illustration: Jessica Gowling

The Bear Within

Dropped Threads 3: Beyond the Small Circle

Random House Canada 2006

A mother black bear is visiting our house. I have awaited her return for four years. Her young ones are with her. Two. And my three sons are with me.

We watch through the big square window in our kitchen. She sniffs the air before rising onto her hind feet to walk towards me. For a moment we stand face to face, staring directly into one another’s eyes. I know I have been given a powerful message, the breadth of which I will decipher later. But one thing feels certain. I am safe again.

The Pawnee believe when a bear stands on its hind legs and lifts its paws toward the sun, it is receiving its healing powers.

I live beside a small lake in the boreal forest near Yellowknife. In this sub-Arctic frontier, unburdened by the technological crush of civilization, it becomes possible to feel the ancient ways of knowing that guided the indigenous Dene peoples. This is where my odyssey of motherhood begins, alone in the woods save for the babes at my breast, the ravens outside my window and the unspoken mysteries beyond. The more I seek to unravel those mysteries, the more I see of the bear.

My husband Francois and I discover the bloated, fetid bodies of some 3,000 whitefish, northern pike and suckers floating beside our new home in June 1991. The lake’s giant ecological belch, later deemed a natural phenomenon caused by algae dying and robbing the water of oxygen, is a wonderful way to meet the new neighbors, who mind not a whiff that the place stinks. Gulls and ravens gorge on the death, yielding only to the authoritative swagger of a half-dozen bald eagles. Three black bears appear at the farthest point of our bay, eating their way closer to us each day. When they finally reach our driveway, Francois yells, “Go away bears.” And they do.

We conceive our first son in July after a spicy hot sauna and naked dip in the lake.

July is a time of estrus for female bears and promiscuity for both sexes.

The first thing I do after confirming my pregnancy is cycle 10 kilometres, rationalizing that childbirth will require the ultimate fitness and stamina. My mind brims with thoughts of the new life inside me, of how I will do everything within my power to ensure it grows safely into a healthy baby. As I near the steep hill that always defeats me, I look to my left and see a bear running beside me. We travel at exactly the same speed, glancing at each other, straight ahead, then back at each other. A surge of adrenaline wells from my abdomen, from the embryo itself as I imagine this fledgling being ripped from inside me. “Not now,” I say to the bear. “Not with my new baby.” The big hill fast approaches.

As I begin my ascent, so does the bear. My thighs feel detached from my upper body, now locked in a death grip with the handlebars. I reach halfway, the point where my legs and lungs normally scream in agony, without being winded. The bear veers left into the thick brush. I cycle home as if two lives depend upon it.

In time, I conclude the bear was a test. My instinctual reaction to protect my unborn child had been correct. As for physical fitness, what further proof did I need that my body is capable of feats I cannot yet imagine? Like the bear, I am strong and protective, fit for motherhood. My prize comes the following April. A son.

Bear cubs and their mothers emerge from their womb-like dens together in April, a time of rebirth and new beginnings.

I nurse Max day and night for nearly two years. I am mesmerized by his beauty, ferociously protective and exhausted by his demands. During this period, no bears visit my house. I see bears along the highway, but always far from my home range.

Most male black bears avoid the territories of lactating females, preferring those in heat. Mother bears generally move out of another bear’s territory, rather than risk a turf war.

Each day I anticipate hiking through the wilderness with Max on my back. So calming, so invigorating are these enchanted woods compared to the nagging drudgery of housework, I never give a thought to any possible harm. The forest casts a benevolent spell over us.
~
I am pregnant again. This baby is due in November, the same time tiny blastocysts in a pregnant black bear have to decide whether or not to attach themselves to her uterine wall.

The fertilized eggs in a sow float freely in her womb for five months until she is ready to den. If she does not have the fat reserves necessary to bear and nurse her cubs through winter, the blastocysts dissolve, sparing her the agony of starvation.

I miscarry at 11 weeks.

Sentiments of sympathy pour in, but I revel in relief. The disquieting depression that accompanied this pregnancy has been a bad hormonal trip. I drink beer and paint Zulu and Haida designs on the kitchen and garage doors, unable to discern if I am being driven crazy– or kept sane– by my environment.

Our dog is barking maniacally at a raven taunting it from the roof. Max toddles out and conciliates the dispute by speaking to the bird in Raven. Then I watch all three of them walk side-by-side down a path, Max in the middle, the raven hopping awkwardly as it struggles to keep up, and in that moment I realize there is greatness and beauty and magic in my life, if not adult conversation and paycheques.

Come winter, I crave another baby, mating dutifully on all optimum days for conception. My pregnancy is quickly apparent. At three months, I look six months pregnant. I cup my swollen belly, musing this cannot be just one baby. It isn’t. Like a faulty gumball machine, I have double ovulated.

