Camping with Bear
As my partner and I arrived at White River Falls Campground, the power, beauty and music of the falls filled our eyes and ears. We were momentarily alone in this remote, small wooded campground along the riverbank northeast of Lake Wenatchee in Eastern Washington. White spray danced above water as it thundered through a rock canyon.
Then we noticed a large sign on the bulletin board: “Tips for Camping in Bear Country.” Encounters between black bears and people happen relatively frequently in this area, and grizzly sightings, though rare, occur.
We chose the most secluded campsite, away from everyone else. This was fortunate, as the two young men who arrived after we did played music so loud we could hear it over the sound of the falls. They readily turned it down at our request and then drove off to fill their red pickup truck with scavenged tree branches for a campfire.
As we set up our campsite and prepared dinner, we took care to follow the recommendations for avoiding contact with bears, making sure that anything that even remotely smelled like food was locked in the car and that the car was parked a reasonable distance from our tent. For good measure, we read about what to do in case of a bear or cougar encounter, then went to bed early, lulled by the hypnotic sound of water over rocks.
After a few hours, I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep, nervous about bears and slowly unwinding the tight mental strands of city life. Out the tent window I saw a bright red glow. I walked outside and was alarmed at what appeared to be a huge bonfire in the men’s campsite, flames reaching chest-high, sparks flying into the trees. The young men walked back and forth around the stone pit.
Should I approach them again? If any of the sparks caught it would be devastating, for us, the trees, and all the creatures. I decided to try to work through the spirits first, asking the Earth and Water spirits to ground and calm the energy. A circle of Tree spirits appeared between the fire and the forest, protecting the physical trees. I dozed off; when I next awoke, the fire was out.
I fell sound asleep and dreamed:
I hear a strange noise outside our tent that sounds like someone vomiting and try to see what is happening. I touch the wall of the tent next to our heads and feel the snout of a large animal. This frightens me. At the tent door next to me, a bear is trying to find the zipper pull to come in. I notice this – would a bear try to find a zipper pull? Then the bear is inside the tent. I try to alert Martha (my partner) to the bear’s presence in a way that won’t startle it. Once inside, it curls up behind me in the crook of my knees. The experience is extremely vivid. It feels sweet and also scary. I move slightly as I try to figure out what to do, if anything. I also try to lie still and absorb this amazing connection. After a short time, the bear gets up and walks off with great dignity. It has a black head and tawny body, long legs, and a tail with a tuft of fur at the end. (As I wake, I realize that this creature is part bear and part lion.) I feel some regret that I didn’t just lay still and enjoy the experience; perhaps my movement is what made the creature leave.
In the morning we found two bear front paw prints on the back window of our station wagon. We could picture the bear, one paw on either side of its face as it gazed in at a meal it couldn’t reach.
What to make of the dream? Some would say it’s my mind’s way of dealing with the fear of bears and cougars. Taking a shamanic approach, I follow the energy of the dream. Certainly parts of it feel threatening, but at its heart is love. I work closely with Bear spirit, a powerful dreaming spirit, and feel that Bear sent the dream to reassure me. In the shamanic dreaming framework taught by Grandmother Eagle Flying in the Sun, this is a medicine dream, in which a spirit or ancestor makes powerful contact and offers the dreamer love, healing, guidance, power, wisdom, connection. I also have a relationship with Lion spirit and am exploring through shamanic journeys the nature of the mysterious creature who walks off with such dignity. Like much of what comes in dreams, particularly the big ones, that will unfold over time.
This experience raises other questions:
How can we nourish the wild – in ourselves and in nature?
How can we humans see clearly the dangers we pose for the natural world, releasing the past focus of many of our European-American ancestors on controlling the dangers that nature might pose for us?