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The Bear and the Bullet

The truck came by slowly and a spotlight swept the river bottom. "My God—they're hunting me!"

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No doubt about it, bears had been in this area.

I was camping along a stream valley in Turkey’s Koroglu Mountains.

A large branch snapped downstream. I lifted my head and listened. Nothing more—but branches don’t snap for no reason. Then, upstream, a thump thump thump! It sounded like a deer, but who knew. An airplane out of Ankara flew north overhead. They were probably serving drinks up there, I mused lonesomely. I drifted off, almost to sleep, when I heard an unmistakable whoosh, whoosh, whoosh upstream—the sound, without question, of something walking through the tall dry grass.

“Whoa!” I yelled, fumbling at my sleeping bag zipper and clamoring to have a look. There in the moonlight, not 50 feet away, was the lumbering, brawny figure of a brown bear. I yelped. The animal detected me and in an instant turned tail and sprinted into the woods. My heart pounded, my blood surging through my veins, but far from feeling faint, I was exhilarated. I had never seen a brown bear before. But I was shaken, too, and I knew I had to move camp. I noticed now that there was a trail through the grass, and I guessed that I was sleeping on a bear boulevard. I was packed in five minutes and I cut straight to the bank below the road, but in the semidarkness I misjudged its steepness. I struggled up the shale, the rocks and gravel slipping an inch for every two I gained. I couldn’t rest without solid ground, and after several minutes of scrambling, my arms ached, my lower back screamed, and my legs shook. Five feet from the top, I reached a ledge, and I was stuck.

As I plied at the rock, arms around my bike, trying to calculate a way up, the sound of an engine came from down-road. I turned off my headlamp and ducked against the cliff. The truck came by slowly, and as it passed above me a spotlight cut just over my head, sweeping the river bottom. I immediately thought of the angry villager in Alemdar. “My God—they’re hunting me!” I thought. A moment later, as the truck disappeared around a bend, the crack of a gunshot split the quiet air. Of course: they were shooting at the bear. Suddenly it all made sense: the dead pigs along the road, the blood trails in the dust, the nighttime shooting and the occasional live shotgun shell left by hunters. I saw the lights of the truck up the road. It had stopped, the cowardly shooters looking for their quarry in the bushes below. Then the truck began to roll back toward me, very slowly, spotlight still flooding the gully. They apparently hadn’t made a clean kill.

I had to get out of here, for I still thought they could be looking for me and taking shots at other creatures out of habit. I prayed my feet would hold and, with every ion of strength I could direct into my effort, I shoved the bike up and over the ledge. It fell smack on its left side. My laptop! Oh well. Freed now of the 60-pound bike, I leaped up over it onto the road, lifted it and was rolling toward the highway. I kept my lights off until I hit the asphalt, then sprinted up a long grade in the moonlight.

I slept three miles uphill, on a wide grassy plateau, surrounded by the distant lights of villages. Dogs howled. Trucks thundered past on the road. Voices echoed in the distance. And then, two more gunshots in the canyon below.

I returned to the gully before sunrise. From the road, I saw immediately a large herd of pigs nosing through the creek and turning rocks. I continued, looking for bullet shells or signs of a wounded bear. I saw no such evidence—but I did see bear tracks, fresh and plain as day. I was glad to note they were on top of the only tire tracks I saw; the bear had lived, perhaps, and the men gone home. I pushed my bike 20 miles up the road—bear and huge canine tracks all the way—to its end in a high mountain cirque. The crumbled beams and stones of several shepherd huts lay abandoned in the meadow. From the pass, I saw no practical way down into the next drainage system, though a mile below I saw a road. I ate my last four figs, had a shot of raki, and rolled back the way I’d come and resumed my way on the asphalt. In the next village, several old men by the fountain gathered round. I asked about bears. “Many,” one said in English. “The chicken farmers throw dead chickens by the river down here and the bears come at night.”

“Do people shoot them?”

“Yes, but it’s forbidden.”

“Is bear meat good?”

“We don’t eat it.”

“Why shoot them?”

He shrugged, but I know the answer: For the sport of destruction.

The man pointed at the crumbling village around us. He said people were leaving for the cities. “There is no money here,” he said. “Tourists?” I asked. “You may be the first!” I suggested an idea: “Bear tourism. No more shooting. Just cameras. Tour guides and tourists—for the bears. Big money.” He laughed and told his friends.

I left with the gift of several tomatoes and some grapes and had a meager dinner at the mile-high pass above the town of Beypazari. The moon rose, and a flock of sheep walked past, a mass of jingling bells and glowing fleece.

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