Copulation induces ovulation in a female black bear shortly after each encounter.

As my September due date looms larger than life, so do the pressures of toting my enormous girth. I turn forgetfully and whack it on things, nearly passing out from the pain. My stomach prevents my arms from reaching the kitchen sink, and I am grateful when my mother comes to look after me. While I insist she and Francois help me into the forest – easing me down on my side so I can pick cranberries – I am too slow and foggy to do much except wait.

As bears prepare for denning, they can spend virtually the entire day resting. This is known as “walking hibernation.”

At term, I deliver my strapping twin boys, naturally. Both Calvin and Levi wriggle determinedly for sustenance at my breast, latching on hourly after that with a tenacity that leaves my nipples chafed and bleeding and fuels record-breaking weight gains within their first month.

Mother black bears nursing multiple cubs have been known to splay themselves belly down in order to stave off relentless feeding efforts.

Sleep is but a fantasy. By October, when bears crawl into their dens, I wear my fatigue like a disease. Each day becomes darker and drearier, heightening my desire to curl up and tune out. Occasionally, all three boys fall asleep with me in bed after nursing in our den of flannelette and down. The heavenly gift of sleep, the four of us enveloped in darkness. For all the times I miss the work world, this is not one of them.

By November, the mother black bear’s metabolism slows to half its summer rate. She continues to slumber while her cubs are born in January or February, blind and nearly hairless. They are about eight inches long and weigh less than a pound. The mother begins an external pregnancy, or second womb-time. Even in this suspended state, she is able to respond to her cubs’ cries and needs, maintaining a level of sub-conscious care giving.

The bears are out in force the next summer, all around our house. Our first encounter is a mother with two tiny cubs and a much larger third, shambling across the road. She manages only a glazed stare of forced interest in our direction. Her ribs show through her dull and matted fur. “They’re sucking the life right out of you, aren’t they,” I commiserate.

The twins are in baby swings on the deck watching Max tour in his push-pedal car. I am doing dishes. Two cubs play in a tree at the back of our house while their mother grazes below. When Francois spots them, he tells them all to go home. The mother gathers her young and walks away.

August 19, 2002, a healthy black bear in the resort town of Fallsburg, New York knocks 5-month-old Esther Schwimmer out of her stroller and carries her into nearby woods where she dies of head and neck injuries. A wildlife pathologist says the bear may have been attracted to Esther’s milky odor.

Daily hikes are still integral to my happiness, but when the twins get too big to carry in my amautiq, an Inuit coat, I push them along the highway in a double stroller. One day in September, a cold, snowy rain pelts down on the back of an icy wind. I put off the walk until I can no longer stand the anxieties that accumulate after a day cooped inside. The twins howl in protest as I strap them into the stroller, while a raven stares down at our spectacle from a tree. “I hope I get an especially good reward for this,” I say to the bird.

We manage the equivalent of a city block when the dog bolts across the road and begins chasing a bear, towards us. I turn the stroller around and order Max to head home. “Don’t run!”

Fleeing-prey behaviour can trigger a bear’s predatory pursuit instincts. In July 2000, Canadian Olympic biathlete Mary Beth Miller of Yellowknife is killed by a black bear while jogging outside of Quebec City.

When the galloping bear is right beside us, it glances at me then veers in the opposite direction.
~
Max is five. We take him on a fishing trip to a pristine lake accessible only by a grueling trek through five kilometres of swampy, mosquito-infested portages. The night before the trip I dream I am standing with the children on a concrete platform of stairs surrounded by lake and woods. Francois is canoeing towards us when a male bear, snarling and frothing at the mouth, appears in the water behind him. When Francois tries to climb onto the concrete the bear claws and eats his arm and back. I clang on a pot with a wooden spoon. The bear rears on its hind legs, twists its head towards the sound…

I awake so tired and distracted, I forget to tell Francois the dream.

Five minutes after launching the canoe, we see a bear on a flat outcrop of rock ahead of us. It paces back and forth then sits complacently on its haunches, content to watch us drift silently past.

The ensuing summer is fraught with forest fires, ambitious house renovations and long spells of single parenting while Francois joins firefighting efforts along our road. I worry more about keeping my three energetic boys from slipping unannounced into the blackness of the lake, or dismembering themselves with the workers’ power tools. A cousin arrives in the midst of this mayhem with her 3-month-old son, whose tiny lungs cannot handle the black smoke outdoors, or the choking drywall dust inside. I feel trapped and personally responsible for everyone. Daily, I consider fleeing my home range.

