth across the woods, watching. Every burned out black stump made my heart race; every rustle of leaves or snap of twigs had me ready to bolt, but when you’re the Mama you don’t ‘fess up to the kids you’re scared. You pretend to be brave. The kids, free of worry as only kids can be, meandered, splashed and sang while Don trudged ahead.
Half an hour passed and trail markers told us we were about halfway through the hike. The kids started whining, complaining they were hungry, likely brought on by the presence of snacks strapped to their backs. Knowing the protests would only grow the longer he made them wait, Don gave in and told them we’d stop at the next clearing where the path turned, not far ahead. We hiked a bit further, turned the corner, and there on the trail less than ten feet in front of us, was a large black bear squatting in the middle of the path. I thought how big he looked, not having a cage around him and possibly looking for his next meal. The bear spotted us and the previously waddling-in-a-line baby ducks we were leading froze. Everyone looked to Daddy, unsure what to do. Bolt? Stand completely still?
We prayed it would wander off, but instead it stood up on its hind legs, nose twitching in our direction. Towering there in the middle of the path, sniffing us, it looked even bigger than before. Speaking in a quiet, hard voice Don started giving instructions. ‘Drop the backpacks, walking sticks and move off the path. Head for the creek bed next to us, don’t look up, don’t talk, just move away from the bear.’ His voice told the kids he was serious and they moved to do exactly as they’d been told.
The instinct of self-preservation kicked in – skinny little Leslie started pushing her older sister, Sarah toward the bear, and a whimpering shuffle took place. Sarah started barking at six-year-old Danny in a low growl, to drop his backpack and get moving. Danny, pale and shaking with fear, scooted behind me and grabbed me, refusing to budge from our spot. Afraid he might faint, and wondering what on earth I would do then, every motherly, protective instinct kicked into overdrive. I grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the creek bed and looked to Don as a barometer. Was he rattled? Were we okay? If he was calm then I should be too. Amazingly, there was no sign that he was the least bit flustered. He just kept directing us in a low voice to keep on hiking down the middle of the creek bed, don’t look up, and be quiet. We followed his directions, Sarah and Leslie having figured out who would be in what order of lineup, and me dragging Danny. Nobody made a sound. Nobody looked up. If you shouldn’t make eye contact with a strange dog, then likely that applied to bears standing up, sniffing you. We walked, hoping it would turn around, take the backpacks full of sandwiches and candy bars we’d dropped and go back wherever it came from.
As we followed the creek bed, trying to put distance between us and the bear, it was impossible to ignore the sounds close behind us of leaves rustling and twigs snapping. Turning my head back for a quick glimpse, I saw the bear, still up on its hind legs with nose twitching, now following us. It had rambled right by our backpacks filled with food. We shuffled on, not talking, Danny’s face now covered in dirty streaks from silent tears streaming down. There was nothing Daddy or Mama could say or do to convince him a bear following close behind was okay.
After what felt like forever but was likely minutes, the bear finally dropped down on all four legs, changed its direction and rambled off through the woods. We gathered up our little family and headed back to the path, all the while talking to the kids, trying to calm them down. There was no singing, no rambling off the path to explore rocks and fallen tree limbs, no mention of uneaten candy bars. Rather they stuck together as one lump, each one’s tummy bumping the rear of whoever was in front of them, with no complaint. Don and I gave no warnings but kept a watchful eye.
We spotted the end of the trail. We were worn out but thankful we’d made it back to our van. The five of us walked into the large area where we’d started our hike less than an hour before to see a family standing around in a wide circle. The bear sat on top of their picnic table, shoving sandwiches and cookies and fruit down its throat. Since that day I’ve gained a whole different perspective on those picnic-stealers, Yogi Bear and Boo Boo. Apparently it’s not whether you’re quiet or noisy, or toting jelly sandwiches and candy bars. Bears are a bit refined, preferring to eat their food at a table, unwrapped and served on paper plates.