The following memory was originally posted as an answer to a question on Quora. I’ve decided it is worth displaying here on my blog.
I was camping in the boundary waters of northern MN (Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness). I was a Volunteer In Park (VIP) through the Student Conservation Association (The Student Conservation Association), so was living out of a tent, on an island, for the better part of a summer. Our team’s only contact with the outside world was a walkie talkie and transportation between worksites (islands) was a small collection of canoes. In short, I wasn’t just in bear territory, I was camped out in their living room.
The good thing was this: it was so remote and so seldom used by the general public that the bears were appropriately afraid of human beings. Do something stupid, and they will attack. Leave food out in the open, and they will eat it. Conduct yourself in a proper manner and, for the most part, they’ll leave you alone.
One night, I crawled out of the tent to take a pee. I’m one of those people who will try to ignore nature in favor of staying in my sleeping bag for as long as humanly possible (so nice and cozy warm!) so this was a serious need. As soon as I made my rather noisy exit and stood up, the first thing I noticed was a mother bear and two cubs.
They were close. Way to close for comfort. If I’d been less awake or observant, I would have walked right into them on the way to our communal outdoor toilet – so 25 yards, give or take.
They appeared to be passing through, but the noise and movement created by me caught the mother bear’s attention and all three bears stopped while she moved her large head from side to side, looking around. I froze out of sheer instinct.
What little I know about hunting in the Midwest immediately followed instinct and I made sure to NOT look the mother in the eye. The night was reasonably dark and there was no wind, so my groggy half-awake and (therefore) mostly animal-instinct driven brain decided my best chances for survival were silence, no-movement and no eye contact.
The reason for the emphasis on no eye contact is this: whether you are hunting prey (e.g.: a deer) or predator (e.g.: a bear), no amount of camouflage will work if you make the mistake of looking the animal in the eye. Even while using a set of binoculars from the upper branches of a tree, the animal will sense the connection and take off. This was something they taught in the hunter’s safety course I took during elementary school, but I’ve never been hunting (before this moment or since) so this was one of the only opportunities I’ve ever had to test the theory – and there was only one option I was willing to try.
After a few long moments of patient statue-standing and waiting, the mother bear made a soft snorting sound, the bear cubs went back to the happy tumbling walk that bear cubs have and the three continued on their way.
As soon as I was no longer able to either see or hear them, I relaxed, took a much needed pee, and escaped back into my tent. That tent seemed terribly flimsy and felt entirely non-protective. I stared at the ceiling for a long time before I was finally able to go back to sleep.
It was scary.
It was AWESOME!
Yeah, I know – I’m a little weird.