“You can’t get a word out. You just stare for as long as you can because suddenly it will be over, you will get your name back and life will begin again.”
-Craig Childs (The Animal Dialogues)
Animals are watching. They know where you are, and their life endures unseen. In their spaces, we are visitors, often intruders. Indigenous stories recount a time when animals and humans spoke to each other. Then an irrevocable incident drove us apart. Perhaps since that moment, each of us in our own way—through art, poetry, spirituality, conservation efforts, or scientific research—are looking for the tendrils to bring us close again. Animal encounters can help us feel connected to something vast, triggering suggestions of what could be, confirming we are not alone.
The most memorable meetings come as surprises. You startle a napping fox and flush her from her burrow. You have never seen a fox at noon in the desert. Before you find the words to alert your companion, the fox has bounded down the hill, into the arroyo, and around the bend, her tail floating. She never glanced back. Encounters made while sitting still or those garnered while tracking are gratifying. But we make or force these. Closeness involves more than patience, permission, or skill. It takes chance, and with chance comes surprise. The naked surge of adrenaline and a vivid moment of shock can create a bubble of shared immediacy.
The Seven Devils rise 7900 feet above the bank of the Snake River in Idaho. Its prominent peaks have names like She Devil, Devils Throne, Twin Imps, and the Ogre. They are from a Nez Perce story about seven child eating monsters from the Blue Mountains who Coyote trapped and turned into stone. A friend and I were backpacking among them. I awoke early and explored the nearby boulder field.
On its distant side were mountain goats foraging for lichen. I wanted a closer look while they were down from their ledges. I leaped between rocks and landed on a precipitous slab. Falling to all fours, I scampered up it with my remaining momentum. On the opposite side, unbeknown, a goat did the same. We reached the edge in unison and froze. Our beards were a foot apart. Her head swayed back and to the left. Such an odd eye taking me in. Let’s look at each other. Her ears pricked up and faced forward. I eyed her slender horns. You move first, I thought. Would she headbutt me off the rock? Only friction and fear held me in place. It wouldn’t take much. The goat pivoted, sweeping away her shoulders, stiff neck, and head in one motion. I waited a few seconds before peering over the edge to watch her join the other nannies.
For these moments, nature coded us to run, fight, or freeze. These responses come from a primordial part of the brain. Instinct makes a choice, but we can temper it, be innovative, if time allows, or let nature take over and run like hell.
At age 10 my father and I explored a creek drainage on Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho. He was a distance up the hill. Bramble, ferns, ocean spray, and patches of florescent sphagnum moss filled the thicket. The thimbleberries were unripe. I was ready to turn around when I heard a thumping sound in the brush ahead. It drummed faster and louder. I fled. It was big and coming right for me. While running downhill, I doubled my speed, taking giant leaps. My peripheral vision a blur. The earth fell from my feet and I sailed off the creek bank. Midair, I twisted and grabbed an exposed root to break my descent. Dank soil rained on my head and poured down my shirt. The spell broken. Dad appeared at the edge and extended his hand. I felt shame. “I thought it was a bear,” I said. I knew the forest. Why did I run? And how did I miss the drop? An amorous grouse drummed his wings and I end up in the creek. Here I learned to pause and think.
There are bears where I grew up. As children, we shared strategies for handling a meeting. My Alaskan relatives said you should play dead when facing a grizzly. Roll into a ball and protect your organs. I imagined myself curled up while a bear pawed at me, my folding knife ready for the final struggle. Black bears differ. You can scare them off or fight until they lose interest. “Run downhill,” said a man. “You know, that’s where they’re slow. Their front legs are short.” I was skeptical. Apart from this, a pattern appeared. No matter how much you want to, don’t turn your back. Don’t run. And don’t bother climbing a tree. Bears will follow.
