My eyes open as my ears are filled with noise. It’s the all too familiar sound of my alarm, but at a very unfamiliar time. Everything is unfamiliar. The place, the people, the culture. This is not home. It is the third week of this new semester at the OBXFS and none of us, myself included, seem to be fully adjusted yet. But this morning, there is not time to ponder on the unfamiliar. My body slowly gains function as the brain reluctantly wakes up and does its job and tells my arm, hand, and fingers to work together to shut off that annoying ringing beside my head. It’s 4:30 am. I get out of bed and shuffle around putting on clothes as I brush my teeth. In separate rooms, my classmates are likely doing the same as we prepare to venture out into the darkness. Thankfully, this early morning rise is not the beginning to a normal school day. This is the day we venture out into the wild in hopes of seeing the infamous black bear.
After a quick breakfast, which consisted of copious amounts of coffee, we filed into two white vans. These vans took us away from the Dare to Hyde Wildlife Tour compound and into prime bear habitat, which turned out to be agricultural fields. We made our way down twisty country roads, van windshields fogging up in the cool morning air. The sun started to creep up and the sky began to turn a light shade of blue. Eventually, the country roads turned into dusty dirt roads that ran past low lying fields and old farmhouses. The dirt roads carried us to crop fields with canals flanking us on both sides, their black water reflecting the ever changing tones of the early morning sunrise. It did not take long for the guides to begin spotting bears in the adjacent fields and point them out to us. Many of them were quite far away and appeared as little, black specks peppered throughout the corn stalks. Despite the inability to clearly see the bears and our sizable distance from them, there was a noticeable silence and stillness each time a new one was spotted. Everyone was engaged by these wild creatures. We fell into a trance, faces pressed against the glass, with eyes wide open taking in each new bear discovery as if it were better than the last. But suddenly, the vans came to a halt. It was time to set out on foot into the heart of eastern NC bear country.
By the time we exited the vans, the sun had formed a semicircle with the horizon as it rose above tall trees in the distance. The lower section of sky was a deep orange that faded gradually until it met up with a light blue above that was partially covered with wispy, white stratus clouds. Bristling with anticipation, we began to walk along the dirt road. Our guides assured that we were safe, but nonetheless, there was something exhilarating about knowing we were out in nature, so close to bears and unprotected. Being outside the vans, we were able to get much closer to the bears, several coming to within fifty meters of the group. One bear in particular gained our attention. It crossed a nearby field and slowly approached one of the canals we were sandwiched in between. Tentatively, the bear submerged itself into the water, matte black fur meeting shiny black water. It slowly traversed the canal, swimming with only its head above the water. We could clearly see its dark eyes centered around a tan muzzle as it approached the bank of the canal that connected to the road we stood on. Frozen to the spot, we watched as the quadruped ambled up the bank and then slowly turned and began walking towards us. The guides had previously explained that black bears have very poor eye sight and may not notice human presence if the wind is blowing so that our scent does not reach their ultra sensitive noses. The wind must have been blowing just right; the bear walked with head down until it was no more than 10 meters away. We could hear the dampened thud its paws made with the dry earth each time it took a step; we could see water glistening on its dark coat from its recent swim; we could smell its wild, musky aroma, and; we could sense the intensity of the situation. Just when I thought it would never notice us and walk right into our group, the bear’s head shot up like it had awoken from a nightmare. Its eyes focused on us for one-tenth of a second before its front legs sprung into action, slicing through the air and completing a 180 degree turn that was followed by the rest of its body. Now the back legs were put to work as they pushed off the dry ground and propelled the bear forward. It did not stop running for as far as we could see, front and back legs working together now to speed the bear down this road normally reserved for trucks and farm equipment.
The encounter with the bear had ended and so had our wildlife tour. Unfortunately we could not stay out all day meandering through the fields looking for bear. Field work awaited us. However, those few hours spent on the tour gave us a once in a lifetime experience that we could carry with us in our memories forever. Many of us had never seen a bear in the wild before this excursion and some of us may never again be graced with the pleasure of viewing these extraordinary creatures in their true homes at such close distances. Experiences like this; experiences that are so foreign from everyday life, have a special sort of capability to enhance mindsets and relationships. I believe that each of us gained something during that tour, something unique to oneself but also something that could be shared with one another. This trip took place early on in the semester, before friendships and tight bonds had been established within the group. These breathtaking few hours allowed us to obtain a special attachment to each other through a shared experience. We have since become a tight knit group, one might even call us a family of sorts and I think the wildlife tour aided the bonding that has occurred. Sometimes, going out into the wild can bring you closer to home.