By Mark Hurtubise
There is no hunting like the hunting of man . . .
– Ernest Hemingway
Even though intense fear was about to take control, I knew I shouldn’t panic. If my fear grew unchecked, all rational thinking would evaporate and hysteria could take over.
Forty years ago, to celebrate my 30th birthday, I took an early May solo-backpacking trip into the isolated northwest corner of California’s Yosemite National Park. In spring, Hetch Hetchy, just over 20 miles north of Yosemite Valley, was remarkably picturesque with solitary high Sierra lakes, towering carved granite faces, cliff-jumping waterfalls, aggressive boulder-dodging creeks, and living glaciers. There were no hotels or crowds. Chipmunks outnumbered the hikers. Within these wild spaces, there were other four-legged creatures attempting to stay alive such as coyotes, elusive bobcats, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and bears. The heavyweight black bear was this environment’s boss.
It was estimated that 500 black bears roamed the wilderness between Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite Valley in the late 1970s. These powerful animals were equipped with ancestral and persistent foraging instincts. Before winter they could weigh over 400 pounds. By May, after a long winter sleep, they might be down to 280 pounds and ferociously hungry. They could smell backpack food and humans two miles away.
My goal was to spend three nights camping at Laurel Lake and enjoy day hikes throughout the area. Starting at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the 7.7-mile hike to the lake was a moderate 1,500 ft. ascent to 6,500 ft.
I arrived at Laurel Lake in late afternoon. The few empty backpacker’s fire pits from last fall were encircled by wide and long snow patches shaded by large pine trees. As there were no other shoe prints besides mine, I was elated to be the first visitor to the lake that spring. The only evidence of other life were multiple paw prints from bears crisscrossing over the snow. To avoid an encounter with this unpredictable, newly awakened landlord, I decided to hike another mile away from the lake along a rapidly running outlet creek, which would provide me with safe drinking water.
With the sun setting and the temperature dropping towards 35 degrees, I quickly pitched my pup tent in an open dry spot over a cushion of pine needles.
I then swung my yellow nylon rope over a tree branch 15 ft. off the ground, filled my stuff sack with the food I’d packed, tied the sack to one end of the rope, and hoisted it 10 ft. off the ground. Next, I stood on a large rock and tied the other end of the rope to the tree trunk as high as I could reach. Because I am 6’ 2” tall, I figured the rope’s end encircling the trunk was 9 ft. from the tree’s base.
It was almost dark when I crawled into the warmth and comfort of my down sleeping bag. I looked forward to meandering into a world surrounded by potential achieved and contemplating John Muir’s roadmap, “The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.”
Before dozing off, I took one last glance through the small triangular screened tent window facing my hanging stuff sack. To my alarming disbelief, in the rapidly fading gray shadows just before nightfall, a huge black bear was stretching and pulling on the rope I had just tied to the trunk. The beast looked 7 ft. tall.
I immediately realized I had been careless with securing my food and was under-prepared. I had no bear spray to fend off the intruder. Only 20 ft. of air was between me and the bear’s thick breathing.
Fear. A lightning bolt of fear struck me. Without permission, fear forced its way into me. This alien emotion was beyond a menacing concern that could be subdued mentally. I was consumed by the singular horrifying thought this pillaging predator would rip through my thin nylon tent, crush my ribs and skull, and with unchecked savagery kill me.
Amid my accelerating fear, time unexpectedly paused, and I bridged 2,000 years and imagined Peter, the Apostle. He was standing fretfully by a blazing fire outside where Jesus was being mocked and tortured before His grisly crucifixion. As a Jew, he probably knew Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah’s appearance would become “so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness.”
Peter’s intimidators began pointing at him and shouting that he was a follower of Jesus. Like a lynch mob, they were a trigger finger away from delivering him to Roman soldiers to be brutally whipped until his back became ribbons of screaming, bleeding flesh.
Fear overwhelmed him, as it gripped me when I glimpsed the fearsome prowler outside my flimsy tent. My marauding bear was a manifestation of his accusers, our potential executioners. I immediately empathized with Peter’s naked fear, as I believed, he would mine. In that darkness, I was not alone. I felt Peter’s spirit with me. I understood Peter’s weakness contributed to his fear, as it did mine. But from weakness, strength can also be rekindled. It did for Peter. Now, I hoped it would be for me.
Running wasn’t an option for me as it was for Peter. A bear can outrun a racehorse in a quarter mile. Any attempt to escape might prompt an immediate vicious charge. I could remain quiet, motionless, and pray desperately he wouldn’t shred my tent and ravage me. He probably had smelled his way into my campsite, so he was already aware I was only a few feet away.
By now it was pitch dark, the blackest of blacks. I knew my hands were attached to my wrists, but I couldn’t see them. I concluded my only choice was to bluff at being the aggressor. I would have to transform my fear into fake rage against this formidable adversary. I hastily felt around in the darkness for the stainless-steel dish and cup I brought with me into the tent.
With loud yells and roars, I feverously began banging together the dish and cup. After a minute, I heard a thud. He had triumphantly captured my food. Frightened and attempting to sound fierce at the same time, I kept pounding the metal dishware together and hollering as loud as I could for another 20 minutes. Then, suddenly, my voice became a weak rasp. I lost my voice. Instead of a pretend gladiator, my sounds became that of a whimpering wounded animal.
Because of the creek’s thunderous sound, I couldn’t tell whether he escaped with his plunder or was feasting on it next to me. Throughout the long night I sat upright and awake inside the tent holding tightly my minuscule, six-inch knife and small, twig-cutting hatchet, uncertain of his whereabouts or my future.
As soon as daybreak glimmered distant, low on the horizon through the tree-trunks, I followed the bear’s tracks 100 ft. from my campsite. My stuffing sack was torn open. Gone were the dried fruits, protein bars, beef jerky, oatmeal packets, mixed nuts, and powdered orange Tang. A tuna fish can revealed canine marks where he had ripped it open. The only thing left was a clear sandwich bag of dried white rice resting alone on the snow. It was obvious he was the winner. Yet, I couldn’t stop feeling victorious over my fear, as in the end, it was in the same for Peter.
I hiked back to my Volkswagen van parked at the trailhead, exhausted, aching, and hungry. Returning to San Francisco with the tuna fish can as a memento, I slept 14 hours.
With a life expectancy of less than 20 years, my Hetch Hetchy bear died long ago. I hope he had many good summers. Vivid images of the bear still reside within me, for he seared onto my soul the experience of volcanic terror, as well as the satisfaction of fear overcome. Decades later I also remain relieved that Ernest Hemingway’s fortune telling did not become my epitaph that wilderness night, “There is no hunting like the hunting of man . . .”
During the 1970s, numerous works were accepted for publication. Then family, teaching, two college presidencies and CEO of a community foundation. After a four-decade hiatus, he attempting to create again by balancing on a twig like a pregnant bird. Within the past four years, his poetry, microfiction, essays, and photography have appeared in such places as Apricity; Adelaide, Literary Award; Star 82; Bones; Deep Overstock; pacificREVIEW; Modern Haiku; Ink In Thirds; Grub Street; 50 Give or Take; Kingfisher; Atlas Poetica; Humana Obscura; Burningword; Aji; Wayne Literary Review; Frogpond; Montana Mouthful; Superpresent; The Spokesman-Review; Stanford Social Innovation Review; Alliance; Sludge; University of San Francisco, Alum News, Interview; and Monovisions Black & White Photography, Honorable Mention Awards (2020 & 2021).