Bear tales

My first black bear sighting in the Hudson Valley – or anywhere –was in the early Nineties, on Route 28, near Phoenicia, a late autumn afternoon. Spellbound, I watched the animal move. So massive, yet graceful. My hands ached to touch her, to stroke that thick, dark fur. What did such a magnificent beast feel like? Within a few years, I would find out.

As she loped along, I experienced a sensation I now look forward to: a welling up inside, a focus on the now, a feeling of awe that invariably cleanses me of superficial ills and annoyances, at least for the duration of the sighting. A spell is cast.

A few years later, a juvenile crawled into our car. We were still weekenders, and our son was in diapers. I’d put our malodorous garbage – Huggies, food scraps, wine bottles, milk cartons, etc. – into the Subaru’s backseat, with the intent of leaving it in front of our New York City apartment for collection. I stupidly left the windows down so as not to completely pollute the automobile interior.

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Not my most shining moment, to be sure. A citiot move, I admit.

We awoke to find muddy paw prints all over the car, punctures and rips in the upholstery, the garbage bags torn open nearby, the soiled diapers apparently consumed. Later that day, we sighted the yearling in the nearby woods.

I thought it considerate of the bear not to feast on our trash inside the car. Thank God for small favors.

The most remarkable aspect was the smell. A sharp tang, a sour musk – like a cross between sweaty gym socks and skunk; a scent you can feel on your face. Sitting in the car, my body contracted involuntarily. A message deep in my primal brain said: “You are not at the top of the food chain right now. Watch it.”

It occurred to me every human should experience this deeply humbling, quiet terror. The sooner the better.

We could not cleanse the car of the bear funk. It lingered for months. Twenty years later, I can still conjure it in my mind.

In the mid Aughts, we had another memorable black-bear experience. Driving past Bread Alone in Boiceville one evening, a booming sound came from the white Chevy van in front of us. Sparks flew up from the axles, and it veered across the double yellow – luckily no oncoming traffic – and onto the shoulder opposite, horn blaring.

We pulled over, I ran across 28 to the driver’s side window. At first I thought I saw smoke inside the vehicle, but I would soon learn it was propellant from the air bags. The grill and hood of the van were crumpled.

The door opened, and a woman emerged talking a mile a minute, adrenalized.

“I can’t believe it I can’t believe it my second wreck in a month my husband is going to be so mad I just can’t believe it happened again I need to get that bear out of the road or someone else will hit it.”

I repeatedly asked her if she was okay, but she briskly walked about fifty feet behind the van.

Turns out the booming sound had been produced by her vehicle colliding with a massive bear, which now lay dead in the middle of 28.

“Come help me get that thing out of the road, come help me or someone else will hit it and wreck, come on.”

I followed. In the dim streetlight I could see the bear did look dead, its tongue lolling. And that same voice deep within me confirmed the beast was no longer a threat. I just knew. The woman grabbed a front paw and pulled. I reached down to help, at last touching one of these wild creatures.

It was like grabbing steel wool. Not cuddly fur like a manicured dog or plush toy. No. A matted, coarse hide that had protected this animal, kept it warm, shielded it from rain.

We pulled the carcass to the shoulder. I looked up to see the night crew from Bread Alone approaching. Sirens in the distance. The woman thanked me and assured me she was okay. The entire encounter had lasted about two minutes, I think. The car horn never stopped blaring.

I took one last look at the deceased bear. I hoped it wasn’t a mama with cubs nearby. But oddly, the sadness for this beautiful animal would only come later, when my adrenaline waned, and my primal brain receded back to the shadows, leaving room for my civilized self to mourn.


Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.