The bear is, in many cultures, a totem animal, a being of power and wisdom. The largest bears today are either Polar Bears or the Alaskan Brown Bear. They can weigh up to 1700 pounds. Bears are omnivorous – they can eat anything, and usually do – berries, small mammals, certain plants, and of course fish, salmon. I have seen bears in the wild a few times, usually black bears, which if not with cubs are relatively harmless and safe. Once I was hiking alone on the Skyline Trail in Olympic National Park, miles form anyone else and up high, and a magnificent black bear, so black its coat shone purple, rose thirty years down the slope from me, facing me, watching. We stared at each other for a long time. Then the bear shrugged and turned back downhill.
A bear once roamed North America that was the largest land mammal predator that ever lived, anywhere on earth. This was the short face bear. This bear weighed over a ton, stood 12 feet high, could reach as high as 15 feet, could run 40 miles an hour, and only ate meat. This great bear went extinct 12,000 years ago, when the ice age ended, when all the other great animals – the dire wolf, the American lion, the mammoth, the mastodon – disappeared as well. There was a period when we humans lived alongside short face bears – a short time if current theories of human migration to North America over the land bridge are believed, 12,000 to 15,000 years ago – or a long time, maybe thousands of years, if you believe humans have been in North America for 60,000, 80,000 even 150,000 years. And this means that humans had to survive, clothe ourselves, capture food, and find shelter, while these carnivorous bears roamed the land.
Imagine running into one of these. This is an accurate reproduction of a short face bear, with me standing before it to show scale, that was displayed in the Victoria Canada Royal Museum last fall. Just think about it. This is what leapt into the tale I was writing. I had to deal with it. It wasn’t easy.