Today in grade 6 music exploration I chose to introduce an Aboriginal song by talking about the Seven Sacred Teachings and the animals associated with each. Having some pretty well versed kids on the room they were able to come up with the reason for several of the connections but a few stumped them. Why would the eagle represent love or the turtle represent truth? Why the bear would represent courage seemed easy to them. Bears are big and strong. Right? Doesn’t courage belong to people like that? So I shared a story with them from a day years ago when a woman, me, went on a hike with her young children.
It was the last summer we would live in a little town in Alberta an easy ride from a Waterton National Park. We had learned to love the beautiful lakes and rising ridges towering overhead. Deer and mountain goats entertained us with the eagerness to check out the tourist who invaded their space. My three children had even attended the enviro programs so had their own special trees they needed to give a hug to each time we would go to the beach off the town site. Visitors to our home inevitably spent part of the time checking out the streams running through red rock or trekking the paths meandering through the lush greenery. It was a little bit of heaven on earth.
One last camping trip was a must before leaving that wonderland. The kid’s dad was too busy to join us for this trip so I packed the three kids, 5, 8 and 10, the tent, food and assorted paraphernalia and off we went. We got the tent set up with a bit of struggle. Luckily someone else had built a fire in the shelter nearby because no sooner did we get the tent set up than it started to rain. Of course, I hadn’t set it in a place that drained well so by morning rain was leaking in through the floor. No matter, we laid everything out to dry, flipped the tent over on a drier area so the bottom could dry. It was a day for hiking.
Just off the town site beach was the trail head that had been our door to many wilderness adventures with friends and Brownie packs and family. The trail led along the side of the lake into beautiful back country. Packing a lunch, we set off to the trail.
Closed. Grizzly bears seen in the area. We had to choose another options. I wasn’t quite into walking the steep slope to the Bear’s Hump ridge that day so we decided it would be a good day to explore another lake that required about a 2 kilometer hike off the main road. Driving up to the trail head and donning our sun hats, we set off into the woods.
For some reason, I decided to play teacher and stopped the kids to carefully read the sign about what to do if a bear was spotted. Stay calm. Don’t run. If you have to move, back away slowly. Of course, the trail up to the lake was uneventful but it was a properly motherly moment to take the precaution.
By the time we reached the lake, the kids were ready to get their feet wet in the water. We went to the shelter to leave shoes and backpack. The children were chattering happily when what should walk out of the woods right near the shelter but a bear. Luckily the mother kicked in first and I had the children walk over to the group of people down by the lake shore. Then the photographer kicked in and I slipped around one of the shelters log supports and peeked out to snap a quick picture before I carefully walked over to join the group. Since it was my first bear sighting that close, I was both elated and nervous as the bear walked along a log and checked out the shelter before returning to the woods.
With the resiliency of children, the three were soon up to their necks in the water swimming with the two driftwood pieces they named Snaky and Horsey. Of course, snaky and Horsey couldn’t be abandoned so they joined us as we left. The bear was forgotten until we began our trek back down the trail to our car.
This time every little rustle and movement in the bush caused us all to start. We imagined a bear behind every tree trunk. The kids were clinging quite close to me as I tried to give an air of calm reassurance to my movements and voice. A couple times I actually started walking off the path to check a noise to reassure them but that just increased their panic. I had hiked many times. Sure we had seen a bear at the lake but bears were a part of the wilderness experience. We rehearsed what the sign said to do if we saw one and the kids began to calm down. That is, until we turned the next corner and a brown bear was standing there on its hind legs facing us.
My children were freaking out, but in my teacherish way I started quoting to them what the sign had said while my brain tried to figure out how to deal with this situation. I used my hands to push my children in behind me and just stood there looking at that bear while it stood there looking at me. There was no way I was sending my children back the way we came. The rustling we had heard in the bushes felt a little too real in that moment. And there was no way I was going to back up slowly. With my children standing almost under my feet, I would have fallen for sure and, somehow, that didn’t seem like a good idea at the time. So I stood there facing that bear while the bear stood there facing me.
I am sure if you counted those moments in heartbeats there was a lifetime lived as we faced each other. When the bear finally went down on its four legs and ambled off the side of the trail the relief washed the energy out of my limbs. Hysterically, my kids wanted to run for the car about that time but my brain was on permanent caution in those moments. There was no way I was going through that spot where the bear had stood until I gave it time to get further away. Besides, I needed to get a bit of stability into my rubber legs before I was going anywhere.
Somehow, my rubbery legs were a gift right about then. A few moments after the bear left the trail. One, then another small brown cub exited the bush on the side of the trail and followed the path of the bear. After waiting a bit longer, I finally got the nerve to hightail it with my kids to the car. It was only then that I realized how lucky I was to have waited before we went on. To have been between a mother bear and her cubs could have been disastrous!
When I think of the bear in connection to courage, my mind will always go back to that moment. It wasn’t a matter of strength of size that spelled courage for either that mother bear or I. In those moments, we were willing to stand up to whatever we needed to in order to protect our young. I like to think of it as two mother bears squaring off against each other. We both won in that situation because we respected each other’s courage.