Mature mother bears may spend 75 per cent of their time in the company of their offspring, compared to males, who remain solitary except when breeding or when congregated at plentiful food sources.

I am driving in our truck with Levi to pick up bookshelves. When we return, the other two boys and my neighbour are playing on the driveway. Levi is asleep in his car seat, so I open both truck doors wide to keep him cool and load myself up with wooden shelving. A few strides past the truck I hear the CRACK of a branch snapping under enormous weight. I turn to stare directly into the black-rimmed eyes of an adolescent bear. An unsavoury list of options flashes before me. I choose to run, lumber in hand, up to the house, yelling at the others to get inside. I retrieve a pot and spoon from the kitchen, race back outside, then freeze.

I do not want to confront this bear.

I do not want it to maul me.

I have to rescue Levi – I know I will – but I do not want to.

These fleeting, unmotherly thoughts make me feel selfish and ashamed.

Clanging the pot and bleating strange noises, I leap up and down to make myself appear large and foreign as I head blindly toward the bear, unaware my neighbour has already scared it away by rustling gravel in a metal dog dish. She is standing near Levi as he awakes. I walk over, draw him close and breathe him in deeply.

My relationship with the bear changes that day. I am afraid to go camping, afraid to pick berries, afraid to fish. Bears disappear entirely from my natural landscape, and I struggle to understand why. Have I offended the mother bear’s protective spirit? Am I being punished for having put my own safety before that of my son’s?

Three years later, still without a sighting, still with fear, I am painting the deck when I hear on the radio a black bear has killed a camper about two kilometres from my house. Helicopters swoop overhead with infrared scanners and SWAT teams and wildlife crews assemble to hunt the marauding killer. June 2, 2001, 18-year-old Kyle Harry becomes the first recorded person fatally attacked by an American black bear in the Northwest Territories, suffering more than 200 severe puncture wounds from teeth and claws over most of his body. His left arm and lower back are eaten. The bear is shot, but only wounded by an RCMP officer. Search crews scour the region. Parks close. Roadblocks and traps go up. I am oddly calm. My anxieties having born fruit, Kyle’s tragic death feels sadly conclusive.

Wildlife officers shoot and kill the wrong bear before eventually gunning down a second, which has matching bullet fragments in his body. This emaciated animal has other puncture wounds, including a large hole through his sinus that probably blinded his right eye. Experts say he was likely attacked by another bear, perhaps a week before Kyle’s death. I am relieved to learn the killer may have been going mad.

It is still another year before the bears make their reassuring return to my kitchen window.
Perhaps I was not being punished. Perhaps the mother bear’s spirit was guiding me all along, instilling fear to protect the children and me. For all I know, the young bear I encountered that fateful day with Levi was the same adult male that later killed Kyle Harry. A medicine woman I consult tells me punishment is never part of an animal’s psyche, or part of our own higher self or the divine. It only creates fear. And you either live in love, or you live in fear, with all its manifestations. She suggests I created the fear because I felt I needed to punish myself.

For what though?

For harbouring ideas of abandoning my relentless responsibilities? From the entropy of housework, the daily hand-to-hand combat with human excrement, the unsexiness of fatigue, the stress of keeping everyone alive, the longing to resume my career? All true. But ultimately love, beauty and magic have a greater hold than any of this.

When the bears come back to me, it feels counter-intuitive to shoo them away. I can’t hide my true feelings from one I see on the escarpment behind our house.

“Oh, all right, I do love you,” I confess in exasperation. “But 27 people will be camping here tomorrow for a family reunion. It’s best if you stay away.” It listened, then lumbered up the hill.
Two days later, at 4:45 a.m., the dogs are barking. Francois eventually spots a bear heading away from the house. My sister-in-law later notices the clock has stopped at 4:50. She changes the batteries, but it never works again. Jung calls these “meaningful coincidences” synchronicity. The Dene call it medicine.

For me, it is subtle communication with the otherwise intangible forces of nature. Magic.

Notes:
The Great American Bear Jeff Fair, Lynn Rogers, 1994 NorthWord Press, Inc. Box 1360 Minocqua, WI 54548
Giving Voice to Bear, North American Indian Myths, Rituals, and Images of the Bear; David Rockwell, 1991, Roberts Rinehart Publishers, Niwot, Colorado 80544 (Key Porter Books, 70 The Espplanade, Toronto, On M5E 1R2 ISO 0-911797-97-1
Walking with Bears, One Man’s Relationship with Three Generations of Wild Bear; Terry D. DeBruyn, Ph.D, 1999, The Lyons Press, 123 West 18 Street, New York, New York 10011 ISBN 1-55821-642-1
International Bear News, article by Dean Cluff, August 2001 vol. 10. no. 3