Wild Things

The Bear

dark mountainous woods.
Bears in the wild are revealed, rather than seen. They are territorial by nature.

Photo by M. Martijn/Thinkstock

Adapted from Young Widower: A Memoir by John W. Evans, out this week from University of Nebraska Press.

The bear that killed Katie had white fur on its paws and muzzle, and for a little less than an hour it flashed white across the path of my flashlight, making a deliberate measure of her body and slowly, without pretense, pressing her chest into the ground until it made no sound and did not return the force.

This is how Katie died: gross thoracic trauma. Her body, mauled. The body, when we recovered it, bloodless and blank. It did not appear to be mangled. We stood together over her and thought she might have had a shock. She lay at an angle on the grass, and her body was intact, her clothes were not torn, there was not so much blood as we might have expected. To look at Katie’s body, we thought she had survived the attack, or perhaps the attack had only happened in our imaginations, or to someone else, or someplace else.

An hour earlier that day in 2007 my group had left Katie’s group at the lake in Bușteni, Romania, and walked a few hundred yards ahead down the path. We reached a river of snowmelt, where the Israeli doctor said we should wait to cross as a group. Or, her husband said, I could wait for Katie, Sara, and the Romanian while they went ahead to the smaller hostel. I watched them disappear into the darkness. I wound the mechanical charger on my flashlight, thinking that when Katie arrived I would need to show the way across. After a while, I became impatient, and then, after a longer while, concerned. What was taking them so long? I called Katie, then Sara on their cellphones. I left long, insistent messages to which they never listened, encouraging them to pick up the pace.

Perhaps, I thought much later, the ringing of her cellphone angered the bear and inspired it to take a second pass across the ridge.

I turned back to the path and after several false starts found my way to the lake. They were not there. I screamed Katie’s name, then Sara’s into the night wind; I could not remember the Romanian’s name. It was still louder now, but there were gaps in the wind when I could make my voice distinct.

Just across the path I saw what looked like clumps of feathers on the gravel. I reached down and picked up the pages from our guidebook, ripped from the spine and torn in half. I turned the crank and shined my light down into the brook. Had someone from Katie’s group fallen into the water? Had they all slipped on the rocks? The rocks sloped down to the river at an angle. If a person fell sideways toward the stream, I thought, they might lose consciousness, bleed, even drown. I tried to move faster and climb down to the stream, but I could make very little progress in the dark.

I turned the flashlight crank and tried to make broad sweeps of the water. I climbed back to the trail and yelled Katie’s name again. Somehow I had turned myself around, because now I was facing out opposite both the smaller and the larger hostel, toward the ridge we had kept to our right as we crossed. It was then that I heard Katie’s voice and swung my flashlight around. I saw nothing, but I heard her:

Don’t come closer. Find a gun. Get back quickly.

Perhaps my screaming voice and Katie’s response, after so much silence, made the bear curious, even irritated to understand what he had happened upon, at being unable to synchronize his poor eyesight with the urgent noise.

In a moment, in the 10 minutes it took me to reach the smaller hostel and plead with the hostel owner to take his rifle, Katie would be alone on the ridge. First, the Romanian would sit up and punch at the bear, wildly, shrieking and screaming, and when the bear turned away, he would run toward the hostel’s porch light. The bear would not follow him. Sara would later say she did not know why she also sat up and screamed and ran. She had no memory of leaving Katie, only of seeing the lamp swinging from the porch of the smaller hostel, and then it getting larger as she, too, ran, screaming and crying, toward it.

I remember all of this in the reverse order. Sara coming down the path, out of the darkness, distraught. The Romanian, already inside of the smaller hostel when I arrived, rocking under a blanket, saying only that he had managed to get away. I remember thinking, Katie cannot be far behind, because if Sara—urban, neurotic, slight—could survive the attack, then surely, so too would Katie. I remember thinking, with some hope, If the fat Romanian survived, then Katie must already be here. I had only to wait a little longer on the porch.

