The black bear stood tall, mounted on his hind legs, only 15 feet away from me. Its nose was covered with long grey hair, some remnants of a deer carcass it was just feeding on. Its front paw claws hung in front of him while the ones on its back paws were firmly dug into the ground. Its nostrils grew larger, then smaller, with a rhythm, inhaling the air with vigor, deciphering what the emptiness around us hold secret. Its fur was wet and looked heavy and scrubby – the weight of winter hibernation still buried deep into him. Our eyes, these marvels of evolution, so similar to each other despite belonging to such distinct species, were locked and engaged into a staring contest. As if on cue, the birds stopped chirping and the forest became silent. Just a slight cold breeze bristling the needles of Pacific Northwest conifers. In some distant corner of my memory, these iconic musical notes for a duel in a Western movie were coming out of the closet.
I had left Telegraph Cove earlier that day. The tiny historical village was located at the north end of Vancouver Island, about 6 hours from Victoria. I had paddled south for about 5 miles and set up camp. The plan was to spend the night there then cross Johnstone Strait the next day, visit the famous Orca Lab and circumnavigate Hanson Island. With the tent up and food hoisted up in a tree, I grabbed the camera and went on a hike to investigate the area.
No more than 20 minutes had passed when I heard a sort of crunching noise, somewhere not far, over to my right, through the thick green canopy. The sound puzzled me. My hearing over the years has become attuned to strange things, the wilderness is always full of weird melodies, but this in particular was forcing me to search my repertoire of possibilities.
With binoculars in hand, I crouched and moved forward, slowly and silently, like a lion stalking its prey. My blood started to rush, my pupils dilated and my senses became super sensitive. My ancestral hunting mode had just turned itself on. I was aware of everything – the ground beneath me, the air around me, the trees surrounding me. Every step became a thoughtful process, assessing the sturdiness of leaves and branches, before I delicately lay my foot or hand over. When I photograph an animal, I make a point of not hiding, but this was different. I didn’t know what was on the other side of the curtain and before I announce myself I wanted to know what or who was there.
Inching my way closer to the source, a change in the pattern emerged. What was supposed to be green, now was black. It took only a fraction of a second to realize what it was – a black bear. But what was it doing? It was not really moving. It fact it was in one spot, its head low and slightly moving upward from time to time. Its body was mostly stationary and its focus was concentrated on what seemed to be one single task. But what was it? On the ground around was nothing in particular and yet, through my binoculars, the bear seemed to be tearing something from something else! I still remember the thoughts running through my mind – what is it that this bear is doing? It was certainly not digging. There was really no sign of a carcass, no bones sticking out, there was really nothing that would give me any clue. So I inched my way closer.
At this point, having identified the culprit, the hunter in me subdued itself and the photographer in me rose. So I took a branch with my two hands and broke it. The cracking sound reverberated through the air and the bear abruptly stopped, its ears aiming on me. Its eyes locked on my position and without any hesitation, it interrupted itself and started walking towards me. At that moment, I took my camera out, took a deep breath and connected with the inner power within me, from a species that has evolved and successfully spread its reach to almost every corner of the earth. For thousands of years, my ancestors stood where I stood, when two predatory species face each other and judge what is at stake and the possible outcomes. I was not a threat and it was my responsibility to communicate and transmit my intentions. As the bear maneuvered its way through the trees covered in moss, I let the moment sink and kept contact with the wild animal. The wilderness demands to be respected and honored. I was a visitor and my intrusion was nothing of a farce. I had imposed myself onto the bear, disrespecting its intimacy. Now I had to answer for my actions in a humble and respectful way.
Kneeling on the ground, I announced my stand. I was not to disrespect the bear no more, but I was also not going to give away the control of this situation. When wild animals meet, and right now I was one, it is all about the bluff, who holds the fear and who owns the moment. The bear in theory and physically had pretty much all advantages over me. And yet, I had to show him that I was not afraid and convince him that an attack on its behalf would be a waste of energy and not worth the effort.
As it walked, I started to talk: “Hello Bear, I am not here to take anything away from you. This is your territory and I apologize for the intrusion. I will respect you as long as you respect me.” My words filled the silence. While they communicated my intentions and presence, the tone and calmness of the delivery reassured me. The voice carries a lot of energy. The sounds that emanates from our mouth, the air that originates from inside our lungs is pure vibration. It is alive. It has a power, and yes it can also announce a lack of it. From the dawn of life, every single species has used its vocal capacities to communicate with the world. And right now, my words were carrying my intentions and making a stand.
The bear stopped. It studied the situation. Its ears, eyes and nose were in overdrive. What was I? Was I a threat? Was I a threat to its territory? To its food? Whatever I was, I was certainly not something it was happy to have around. So it moved forward and closer. Continuing talking to him, my tone and assertiveness changed drastically when he got off the mount of dead tree and found itself no further away than about 25 feet from me. At that moment, my voice got deeper and sturdier. I remembered that scene in the Lord of Rings when Gandalf stood on that ridge, hitting the ground with his staff and loudly spoke:”You Will Not Pass!” I didn’t have a gray beard nor I had a staff, but my command to the bear resonated and echoed across the forest. As my words faded into the distance, the bear stopped, stared at me, turned around and went back to the place it had come from. The dynamic had been established. While I had taken control of the moment, from the bear perspective, it felt that I wasn’t a menace and it resumed at tearing whatever it was tearing before my interruption.
With a mix of curiosity and pride, I decided to stay where I was and kept observing. I was still clueless on what the bear was eating and perhaps deep down, some dominant species behavior was forbidding me to leave. So I sat there, not moving for another 20 minutes, glued to my binoculars.
The bear must have felt the annoying stalking cause it came back. And this time, everything felt different. I could see it in its eyes, they were defiant and had a purpose. Its stride was solid and grounded. It was not charging but it was coming with an intent. As it passed the dead tree, my Gandalf move fell into dead ears and I had to suddenly change my strategy. So I stood up.
As we faced each other, eye to eye, predator to predator, mammal to mammal, survivor to survivor, I reached down into my inner core and connected to a primal place I am not even sure existed in me. I don’t carry any firearms but I do have with me ways to defend myself. Attached to my belt was a long machete with a velcro wrapped around the handle. Pulling a John Wayne, my hands hovered at my waist and I told the bear that if it wanted to come at me, I would not go down without a fight and that if one of us would end up beaten, I swore to it, it sure wasn’t going to be me. With my lips closing on that last word, my fingers slowly pulled the velcro and as the stripping sound of the fabric tearing away filled the air, the bear slowly lowered itself back to its four legs, its ears showing sign of defeat and its eyes avoiding contact with me. It throttled back to its spot, then proceeded with much energy at tearing something. To my surprise, I gazed at the bear running away with half a leg of a deer. It had indeed been a carcass hiding there beneath the tree and all this time the bear was protecting an important source of food. The adrenaline still pumping into my veins, I sat down once more on the ground and took a deep breath. I thanked the forest and my ancestors for their protection and apologized to the bear for the trouble.
Our voice and words have tremendous power. Our culture of technology and science might have reduced them to simple phonetic products, but the truth is that they carry much more. They are vessels filled with subtleties, nuances, emotions, and intent. If the roar of a lion can rule the Serengeti, if the howl of wolf can conquer the forest and if the unique sound of a baby penguin can be recognized by it mother amongst millions of others, imagine what your voice can do.
“Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know more.” Confucius