The Wenaha River is close to where Oregon meets Idaho and Washington. Its lower elevation makes it ideal for fall hikes. I was backpacking solo up the river one weekend. The sun warmed the crisp air, golden cottonwood leaves flickered, and bear shit was everywhere. They were black and raisin colored piles, filled with seeds, husks, and undigested blackberries. The bear was gorging itself, not bothering to chew.
I kept hiking, dodged the poop, and forgot about the bear. A few miles in, I paused before a passage cut into a rock wall and gave way to a man and his pack horses passing downriver. I continued upriver then backtracked to return to a flat section nestled in the river’s bend. It was a good spot to explore and camp. Leaving the trail, I walked through low grass and past ponderosa pines, bare saplings, and bushes. My mind wandered as I strolled. The sun would soon disappear behind the canyon wall. I’d build a fire with pine needles and down branches to heat my chili.
The peace broke. I heard struggling in the bushes a distance in front of me. I look up. Are the horses in there?
The thicket explodes. A large black bear erupts into the clearing at speed. It’s running right at me.
This is the only real moment. My past, uncertain. Time stopped. The rush of the passing river, gone. The chipmunk, silenced. The unwelcome 80s song repeating in my head, smothered. There was no breeze. The bear maintained its course.
Craig Childs describes how animal encounters can be so vivid they detach from time. A bubble forms around the moment rendering it otherworldly, spiritual. In this meeting, the bubble fixing our fate was visceral not spiritual. This was elemental. All else was B-roll.
“No way.” I follow the bear’s paws amid a rotary gallop, at one instant all four together, the bear floating above the earth. Excess swaths of fat and fur heaved in rhythm. I imagined a resounding impact with each stride. You can’t pretend this is not happening. This is happening. And the bear is getting closer, not stopping. It’s too close.
A lone ponderosa pine is behind me. Four people joining hands could not encircle its trunk. Its branches are out of reach. Its bark is slick. This clearing has no options. Maybe a swift water exit? I won’t make it. I’m still frozen in disbelief. Think.
I unbuckled the waist strap. I’m more agile without the backpack. It might offer better protection on, but this isn’t a grizzly. I heft the pack up and off my left shoulder. With the pack in my right hand, resting atop my raised arm and shoulder, I prepared to throw. If my timing worked, I would hit it and scare it off. If not, I would put it between us. I raised the pack higher and started my throw.
Now the bear made a 90-degree turn and bolted up the canyon side. The pack fell to my feet. It was over.
I remember taking a few steps forward, trying to see where it went. I had the urge to follow the bear as if we had unfinished business. The sound of the river returned. A breeze picked up. “Did you see it?” I wanted to ask someone.
What about the bear’s perspective? It is easy for people to misinterpret animal behavior and view encounters through their fear. The bear wasn’t after me. It was not ferocious. Startled, the bear might not have realized what I was until I moved. The horses ahead of me sent it into the thicket. A river and rock wall on one side and an eroding hill with scattered basalt columns on the other hemmed the bear in. The way out was through me. When I heaved the backpack up, I became larger, another thing to avoid.
I made camp nearby. I stoked the fire and peered into the spaces and shadows. Sleep was elusive.
Some people see these encounters as sacred moments of communion. We want animals to reach for us, guard our spirits, share their wisdom, and pass us messages from beyond. If more of us welcomed this view, we would be better neighbors. A part of me wants to embrace animism. Doing so enlivens the world, amplifies meaning, makes me feel vital.
Over time, the desire to answer, “why?” and build a scaffold of fantastic meaning grew, but sterile rationality prevailed. Yet I admit the bear and I shared something. The sacred was in the heightened instant of fear, panic, and myopia as our options unfolded into each other. For a few seconds that bubble enveloped us and stopped time.
In the morning, I awoke to a low blanket of clouds. I lingered with coffee and a journal, listening to the river. It was noon before I prepared to retrace my steps. As I left the clearing, I cast a plea over the place and that moment, asking it to last.
Want to read more? My other essays are here.