Bear Tracks
July 1983

“Bear Tracks,” Tambuli, July 1983, 43

Bear Tracks

I grew up in a small community in northern Utah, Hyrum, which was named after Hyrum Smith, brother of the Prophet Joseph Smith. During my growing-up years, Hyrum had a population of about 1,500 people. The rural setting permitted us to have a barn with horses and cows, a pasture for the animals, a large garden, and some of the other necessities that went along with country living. We were almost self-sufficient when it came to producing food for the family, and that was a great asset for a family of nine that was trying to survive on the small salary my father received as a school teacher. By being resourceful, we were somehow able to make ends meet.

Our food supply usually contained venison that my father and older brothers provided for us during the deer hunting season in the late fall—usually during October. The deer hunt was an important event for the family, not only because of the meat that would go into our cold-storage locker, but also because it was an exciting adventure. The boys and men in the family, and sometimes the girls as well, would go into the mountains and make camp for several days. The outing, as much as the hunting, made this an enjoyable event each year. Even now in the later years of my life, as my enthusiasm for hunting has faded, I recall with the fondest of memories those eventful days in the mountains with family and loved ones, when the air was crisp and full of the scent of newly fallen leaves. It was part of the fiber of our lives.

After I had married and had started a teaching career of my own in the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming, the pattern of going into the mountains each fall during the deer hunting season continued. With a growing family to care for, I found that the addition of deer and elk meat to our winter’s food supply was a big help. The Wyoming mountain country was even more primitive and vast than the Utah mountains where I had spent so much time as a young man. It was a marvelous place to live for someone who loved the outdoors as much as I did.

During one of those hunting seasons in Wyoming, I had an experience that taught me an important lesson—one that I have always remembered. It occurred in a year when the weather had been rather unusual. The early snows that generally fall in the high country by late September had not come. The days remained warm and sunny even into mid-October when the hunting season opened. The deer and elk stayed in the more remote high country, making it very difficult for the hunters to get to them.

Finally, late in the season, the snows came, and I made plans with a friend to go into the Big Horn Mountains close to the border between Montana and Wyoming for a last try at finding an elk. We traveled in his four-wheel drive vehicle to a spot at an elevation of about 2,800 meters where the Little Big Horn River has its beginning. A new blanket of snow almost half a meter in depth covered the ground. We began our hunt just as the first daylight showed over the eastern ridges. My friend and I decided to follow different routes and designated a point of the mountain at some distance where we would meet later in the day.

As I crossed over the small stream near which we had left our vehicle and started into the trees on the opposite slope, I came to some fresh tracks in the new snow. They were bear tracks—big ones! The tracks came as something of a surprise to me. Bear are not uncommon in much of the mountain country of Wyoming, and they are numerous enough that it is not illegal to shoot them. However, bear were not common in the Big Horn Mountains, and this sudden encounter with the fresh tracks filled my mind with some interesting possibilities. I had never hunted for a bear; in fact, I had never had the inclination to do so. The meat would have been of no use to me.

This bear was no immediate threat to my companion or to me. If he were still in the area and aware of our presence, he was likely trying to remove himself from any confrontation with us. Still, as I studied the tracks and discovered how fresh they were, my thoughts continued to stir me. I confess that I began to have visions of a bear skin rug for our home. Since the tracks were going to about the same direction I had intended to go, I decided to follow them.

Within a hundred meters or so I came to a place where the snow was scattered about among traces of blood and deer hair. I could tell that one way or another, the bear had killed a deer there that morning. The trail that was left was easy to follow as the bear had partly carried and partly dragged the deer carcass through the brush and into a thicket of pines and spruce. There I found the deer. Its head and horns had caught in the juncture of some limbs of a fallen tree, and the bear had not stayed to dislodge it. Perhaps my coming on the scene had affected that decision.

As I continued to follow the trail of the bear, I climbed up a steep slope where the going was made more difficult by the dense underbrush. I put my rifle with its leather sling over my shoulder and used my hands as well as my feet to force my way up the incline. Every few meters I stopped to catch my breath and rest a moment.

During one of these pauses I looked about me and assessed my situation. Because of the density of the undergrowth, I was aware that it would be impossible for me to get a clear shot at anything more than eight or ten meters away. I began to wonder who would have the greater advantage if I were to come upon the bear.

As these thoughts went through my mind, I felt a most interesting sensation come over me. I experienced a tingling in my skin, and I could feel the hair rise on the back of my neck. I had the strong impression that I was in grave danger and that I should leave the area immediately. The impression was so powerful that I got to my feet, went back down the slope to where the country was more open, and there felt that I was in better control of things. Any further desire to pursue the bear evaporated, and I went about the business for which my friend and I had gone into the mountains that day.

I have reflected on that experience from time to time through the intervening years. Occasionally I have been confronted with opportunities to pursue some venture or activity that seemed to offer the possibility of excitement or adventure. Always when danger or a threat to my physical or spiritual well-being has accompanied these opportunities, I have felt some of the same impressions and warning signals that came to me that day in the mountains of Wyoming. They have not always been as powerful as they were there on the slopes of the Little Big Horn, but they are clear enough that they are not easy to ignore. I have learned that whenever I see “bear tracks,” figuratively speaking, it is wise to check for the warning signals that penetrate one’s conscience. These signals can save us from much heartache and difficulty.

Young people who face the prospect of growing up and making their way in today’s world will likely encounter many “bear tracks” to entice them into the thickets of worldly excitement and pleasure. These enticements can assume many forms. Some of them can appear at first glance to be relatively harmless and innocent. They can be encountered in almost any setting—even in the sanctuary of our own homes. They can appear in the written word, in newspapers, magazines, and books. Some of them take a graphic form with illustrations or photographs. Some penetrate our thoughts and sensitivities through music, while others use all of the sophistication of modern electronic audio and visual technology, including television and the movies. Sometimes we follow “bear tracks” in the indiscretions we display in our relationships with each other that lead to immoral behavior. Many have followed “bear tracks” into the nightmarish world of drug abuse and addiction.

I remember reading several years ago of a man who had gone into the wilderness area of the state of Montana with a companion on a big game hunt. The hunters came upon a grizzly bear at rather close range, and one of the men fired at the bear and wounded it. In a rage the huge animal charged the hunters. One of them, in panic and in a desperate attempt to save himself, climbed into the lower branches of a small tree close by. The tree was not large enough to support the man’s weight and hold him beyond the reach of the bear’s powerful claws and jaws. Before his companion could destroy the bear, it had inflicted such serious injuries on the hunter that it was necessary to amputate both his legs in order to save his life.

Those who follow the figurative “bear tracks” to which I have alluded earlier must be aware that they inevitably lead to danger. Some of these dangers can be fatal to spirituality and faith; others can cause serious injury to true happiness and self-respect from which it is difficult to recover. Willfully following “bear tracks” can have tragic consequences.

My experience has taught me that the best way to avoid the dangers into which “bear tracks” can lead us is to avoid following them. Respond to the warning signals that come through the promptings of the Holy Spirit; escape to safe ground where we are in control of the situation and where we can merit the protecting and preserving powers that our Heavenly Father has promised to those who will obey him.

As we do this, we will find a security and peace of mind that are more valuable than all of the thrill and excitement that pursuing “bear tracks” could ever bring. In addition, we will be able to continue along the pathway to eternal happiness with confidence that we are eligible for every good blessing that may be necessary to guard us and preserve us from the forces that seek to do us injury and hedge up the way.

Illustrated by Paul Mann