And the abundance of bears changes things. You feel differently about an environment when you know that you share it with large, capable predators that could make short work of you. Make a meal of you, for that matter, if they took a notion. No matter how often you are reminded that in an encounter with humans, Vermont’s black bears will virtually always flee, you feel a justifiable sense of fear and awe when you do find yourself face to face with one. You know that, unquestionably, you are the inferior animal. There is a reason that bears figure so strongly in legend and myth. We regard bears for their physical strength and for what we apprehend as their sense that, whatever territory they occupy, it belongs to them. They are aware, you think, of their own power and the awe that it inspires. No wonder, then, that they back off from chance encounters with humans. They can afford to.
Knowing that you are in deer territory or moose territory or coyote territory doesn’t make the hair stand on the back of your neck and your nerves tighten up and sing. Those are fine animals and without them present- day New England woods would be poorer and less interesting. It is a kick to be walking a logging road somewhere and come, suddenly, upon a moose. You stare at each other and then, when the animal turns and flees, you smile at the ungainly way it runs. It is always startling to come across a deer and you wonder, as the white flag disappears into the woods, how you could not have seen the animal sooner. How it can blend so seamlessly into the woods. Coyotes, on those rare times that you encounter them, seem so purposeful and so entirely alert that you realize how truly domesticated your pet dog is.
But, running into a bear in the woods is an entirely different order of experience. When you encounter a bear, you do not make these cerebral connections and comparisons. Your reaction takes place at some basic, even primitive level. You become entirely an animal, yourself, and you react viscerally.
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Several years ago, I took a young friend turkey hunting. He was very eager even though he wasn’t ready to shoot or to call birds. But he was good at sitting still and, in general, doing what he was told. A good twelve-year old companion, in other words.