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The Bear That Turned Out To Be A Moose

By: Laura Nettleton, Staff


Fast forward five years and reflecting on the experiences I’ve shared with my team, I think about what I’d tell sixth grade me. I’d tell myself that you’d face challenges with even your closest friends. You’ll survive seven days without your phone. Don’t jump in the lake when it’s 30 degrees. Tofu is actually quite hard to cook and it might end up in the dirt if you flip the pan like that. And you’ll be exposed to a world you weren’t familiar with and you’ll learn how to face these new challenges and find out who you are along the way.. ~Olivia D., 2021 Girls Team


With my snow hat pulled nearly over my eyes, my sleeping bag tucked tightly under my chin, and my tent zipped entirely shut, I was an adult sleeping alone, in my tent, and I was scared. My heart bounced cold breath out of my body beating off the nylon walls and hovering just a few inches from my face. 


Two days before we arrived in New Mexico for a week of backcountry climbing with 15 freshman girls, 4 mentors, and 3 trip guides, I had made the decision that it was time to overcome my fear of sleeping alone in the wilderness. Cocooned and by myself, I was now regretting my effort of proving I was a true outdoors woman. 


A stir twenty feet away.


Josh, one of the guides for the week, flipped in his sleeping bag, crunching against the cold earth and the two inches of contained air he floated on above the ground.


“I am not alone.”


I whispered to myself. I waited for Josh to move again. Nothing. He was asleep, and now I felt entirely vulnerable.


When I was a girl, I spent my summers drifting among small Montana towns with my family, camping in isolated woods and surrounded by profound cliffs, rising granite etching high into the sky, and the purest of rivers running swiftly nearby. Sandwiched often between my brothers and parents, I rarely felt scared. The few times I was edged out from the middle, I found myself gathering my day clothes and barricading my exposed side to the tent’s wall and the outdoors. When I couldn’t sleep, my dad always knew.


“We are safe, Laura. Nothing is going to bother us.” I clung to his deep tenor voice, rusted by the night’s late hours of stolen sleep.   


Back in my own tent, I curled more into myself. I listened to my breath, focused on the calm of breathing, and how simple my life has gotten within the week. Slowly, I eased away into subtle security. I was alive and surrounded by natural beauty, and there, I fell asleep.


“There’s a momma bear and cub too! They were hovering around our tent! We swear!”


Yelled Olivia.


I was jolted awake. I could hear the girls’ voices tremor as they shouted at their mentors and trip guides nearby. My cocooned self became a nylon twisted boa constrictor. I wrestled against its grips, finally finding the zipper’s lip, and released myself into fighting freedom. Just as I was about to leap out of my tent finding safety in openness, I realized my craze would scare the girls even more.


I looked down at the succumbed constrictor, grabbed my boots,  and instead, briskly hopped out of my tent. 


Three girls stood barefoot and shivering in the sub 30 degree cold. Their faces strained with fear and belayed by others’ fears too. 


“We ate chips in our tent earlier.  And sprayed perfume. We regret these decisions now.”


Quietly Olivia quipped.


The mentors and guides–who now all were clearly up and on alert–and I saw disbelief leave our bodies, floating to dismay into the stars above. Three years in and lessons already learned, and the girls were still toying with mother nature.


The guides dispersed and swept the grounds for a perimeter check. All of us adults knew there was never a momma bear or a baby cub. The first two nights we’d all heard the deep, guttural bugle in the distance and it was clear the sound was outlining the river’s banks. Luckily the girls at that point had not heard those sounds. We adults had huddled earlier that day to discuss the sounds and matched it with the hoof prints sunk into the mud along the water. We had decided to not tell the girls about the sound or about the prints knowing it would spark hysteria rather comfort. It was one of those “what they don’t know won’t hurt them” scenarios.


We slammed the doors of the vans and clamored pans together. 


“We are clear. We didn’t trace any animal. We’ve made enough sound to scare away anything if it were here. Go back to bed. And maybe without the chips too.” Said a half-awake Josh.


Groggy and nearly sleepwalking now, the girls went back to their tents. The chirps and whispers of concern carried on for half an hour until nothing more could be heard except the inhales and exhales of our team.


Four days later,  we headed back to Texas. Calloused hands, bruised knees, and strengthened spirits, our rock climbing week was done. We came out of it healthy. Everyone had ten fingers and ten toes still. And I had proven to myself that I could in fact tent alone. 


Though, I realize now that life is pretty scary when you do it alone and when there are big, bad things out in the woods that are unknown. Sure, all of us can survive a week camping alone. But we all thrive that much more when we know we have each other–another to count on when sickness comes, when we lose a job, or when we simply just don’t know what’s next.


In the grand scheme of things, the uncertainties in life are a little less scary when you have each other, when you have community.  It’s when we are together that the bears turn to moose and our fears, though never gone completely, become a little less scary and a little more manageable.


2021 Girls Team, Climbing break in New Mexico