Then, I was arguing with the hostel owner. He had a rifle, he explained, but he could not let me take it. He would be fined 40,000 Romanian lire for discharging a gun without a state permit to do so. All of the guests were witnesses. His business would be ruined. Two strangers—his sons? other tourists?—held my arms back, and a third stood between us. I thought, It is important that I try to get the gun, and I knew I would not get it. I offered him American dollars, my passport, my pack. I thought, All of this is taking too long. Someone else said to wait in the hostel until we knew there was no bear and I thought, This is when I should be heroic and go save Katie. I staggered out the door and toward the path. Time was slowing down now. It took forever to hike back up the trail and find Katie again. I thought, There will be a funeral at the church and a newspaper report and I will have to give a speech and I will need to bring the body home to Katie’s mother and someone else will have to ship the cats, and I hated myself for thinking it through so thoroughly.

I could not run and keep my footing. When I found the place again, Katie had been alone there for 20, maybe 25 minutes. Now, she was dying. I was sure of it from the sound of her voice and the manner of the bear: deliberate, certain, indifferent to my arrival. It was doing something. It had a sense of purpose. It did not retreat, even when the rocks I threw struck its fur and hindquarters.

I thought, The bear will turn toward me because I am provoking it, and when it charges, I will run down the path, and it will follow me away from Katie.

Before that night we had never seen a bear. Which does not matter now, except to say that no one, especially Katie, whom we all imagined knew exactly what to do if attacked by a bear, had an idea of encounter or survival beyond the hypothetical situation. Play dead. Wait for the bear to lose interest. Leave.

I watched the attack, trying to close the distance: 15, maybe 20 yards. Every time I thought to approach and intervene, I could not move my body forward. I panicked, but I also had a sense to fear for my own life. It was as though I stood on the rooftop terrace of a tall building, leaning my head to look over the side, imagining I was about to fall, while my feet remained at a distance from the ledge.

In the moment I was ashamed of myself. The shame alternated a clear-headed practicality about survival with an untested capacity for heroism that would not come forward. It felt like cowardice. I threw rocks, yelled, and waved my arms at the bear.

I thought, The bear will lose interest if I land a large enough rock near its head, and then it will scatter.

I had no perspective on Katie’s body, except to watch the bear’s muzzle dip and lift over it. It seemed to move in and out of focus, as though spot-lit for a stage performance or caught in headlights. The white fur was thickest at the paws, or perhaps I was most comfortable watching the space just in front of its body. The scene was revealed partially with what I could manage to shine and how steadily I held the light. But the sound was constant; it invited speculation. The wind, the tearing of clothes, the snorting and grunting bear, all combined like woodcuts to assemble those parts of the scene I was constantly not seeing. I could fill in the gaps only as I imagined them.

Katie screamed, at first words, then only the sound of her making noise, no longer a voice but something deep, rasped, and loud that seemed to continue out of habit, long after it might have stopped. I could not see Katie’s face or the entire length of the bear. I remember imagining for a moment the cartoon shape of a bear from a children’s book, overlaid on bright paper, filling the darkness with unmeasured angles.

I thought, Why is no one coming to help me? I moved my limbs through molasses, at the darkness.

When Katie saw the bear that would kill her, she stopped walking, threw her pack across the field, and laid flat on the ground. Sara and the Romanian explained much later that they had all made themselves small at first and spoke only in hushed tones. Katie had led this progression to the ground. Sara had also thrown her pack in the opposite direction. At first, it seemed, they acted together, certain of a survival they coordinated in hushed tones—Stay down. Don’t move—even as the bear moved closer, taking its time, measuring the stillness around each body.

Bears in the wild are revealed, rather than seen. They are territorial by nature. They move in clans. They do not share open spaces. Rabid, startled, drunk, or hungry bears, and also cub mothers, violate these patterns. Brown bears weigh up to 1,500 pounds, have 3-inch claws, and can run 30 miles per hour. Unlike a black bear, a brown bear on the attack rarely loses interest or spooks. Black bears lose interest when its prey plays dead; brown bears move closer.

Katie knew some of this in the moment. I think often that Katie must have been so frustrated, believing she was doing the right thing, waiting for the bear to do its part and leave. She did what an American in the wilderness is supposed to do when she sees a black bear. Katie must have felt hopeful about her survival. Perhaps she was not conscious in the moment during the attack when I arrived. Or perhaps she knew I was there and felt disappointed that I did not do more.

This is the man I married, she thought, the one who will not save me, who loves me but cannot save me.

