A few years ago, while hunting elk for the very first time with my bow in the grizzly infested Lee Metcalf Wilderness, I stumbled upon a bear den on a steep hillside. In the early morning darkness, I had been moving slowly following the sound of bugling bull elk in a canyon below me, when I rounded a corner and found the mouth of a foreboding black hole in the ground. I paused, and even in the darkness I could tell the hole was deep from the hollow silence and cold stale air that resonated out of the depression. I shined my light into the lair just enough to confirm that it was empty, and then continued on- finally letting my heart slow down from the sudden discovery.
Even with half a million bears or more roaming the mountain West, finding a bear den is a remarkably rare feat. Bear sightings, although somewhat frequent for me nowadays, are still rare enough to cause excitement. It took me months of intentionally searching before I ever even glimpsed a grizzly when I first moved to Montana. Even black bear are elusive- and rarely give humans much of a chance to observe them before retreating. It is this level of secrecy to their daily lives that made discovering one of their homes even more enchanting for me. And in the darkness that lonely morning, when the light of my flashlight played tricks on my mind, the discovery had an especially enchanting feel: it was like discovering an elf’s secret lair.
A few weeks ago while out for a long off-trail hike I encountered my second bear ever . It was found on a similarly steep hillside as the last one, dug under the roots of a grand ponderosa pine. Just like the first one I had discovered in Montana, this one was tear-drop shaped, with a small entrance that opened up wide on the inside. The roof of the burrow had distinct claw marks cut into the hard soil. The entrance had a smoothed down mouth of dirt that had been packed down from the heavy traffic of a sagging bear belly. After discovering the enchanting forest-creature’s home, I did the only thing I knew: I crawled inside.
As a carpenter, I know a thing or two about homes. I have built large homes and small homes. Rustic cabins, and nine-figure mansions. Working in Aspen, Colorado- one of the higher-end towns for homes in the United States- I have seen human homes at the most extreme side of luxury: homes with elevators. Homes with vehicle elevators. Homes with pools in the basement. Homes with indoor bowling alleys. But anymore these days, I am completely unimpressed with such complex structures.
I know, after living years in the African bush, we humans have complicated our daily lives by our standards of comfort in the civilized world. Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate a hot shower, insulated walls to keep me warm, and a solid roof over my head to fend off the weather. But the idea that adding more intricate things to our houses will somehow embetter our lives- is a concept I just don’t buy.
After crawling into the bear den so that only my boots were sticking out, I rolled over and laid there with my hands behind my head. The volatile mountain wind outside (I was around 8,000 feet above sea level) was blowing hard, but inside the shelter of the den, there was only deafening silence; like the inside of a sea-shell. The soil was much cooler inside the den where I lay, and as I rested my muscles and looked up at the ceiling, I began to doze off sleepily. I imagined myself living there, like a hermit, fishing in the creek a few hundred yards down the hill, or foraging for berries and mushrooms in the thickets nearby. For a moment, I was envious of the bear’s streamlined life of simplicity.
After a while, I began to explore the structure more closely and realized this den had an additional small chamber that opened up to the right and disappeared into a sharp bend. I could not see down this chamber to know how deep it was, or whether or not any other creature occupied it. Struck with a sudden fright, I scurried out of the hole and into the sunlight.
As I exited the entrance, I paused and looked out in front of me. Up until then, I had only been facing the bear den itself, but now, I could see the view the bear was met with every time it exited its home: just in front of me, in a wide break in the trees, a valley of rolling sage and scrub oak hills rolled upward, until it met the steeper slopes of an aspen grove. And crowning the entire view, was a line of majestic snow-covered peaks.
It could have been an accident that the bear put its den in this most beautiful of places, but I like to think it just had really good taste.