Around these densely forested parts of Wyoming, the bear is king. When a shutterbug or intrepid hiker asks about the whereabouts of a certain large mammal, it is the bear they seek. And when a family of four asks much the same question with palpable trepidation, it is the bear they seek to avoid. Grizzly or black, the bear commands our attention, if not our utmost adoration.
My own experiences and encounters with bears fall somewhere between the two extremes: I delight in seeing them, but observe caution and care all the same. Before coming to Grand Teton National Park, my bear encounters were limited to zoos and wildlife preserves. I had certainly never seen one in the wild, au naturel. So when I first saw a bear in Grand Teton, I finally understood what all the fuss was about. Majestic, awesome, and mighty, the bear I saw through my binoculars was indeed the stuff of legend and lore. Even from a distance I could see the beast for what it was: a veritable force of nature, with a ferocity not far beneath its self-possessed calm. As I looked on, the bear did an about-face and wandered back into the thicket from whence it came, disappearing no sooner than it had appeared.
That encounter eventually found its way into my presentation on bears in the Park. As an Interpretation Intern I give a number of talks and presentations, one of which is a bear program I gave the day after I saw my first bear. Well over thirty visitors were in attendance – budding Junior Rangers, longtime National Parks enthusiasts, and visitors from all over the world – all listening closely to what I had to say. Happily, I shared with them an account of my bear encounter, transitioning from the where, when, and the how, to what to do and what not to do in bear country. As short as my talk was, it informed and inspired the crowd, which later peppered me with questions. The bears, however, were the ones that did the real talking; for without their endless capacity to inspire as an emblem of the park, there would be nothing for visitors to see and for me to say.
To me, the bear’s true appeal lies in its near humanity. Playful and childlike one second, vindictive and violent the next, the bear represents what I have long appreciated about nature, and only more deeply as an SCA intern. Nature, I believe, is to be seen and admired to the fullest but rightly respected nonetheless, in order to preserve its delicate balance. With an easy charm belying a mean streak within, the bear ultimately exemplifies that timeless duality of nature, the only law the land knows: ever at an uneasy rest, and never at total peace with itself.