It may come as surprise to you, loyal readers, but J. Wilderman has been involved in a number of scuffles in his lifetime. Now, I don’t seek out fights, but sometimes they’re unavoidable. Sometimes you have to stick up for the little guy and give a bully the ol' one-two. Sometimes you find yourself stuck in the middle of two warring villages in Croatia. Other times, a Black Friday deal on denim is just too enticing to let go. But between the border quarrels and denim disputes, there was one fight I’ll never forget.
I was sojourning in a small cabin in Montana, taking a brief reprieve from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It can be tough being a rich, globe-trotting adventurer. Every morning, I watched the birth of a new sun. Every night, I drifted to sleep to a symphony of the wild. I cut my own wood, caught my own fish and collected my own water. I reached a connection with nature in a way that can only come through disconnection.
Most days, I fished. My grandfather taught my father how to fly fish and my father's butler taught me. As a young child, it was instilled in me that fly fishing was an art form. And, Mr. Luther told me the same as my father told him, art does not come easy. Every summer, I lived in the river, growing as a fisherman and as a person.
This morning, mist embraced me like a forgotten friend and the gentle current rubbed against my ankles like an overly affectionate cat. It’s easy to get lost in the quiet calm of the river and spend more hours in the water than intended. The fish weren’t biting but the overwhelming sense of tranquility made up it. However, I did need to eat, so when I felt that first tug I let myself get caught up in the excitement of an upcoming battle. Boy, did we battle - its will to live versus my will to stop its will. I don’t know what it was about this particular fish, but I didn’t want to let it go. It dragged me down the river and I somehow held onto to my line as I clumsily stumbled after it with heavy feet. As it lead me around a bend, I slipped and fell to my knees. I felt the line snap and I could hear my father laughing in my head. When I got back to my feet, the laughing stopped and so did my heart.
Not 20 yards ahead of me, a mighty brown bear was holding my catch in its paws. Normally, I don’t like my things being stolen from me, but this time I decided to let it slide because I was tired. I quickly realized I was standing frozen in the wide open, so I ducked behind a nearby downed tree, deciding to wait for the bear to eat his meal and hope it wandered back into the forest. I was watching with cautious fascination as the big, furry thief sat on its rear and held the fish between his paws, like a child learning to feed itself.
Then, there was a quick flash and the bear was hit in the head by something. The fish fell to the rocks as the bear crashed back on four legs, shaking its head and searching for the culprit. At this point, my hiding place felt greatly inadequate. If the bear couldn’t smell me, it could easily see me. The bear’s gaze did stop on me, or, at least, my general direction. I was trying to remember if I was supposed to run or play dead when the bear’s attacker came back for round two. Another quick flash and hit, but this time I saw it: a beautiful bald eagle. I followed its path and watched it disappear over the trees. The bear let out a mighty roar as it stumbled around in a circle like an angry drunk. The eagle returned and began feigning assaults – drop diving at the bear and pulling up at the last minute, just out of reach of the bear’s paw swipes.
I wasn’t sure what the eagle’s plan was. Circle. Swoop. Circle. Swoop. Circle. With each swoop, the bear would lunge and miss. It took too long for me to notice that the bear was gradually getting closer and closer to the river’s edge, closer to my position. The eagle was giving me the perfect distraction to leave, but I couldn’t tear myself away from the spectacle. Then, the eagle took once final dive, but this time, not at the bear. In one smooth motion, the eagle landed on the rocky shore, gathered up the fish and flew away. The bear made a last ditch pursuit, but unless he could sprout wings and fly, that fish was gone. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor beast, even though he stole the fish from me in the first place. Now, I really had to leave. I went back up the stream to my original fishing spot to collect my gear and headed back to my cabin empty handed.
I’ll never forget that day. I’ll never forget the feeling – being frozen in fear and fascination. Me afraid of the bear. The bear afraid of the eagle. But what are eagles afraid of? Man, maybe. Though, I can’t imagine that eagle being afraid of me.
Years ago, I found a sculpture that appeared to be a snapshot of my adventure. Purchased from American Expedition, the sculpture depicts a bear — perhaps a touch more dignified than what I witnessed — and an eagle — just as strong and majestic as reality — fighting over a fish.
I’ve been back to that cabin, back to that river’s bank. I haven’t seen the bear or the eagle since that day. I know I should be grateful, but a small part of me knows that I may never see such a perfect visualization of Mother Nature’s sense of humor. Though the statue sitting on my mantle comes close.
About J. Wilderman
J. Wilderman is an adventurer, big game hunter, deep sea fisherman, mountaineer, rock climber, sky diver, cave spelunker and a real wilderness man. He’s run with mustangs in Montana, scaled Denali in less than a week, fought grizzly bears with just his wit and a stick and won the Iditarod without any sled dogs. Having explored every continent and sailed each sea, J. Wilderman is now taking time to put his adventurous tales to paper.
Photo Credit: "A River Runs Through It" image property of Columbia Pictures