“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. Many Indigenous people 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 uniquely—through art, poetry, spirituality, conservation, or research—are looking for the tendrils to bring us close again. Animal encounters can connect us to something vast, triggering suggestions of what could be, confirming we are not alone.
The most memorable meetings come as surprises. In the desert you startle a napping fox, flushing her from beneath a boulder. Before you find the words to alert your companion, the fox bound down the hill, into the arroyo, and around the bend, her tail floating. She never glanced back. Closeness involves more than patience, permission, or skill. It takes chance. And with chance comes surprise. This naked surge of adrenaline and vivid shock can spawn a bubble of shared immediacy.
The Seven Devils rise 7900 feet above the bank of the Snake River in Idaho. The 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 nearby Blue Mountains who Coyote trapped and turned to stone. A friend and I were backpacking among them. I awoke at sunrise and explored the nearby boulders and scree.
On the stones’ far side were mountain goats foraging for lichen and tufts of grass. I wanted a closer look while they were down from their ledges. I hopped between boulders and landed on a precipitous slab. Falling to all fours, I scampered up with my remaining momentum. On the opposite side, unbeknown, a curious 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 right. Such an odd eye taking me in. Let’s look at each other. Her ears pricked up. I eyed her slender horns. You first, I thought. Would she headbutt me off the rock? It wouldn’t take much—only friction and fear held me in place. The goat pivoted, sweeping her shoulders, stiff neck, and head away in one motion. I waited a moment before peering over the edge to watch her join the other nannies.
For these moments, nature coded us to flee, fight, or freeze. The response comes from a primordial part of the brain. Instinct chooses, but we can temper it, be innovative, if time allows, or yield to the adrenaline and sprint for our life.
At age 10 my father and I explored a creek flowing into Lake Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. He was up the hill on the opposite bank. Bramble, ferns, ocean spray, and patches of florescent sphagnum moss filled the thicket. The thimbleberries were unripe. I paused. A rhythmic thumping came from the brush ahead. It drummed faster and louder. It sounded big, and it was coming right for me. I fled without thought. Running downhill I doubled my speed, leaping. My peripheral vision a blur. This is what flying feels like. The earth fell from my feet and I sailed off the 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 broke.
Dad appeared at the edge and extended his hand. “I thought it was a bear,” I said flooded with shame. I knew this forest. Why did I run? How did I miss the drop?
“It was a grouse, you know,” he said. “A bear wouldn’t do that.” An amorous bird drummed his wings and I ended up in the creek, dirt clinging to sweat. This lesson was crucial. Here is where I learned to stop and think.
There are bears near my hometown. As children, we shared strategies for managing an encounter. My Alaskan relatives said you should play dead when attacked by a grizzly. Roll into a ball to protect your organs. At night, I imagined myself in a tight curl, readying my pocketknife for the final struggle as a grizzly descended on me in the damp forest.
Black bears differ. You can scare them or fight until they lose interest. “Run downhill,” said a man I met while fly fishing. “You know, that’s where they’re the slowest. Their front legs are short.” I was skeptical, and he’d been drinking. But soon a pattern emerged. 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 in the northeast corner of Oregon near the Washington border. Its low elevation makes it ideal for fall hikes. I was backpacking solo up the river into the Wenaha – Tucannon Wilderness. The sun warmed the brisk air, golden cottonwood leaves glimmered, and bear shit was everywhere. They were black and raisin colored jumbles, filled with seeds, husks, and whole, unchewed berries. The bear was gorging itself.
I kicked a pile off the trail and soon forgot about the bear. A few miles in, I paused at a narrow passage carved into the basalt to give way to a man and his pack horses traveling downriver. I continued upriver then decided to backtrack to a flat section nestled in a bend. It was a good spot to explore and camp. Leaving the trail, I walked through dry grass and past ponderosa pines, thin saplings, and brush. My mind wandered as I traipsed. The sun would soon recede behind the canyon wall. I’d build a small fire with pine needles and down branches to cut the cool air and heat my chili.
The peace broke. Frantic thrashing came from the bushes in front of me. Are the horses in there?
The thicket explodes. This is not a grouse. A black bear erupts into the clearing at full speed. It’s running right at me.
This is the only real moment. Time stopped. My past, uncertain. The rush of the river, gone. The chipmunk, silenced. The unwelcome 80s song stuck in my head, smothered. There is no breeze. The sun is concealed. The bear maintains its course.
Craig Childs describes how animal encounters can be so vivid that they detach from time. A bubble forms around the moment rendering it otherworldly, spiritual. In this meeting, the bubble fixing our fate was visceral. This was elemental, not ethereal.
“No way.” I follow the bear’s paws amid a rotary gallop, at one instant all four are together—the bear is floating above the earth. Swaths of fat and fur heaved in rhythm. I heard a resounding thud with each stride. I hoped this was a dream. But this is happening. And the bear is getting closer.
A lone ponderosa stands behind me with slick, scaly bark. Four people joined together could not embrace its trunk. Its branches are beyond reach. This clearing has no options. Maybe a water exit? I won’t make it to the river. I remain frozen in disbelief. Think.
I unbuckled my 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 it situated atop my right arm, I prepared to throw. If my timing worked, I might hit the bear and scare it off. If not, it would at least be something between us.
I raised the pack and started to 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 stepped forward and traced the bear’s path up the hill. I considered following—I felt we had unfinished business. The flood of relief carried a twinge of disappointment. Did I expect something more?
The sound of the river returned. A breeze picked up. “Did you see that?” I asked the hills.
It is easy for people to misinterpret animal behavior and view their encounters through 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. The river and the vertical rock 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 another obstacle to avoid.
I made camp far enough from the adrenaline-soaked scene. I stoked the fire and peered into the 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 this animism. Doing so enlivens the world, amplifies meaning, and makes me feel vital.
Over time, my impulse to speculate why and build a scaffold of fantastic meaning grew, yet sterile rationality prevailed. But I concede the bear and I did share something divine. The sacred was in the mutual panic and myopia as our options unraveled into one another. For an instant, the bubble enveloped us and stopped time.
In the morning I awoke to a blanket of clouds. I lingered with coffee and a journal, listening to the river. I replayed the moment, seeking to divine each detail. It was noon before I retraced my steps in the light rain. As I left the clearing, I nodded in gratitude and cast a plea over our encounter, asking it to last.
Want to read more? My other essays are here.