An anguished scream that carried through my bedroom window woke me at dawn. A wooded hillside rises behind my rural Montana home, steep and smooth with layers of loose pine needles. It is surprisingly difficult to climb – for humans anyway. But the wildlife—lions, wolves, foxes, deer, moose, and bear after bear—takes advantage all the time, leading all sorts of forest creatures to burrow through the open trees overlooking my family while we sleep.
This mixing with the wild is why we live here on the border of a large national forest. I once saw a large black bear with three hearty cubs waltz by just outside my door, close enough to touch if I had opened it. I have found fresh mountain lion tracks on the game trails of the hill, and wolves hover only meters from my bedroom window.
So when I heard the loud, repetitive scream, I knew it could be anything. Whatever the creature was, it wasn’t happy. I’ve heard cries of distress in the mountains over the years—a mother wolf desperate for her missing pup, deer butchered by coyotes, distraught elk lumbering through the woods. This had the same tenor of fear and dismay.
I’ve eagerly spent much of my life exploring wild places, but since the pandemic finally caught up with me nine months ago, most days I’ve been too sick to get out of bed. (Despite conventional notions of “mildness,” Covid infections can be debilitating, sometimes permanently.) Suddenly and unexpectedly, my world shrank to the inside of my house and, on good days, my garden. Words cannot describe how much I miss frolicking in the wilderness with my fellow animals, so I hit the backyard.
A stacked woodpecker call cut the cool morning air and dry pine needles crunched underfoot as I crept up the slope in hastily donned sweatpants and sandals. I paused and looked around – no bushes were shaking, no shadows were flying between the trees. Then another shout, but to my surprise behind me now, from below. I spun and slipped on loose needles and fell to my hip. You’ve really lost it, Teasdale, I thought to myself as I stood up, wheezing, heart pounding worryingly. Then out on the street, where I least expected it, there was a bear.
It was coming up my driveway, towards me. It wasn’t big, but it was a bear. It disappeared behind the roofline of the garage and I knew it was heading back to the hill, its likely route leading directly to me. I crossed about 30 feet to give it room. Moments later it appeared and safely crawled up where I had just slipped. It stood right in front of me and cried its belch-like cry surprisingly loud for such a small animal. I could now see how small it was, a plush, inky black cub that couldn’t have weighed more than 25 pounds. I had been sick longer than I had been alive. I realized now that he was scared and called for his mother.
I stood still and silent. Had the cub determined me to be a threat, it could have quickly shaken a tree and been out of reach. But it seemed to regard me as benign. After considering me and howling for a few moments, it padded across the hillside above me, moving through the brush in and out of sight. Now about 30 feet past me, it came back down the hill, stopped, and settled into the world with all the volume its little lungs could muster. Then it turned and came right at me.
This was the last thing I expected. The cub rushed in my direction, almost running, until maybe 20 feet away it caught my eye and paused with its front left paw suspended in mid-stride. Had it, in its panic, forgotten that I was here? Then it surprised me again by continuing to waddle towards me, slowly now, repeatedly crying. It stopped again, shaking its head and ears in that endearing, dog-like way that bears do. Because it was such a small bear, the shaking almost caused it to fall over, but then it turned around where I was standing a few meters away and walked towards me.
What was it thinking? Did it imagine I could help it? As much as I wanted to keep quiet and see what the little bear had in mind – Would it touch me? Could I pick it up? – I knew I had to beat it away. (Some bear biologists may take issue with me because I have done nothing to scare it away in the past.) It is always best for any wild animal to be wary of humans. Habitualized bears often end up in trouble, inevitably finding food left out by careless humans. They return for more and grow bolder as their fear of humans fades until they become a danger and are put down. Already this year, a bad one for berries, which are their natural seasonal food source, several bears in our area have been caught in this downward spiral until they actually forced their way into homes to raid kitchens.
More importantly, at least from my primal, amygdala-driven perspective, where was Mom? I was worried that something had happened to her; bears had recently been trapped in the area. But more likely she was close. Bears are good at hiding when they want to, and I had no idea how close she could be. She must have heard her youngster’s cry by now. The last thing I needed was for mom to see her cub approaching me and explode from the shadows to defend it.
So I spoke to the kid, quietly, gently, my voice weak and nine months hoarse. “Hey, don’t come over here,” I rasped, and at the first word the kid froze, his pitch black eyes staring directly into mine. “I can’t help you mate. Sorry.”
The kid slowly swung his head to one side and then the other as if processing this new information. Then it let out another belching scream and threw itself backwards against the nearest log, its flight instinct finally triggered. It let out a sort of hiss as I croaked, “It’s okay, I don’t want to hurt you.”
Now it was shouting incessantly, looking up into the tree for a moment, preparing to climb up it, but somehow, once again with its little bear senses, it decided that I—standing still and still and without a hint of aggression— was not an immediate threat. Instead, it turned away and did the classic cautious bear slow-walk, glancing back at me for a moment and lifting its nose to absorb my scent. It let out intermittent, rhythmic huffs, a classic stress behavior I had never witnessed in such a young bear.
From about 20 feet away, it carefully assessed me one last time. “I’m sorry,” I said. It considered this for a moment, took one last whiff and turned away, treading slowly at first, then bursting into a slope and ending up in tall, obscuring grass. I watched as it passed through the foliage, humming, crying, glancing at me from time to time, and headed back up the hillside, further away from me and the temptations and dangers of human civilization on the valley floor.
“I’m going now,” I announced to the bushes and trees and every creature that would listen. I felt sorrow for the little youth. I know something about being lost in this world, feeling disoriented in your own home, cut off from those you love and afraid that this is how things will forever be now.
As I took the first steps down to my house, a large, dark shape crept through the bushes to my left, heading uphill. This was finally mother. She moved like ursine liquid, swiftly and silently up the hillside, hiding surprisingly well from such a large animal and much more stealthy than her unwary offspring. At a gap in the brush just above me, maybe 40 feet away, she stopped and looked down.
In a moment of grace, the bear and I locked eyes. I felt relief and joy for my youngster and mother. I felt the elation and humility of sharing space with a wild creature stronger than me. As always in these moments, the world collapsed and I forgot everything, a sensation I hadn’t felt in far too long. I frolicked with my fellow animals again.
The kid cried from uphill. The sow turned away, walked slowly cautiously, then broke into a bear running up the slope. “Good job,” I whispered to the bears and to myself. For this moment, things were right. Not every lost youth finds his mother, and not every sick person recovers. But a young person did, and this morning that was enough.
This piece first appeared on Sierra and is reproduced here with permission.