The Bear that Wasn't There


The words sliced through the night air, leaving a trail of terror in their wake: "IT'S A BEAR!"

It could have been Karen who made the fateful statement. Her word was always accepted as fact. Or it might have been Al, my 10 year-old brother. But "who" it was didn't matter. The night was ruined. It would be hours before sleep again claimed us!

It was the summer of 1971. I was backpacking with kids from my church, somewhere in the San Angeles Mountains in Southern California. It was a new sport for this city girl, but I took to it like a duck takes to water. I loved the thrill, the fresh air, the trail mix-I even loved the challenge of carrying a heavy backpack up steep switchbacks. But sometimes, the unidentified noises in the night COULD be just a LITTLE BIT scary to an eight year-old girl! So when I found the flat, brush-enclosed area, just the right width for THREE sleeping bags, I claimed it as MY sleeping area! I would sleep in the middle with an older girl on either side!

I decided to invited 10 year-old Karen to join me first. She was my partner. Together we had planned our meals, purchased the materials, and then divvied up the food stores and cooking supplies. But when I tried to decide which other girl in the group to invite, I realized that just three girls wouldn't be enough to make me feel safe. What I needed in the group was a boy. Yes. My big brother, Al!

To my joy, both Al and Karen readily accepted the invitation, with one tiny addendum: Al wanted to sleep in the middle! When Karen didn't seem to object to this, I didn't argue either. That might have given them the idea that I was AFRAID! That would NEVER do!

So when the last of the marshmallows had been roasted over the dying embers of the campfire, when we had sung the last camp song, and our director had declared it time to "turn in", Al curled up in his sleeping bag in the middle, Karen to his left, I to his right. We talked and laughed for a few moments, but it wasn't long before the strenuous activities of the day caught up to them and they drifted off to sleep.

Not me, however. The noises of the night gripped my attention. I could hear the distant hoot of an owl, the friendly croak of hundreds of bullfrogs, and the gurgle of the nearby creek over the rocky creek bed. I could hear the breeze rustling through the tops of the pine trees, the chirp of crickets in the brush, the crunch of gravel . . .

THE CRUCH OF GRAVEL???

The sound was loud enough to awaken my companions, and we all bolted upright. Someone-or even worse, something!-was just outside our circle of bushes! Maybe it was a raccoon trying to get into our backpacks. Or-no, the crunch was way too loud to be a tiny raccoon. A dog, maybe? Surely not! All the dogs in the camp would be asleep right now with their owners. It COULDN'T be a dog! That left only one option, and one of my companions was quick to voice it: "IT'S A BEAR!"

Three hearts pounded madly. We were sitting ducks! Any moment an enormous grizzly was going to come crashing through the bushes to maul and devour three innocent backpackers! We stared at each other. Should we run? No. The bear would only chase us. Should we scream? No. It would only further attract the bear. So we did the only thing that seemed logical: We huddled together, shaking in our sleeping bags, until the crunch of gravel moved away.

We relaxed a little then, but we didn't go back to sleep right away. With the immediate danger gone, our fear changed to pride. WE had been visited by a BEAR. No one else in the camp could say the same! And we spent the next hour deciding how we would tell the others about our nighttime visitor.

Morning dawns early in the outdoors, and with the first signs of the sun, most of the children in our group were up. We were delighted to find large prints around our hideout, and it didn't take us long to have a little "audience" of awestruck campers. Their reaction was perfect. Some were scared. Some were enthralled by the romance of being visited in the night by a bear. But without exception, all of them were ENVIOUS!

How we gloried in our moment of fame! Until our director wandered over, that is. His icy words quickly dashed our burning pride: "You didn't see a bear! There aren't any bears in these mountains! Those are dog prints!"

That simple statement instantly changed our status of "local hero" to "local fool". The other kids quickly dispersed. Our moment of glory was over.

But we didn't believe him. Nor did we believe the ranger at the end of the trail, when he affirmed that there were indeed, no bears in these mountains. In fact, nothing would shake our conviction that we had been the special audience of the ONLY bear in this part of the San Angeles Mountains. And we stuck to our story. For years.

As an adult, I have to chuckle. Of course there was no bear. It wasn't even logical to believe there was! But as I reflect back on my life, I realize that I have seen many a bear that wasn't there. Take the time I overhear someone say the word "weird" and look in my direction. I wouldn't speak to that person for months. Or the strange looks cast in my way by the group of "cool" kids at school. Yup! That DEFINITELY meant they thought I was odd! And there was the time my boss gave MY job to someone else. That meant that he didn't think I was competent enough to complete it, right? And all the senseless arguments based on simple misunderstandings: "I heard you say _________!" "No! I never said that! YOU said __________!"

Of course, there have also been the religious bears. All of those man-made laws of religion that I grew up embracing: If you don't eat meat, drink coffee, or wear jewelry, and if you DO belong to THIS church group, MAYBE you'll get to Heaven. It was only after taking the time and effort to study the Bible on my own that I learned the simple truth of Salvation: My ticket to Heaven came from having faith in what Jesus had already DONE-not in what I could DO for HIM! How many years of freedom in Christ were ripped from my hand by believing in the "bears" that weren't even there?

As I think back on this backpacking trip, I realize how much better it would have been if I had taken the time and effort to discover the truth. And maybe I wouldn't have had so many other "bears" in my life either, if I had done the same-looked for truth instead of proudly believing what I thought I knew.

Are there any "bears" in your life, my friend? Is there anything you are staunchly hanging onto that really wasn't ever there? Perhaps a disagreement based on misunderstanding that still keeps you and your neighbor from speaking? Or maybe a childhood religious belief that isn't really Biblically based? Whatever it is, examine the evidence closely before spending the next few years declaring that you have seen a bear that really wasn't there!

God bless you, my friends!

Lyn Chaffart

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