I threw bigger rocks. The bear moved away, flashed its muzzle, and moved back.

A boy and his father, hiking in the opposite direction, had stopped us just past the kilometer marker on the ridge to say they had seen a bear crossing from the other direction. It could not be far from the spot where we stood. We should be careful on the ridge at night, use our flashlights, and make as much noise as possible to announce our presence and deter an attack.

Did each of us, in that moment, imagine a bear attack and our survival? Or did we shrug off his warning as improbable, full of the wrong kind of caution? How could we suddenly be in a moment of worst-case survival? We were standing together, taking pictures next to a kilometer marker. We were making our way to the only hostel on the ridge with rooms to rent for the night. We could not stay in one place. The sky was plum colored. It was cold. The wind was picking up, and already we were wearing sweaters and stocking caps to stay warm. Already, we were survivors, in our minds, the likely elect, moving in wide circles far from danger; the very improbability of an attack, its cartoonish quality in our imaginations, made the odds of our survival more certain.

As I turned the crank to keep my flashlight on the bear, I saw a group start down the trail from the hostel. I thought, Someone is coming to save Katie, and then, No, someone else is coming to save Katie. I yelled to Katie to wait just a little longer.

I thought, A husband who loves his wife would have charged the bear already.

I walked back to the path to make a signal to the group, to jump and wave my arms, but I was too early. They processed so slowly, moving together, now a rescue party, now a funeral rite, taking care with the steep rocks and riverbank. Hours seemed to pass as their flashlights inched forward.

I could not startle the bear and also wave them down. I had chosen to walk toward them, and now a distinct feeling of inconvenience bothered my sense of helplessness. In both places, the trail and near Katie, something inevitable was made to feel drawn out. Katie would die. I knew this already; I could imagine nothing else. But also I knew we had the right tools—guns, knives, reinforced cookware—to intervene and save her, if only they would hurry up. I both wanted Katie’s suffering to be over and for her voice to carry on a little longer and further, just far enough to persuade the hunters to move more quickly. But if she could not be saved, then I wanted her to die quickly. I could not listen to her screaming, even from a distance.

In the end, with their guns and yelling and clanging pots, they came like a soccer club, a band of revelers, a wedding party, all noise and celebration, unmistakable and intrusive in the cold summer night air. It must have carried for miles across the ridge. I walked back to the trail and toward them, so that they would be sure to see me.

They asked, Where is the bear?

They were hunters arriving, someone explained, from the nearest village. We should move together in a large, loud group toward the bear and Katie’s body. We moved in darkness. We moved hypothetically, uncertain of our arrival. We saw no bear, and then we saw Katie’s body. I made myself walk over and look at Katie’s face. I did not want to look at it. Her face was perfect: intact. Some mud on her right check. Her hair down across the forehead more than usual.

And then I saw it, and I understood. We shined the light onto her face, into her eyes. The Israeli doctor was there, with her husband. She performed a few simple tests. Katie’s pupils, she explained, were dilated and black. They did not shine back as they should. The doctor found an irregular pulse, then no feeling. It was Katie’s body. It was cold. We needed to leave the ridge before the bear returned.

In the moment before the attack, Katie walked in one direction, laughing and smiling, making progress toward a light bulb hung from the porch of the smaller hostel to which only Sara and the Romanian would arrive. Now, a hunting patrol carried her body in the other direction, toward the larger hostel where we had eaten dinner. I walked behind them. I could not touch Katie now. I was terrified of her body. I could not look at it. I thought, We are moving your body inside where it will be safe. In the basement of the larger hostel we laid Katie’s body on a tarp on the concrete and waited for the doctors.

Arête: a sharp ridge. From the Latin arista: ear of wheat, fish bone, spine.

I am told that a climber makes a ridge sacred with her death, that the place where Katie died locates a point of reverence for other journeys, but I do not believe it. For a while I imagined there were flowers there and a pile of stones stained at the base with her blood, but I know this is not true. I have not returned to the place to make it sacred. I can’t imagine I ever will. Any marker has long since collapsed. Or it has lifted like a prayer from the place of her death and vanished somewhere along the nearby trail.

Adapted from Young Widower: A Memoir by John W. Evans, out this week from University of Nebraska Press.