How long did I walk in the footsteps of the bear? It was a warm day, 20 years ago and 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the sky translucent blue behind low mountains. The tundra, just starting to turn autumn crimson and saffron, held all my attention. Eventually, I looked down at the trail. And there: the ovoid front paw prints, claws puncturing a constellation into the mud inches above each toe, trailed by back feet as long as two hand spans. Grizzly. Next to them, indentations from my boots. Both filling slowly with water.
The clock of the morning’s rain put the bear at five, maybe 10 minutes ahead, invisible where the trail turned among willow brambles. For half a moment, I wondered at the tracks—this grizzly must weigh 700 pounds, maybe 800. Then another calculation: How many feet between myself and the bear? Thirty? Twenty. A hot wire uncoiled below my ribs, a jolt of fear so pure it tasted like metal.
I had been in the Arctic for two days when that bear chose not to turn on the trail and end me with a swat of his paw. Because of his decision—it was a male, I am guessing, from the size—I was alive to spend the next two years living in his territory. I was never again stupid enough to go walking alone and unarmed in autumn. But the moment with the grizzly, unseen yet so present, was not the last spark of that particular and striking kind of fear, the fear of an animal or circumstance bursting through my impression of being an isolated, sovereign human self. I thought, too, that fear was purely negative, a sensation without value. The bush had other plans: Those grizzly prints were the first lesson on a syllabus that would reshape how I imagined the human relationship with the world at large.