Story, photo, and drawing by Abhijit Dey.
I somehow managed to drag myself from the cozy comfort of layers of blanket late at night – 3am. The time 3am can’t be considered as early morning, right? It’s definitely late night.
It was the month of January and we were in Mandal, a sleepy little village in the folds of Himalayas, bordering Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, Uttarakhand, India. I covered myself with my thickest jacket and came out of the room and knocked on Sahas’s door to wish him good morning. This was actually to let him know that I was actually up and would be joining them for work that day. Sahas Barve was then PhD student at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. For him and his team – waking up at 3am, braving this chilly winter – was a daily routine. But not for me.
I was there to assist in a langur (leaf eating monkey) behavioural study, so our day usually started around 7am. But I was also interested in bird research. So, Sahas allowed me to join his team for mist-netting on that day. I had to get ready and meet them by 3:30am as they headed out. The daily routine for Sahas and his team was – to start by 3:30am, reach the pre-decided location and set up the mist-nets before birds became active.
As per schedule, we started around 3:30am. It was still dark outside. It was about 6-7 of us with bamboo poles, mist-nets and other necessary equipment. After walking a while, Sahas formed two groups. I was with Sahas while the other team led by Harish went in a different direction. Both teams hardly had taken a few steps, we were still able to see each other – when suddenly our attention was drawn towards Harish. We saw what looked like a black cow behind the bushes that Harish was making noise to shoo away. It worked. The ‘cow’ got startled and came running towards us. And to all of our surprise, we realized that it was actually a full grown black bear! Holy cow!
It was running towards us from our right. It was only a few meters away. But, oh god, on the other side, there was an old lady bent with a huge haystack on her back coming along on her way. A shivering chill ran down my spine. All pairs of eyes were following the beast. The distance was getting shorter and shorter. Totally perplexed, unable to move a single muscle, with utter disbelief, the bear hit the path on which we are standing. If it had turned right, the lady would be a few feet away. If it turned left, we were in its path. “Run stupid, run!”
Not sure what made us move, but we broke out of our frozen state and sprinted for our lives in different directions. Possibly a split of a second – and everything could have been vastly different. After few seconds, I heard, someone was shouting at us to relax. Relax? – Are you kidding! I, like the others, was still running. Finally we realized the bear was gone and the other team members were telling us to stop running and relax.
We stopped. Looked back. But the bear hadn’t stopped. It must had been equally frightened on encountering a bunch of fearsome two-legged animals. It was still running through the recently harvested empty crop field. And soon it disappeared in the bushes around a nearby stream. Dumbstruck – catching our breath – someone broke the silence – ‘ALIVE!’
* * *
A few days later, we were all chatting on a chilly evening with hot cups of tea. Quite naturally, that incident was still alive in our conversation. Only then did I realize that I was carrying a pepper spray in my field pants that whole time. I had bought it to carry with me as a first line of defense for such situations, but I completely forgot about that in the heat of the moment. Though I am not sure how useful it would have been that morning. Anyways, we were so frozen in place that we even forgot to run at first, forget about using pepper spray. One of our team members performed his composition that evening, depicting the story aptly. Two lines of which are still echoing in my ear –
“Last thing I remember, we were running for our life.
The more we sped up, it felt like, it wasn’t enough…”
Abhijit had worked as an IT Professional for 6 years but was always inclined to study Ecology and related fields of science, so he always looked for opportunities to be in the wild for research projects. Now, he is pursuing his PhD in Conservation Science and Sustainability Studies in Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore, India.
Editor’s note: Experts recommend NOT running in most bear encounters, as running can trigger a predatory response from the bear. Although in this case it probably made sense to quickly clear a path for the fleeing bear to escape through. For more information on how to stay safe around bears see this information from the U.S. National Parks service.