There was a rustle in the woods to the left of the trail. The guide’s hand went up, an alert to us to stop walking. Less than 50 yards away, she stood on her hind legs, smelling the air and checking us out. A mother brown bear who, as she rose up out of the dense Carpathian underbrush, her head and shoulders emerging out of a sea of green, she was probably seven feet tall. The guide had told us not to talk as we made our way into the woods – “bears can hear everything, even your whispers” he said – but we had still managed to surprise her during her evening forage for her two five-month old cubs. Here, in the woods of Transylvania, we were on her turf. So, what is it again that you’re supposed to do when you encounter a bear in the woods?
Am I supposed to stop, drop, and roll into a ball immediately or wait until she pursues me? Or wave my arms in the air like I just don’t care and try to appear a fearless giant of the trail? Yell and shout obscenities (does a bear even understand obscenities?). What was it that Leonardo DiCaprio did in that film The Revenant? I definitely shouldn’t do that. Maybe I should just turn and run as fast as I can back to the car and wonder why I ever decided to enter the Transylvanian woods, the most densely-populated stretch of bear forest in the world? All of this seems like the kind of research best done in advance of a bear encounter.
We were in Brasov, Romania, a small, medieval Saxon town in southern Transylvania, and after days of searching for Dracula and visiting Transylvanian towns, we were looking to get into the woods. Brasov is surrounded by miles of dense, old-growth Transylvanian forest, much of it protected and all of it filled with bears, wolves, and lynxes – animals long since gone or living in micropopulations in the rest of Europe. The abundant population of bears in Romania might be the only positive legacy of megalomaniac dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (1967-1989) who decreed that he was the only one in the country permitted to hunt Romanian brown bears for nearly two decades. And hunt he did – sometimes killing between 20-30 bears per day with the aid of an army of bear pushers and others needed to ensure a productive kill – but the limitations on hunting by others and the lush natural habitat of the Carpathian mountains facilitated continued growth in the bear population. Today, estimates for brown bear populations in Romania hover between 6-8,000, more than half the total number in Western Europe. Today in Romania, some of the same bear hides Ceausescu used for his hunts are available for tourists to observe brown bears at a relatively safe distance.
“I would like to see bears,” I said to Vlady, the young man sitting behind the reception desk at our hotel in central Brasov. “Can you help me?”
He paused, considering my options.
“There is a sanctuary for bears that have been depressed in zoos, rescued from the circus, or abused in private homes.” (clearly people who thought a bear cub was sooo cute… until it grew. Razor sharp claws, people.) It is like “a bear museum,” he said. “Or, if you want adventure, you can go to a bear hide. This is not really legal, but this, this is an adventure. I know a guy who used to take people to a place in the woods. 98% success at seeing a bear. I can call him for you.”
We would like the adventure of questionable legal nature, please.
And so he called his friend. “He is in a place too loud for me to hear him. He will be here to see you in 20 minutes.”
We went outside to wait. A gypsy beggar woman approached us, and when denied money, gave us the evil eye and began to murmur things we could not understand as she backed away and into the night. So we’ve been cursed. Great.
20 minutes later, Alin arrived. Alin was a former forest management official who now takes people on wildlife hikes. He said that he has extensive experience with bears and has, on several occasions, had to chase bears from the town of Brasov. One time, a bear came into town and approached a woman with a stroller. “Of course she screamed,” he said, “and that just complicated things.” But despite the screaming mother, Alin had been able to get the bear out of town – he didn’t mention how. I imagined myself as that screaming Romanian mother. “So what happens,” I asked, “if we run into a bear on the trail?”
“Don’t worry,” he responded. “I have all the tricks. I have the pepper spray. There is no bear that can attack me.”
He then showed us photos of bears on his Facebook page, and apparently convinced by the story of the screaming Romanian mother and Alin’s claim that he had “all the tricks,” we agreed on a price. He would pick us up the next evening.
His car had a stale, earthy odor, like that of an unwashed dog or expired vegetables. “Sorry, I picked mushrooms yesterday and left them in the car during the day. That is the smell.” We drove out of town and into the mountains. He pulled onto a dirt road and another car pulled up next to us. “This is my friend. Please, get into his car.” It was as we climbed into his friend’s car that it dawned on me that perhaps we had not done sufficient (read: any) research on this adventure or our guide. A man and his friend, unconnected to any professional organization or company, were about to lead us into the bear- and wolf-filled forests of Transylvania. Somewhere, our mothers screamed. So this is how it’s gonna end. Jess hurriedly scribbled down Alin’s license plate number and dropped a pin on her cell phone. We had paid for the opportunity to star in our own CSI episode.
We drove along a dirt road until we came to a gate. Alin jumped out and unlocked it. “Normal Romanians do not go in here because it is swarming with bears.” He chuckled. The gate swung open, and Alin gestured to us to follow him.
We started in on foot while Alin’s friend drove ahead to drop food for the bears. Like dumping chum into the water before going for a swim. My heart thumping, survival instinct in full mode, I scanned the dense forest in front of me. The guide stopped us. He pointed at the ground. “Bear track. 2 years old. He came through here last night, probably with his mother.”
A few steps further, and Alin again stopped us, this time pointing to a patch of forest undergrowth where plants had been broken and smashed. “Wolves. They laid here recently. Their scent, can you smell it?” With that, Alin leaned over the trail and with both arms, wafted the air toward his face, the way one does when taking in a simmering pot of your grandma’s sauce or soup. “Yes, wolf urine. Fresh – less than 30 minutes ago.” He then took two steps, bent down and drank water out of a stream. Personally, I would have gone a bit further from the site of fresh wolf urine, but I’m not the outdoor tracking expert. Plus, I was too scared to be thirsty, and now, I was pretty certain that Alin would be able to smell it if I wet my pants.
The Carpathian Mountains, it turns out, are also filled with wolves. Romania, in fact, is believed to have the largest wolf population in all of Europe. Bears, wolves, and an abundance of feral dogs, too, Alin said. Many dogs were abandoned over the past decades, and in search of food and survival, they have headed into the forest. Within six months, those dogs begin to regain their hunting instincts, preying on squirrels, deer, or livestock.
To distract myself from my impending Transylvanian mauling, I imagined Porter, my 22 pound mini golden doodle, escaped into the wild, finding new friends on the Romanian road. His bark, once welcoming and responsive, was now more crisp and authoritative. His designer fur long and matted, hiding his eyes adding to his feral intensity. Barking orders to his new friends from the lonely road of abandoned caninity, this pack, hovering evolutionarily somewhere between wolf and pampered pooch, was off to hunt squirrel, chipmunk, or rabbit and to make crass jokes about dogs who sit around and play poker.
I snapped to attention when Alin’s hand went up, signaling the appearance of the bear.
The moment of truth had arrived. Alin worked to keep us calm (though earlier he had shared with us statistics on the rising number of maulings by bear in Romania, including one earlier that week of a tourist (silly tourist!) who had been walking along a trail with his headphones on. We didn’t move, or speak, or, for that matter, breathe. The mother bear checked us out, sniffed the air, and then, lowered herself to all fours and went about the business of foraging for food. Alin had us move quickly and quietly to the bear hide, now just about 100 meters away.
The bear hide itself was essentially an elevated platform with a roof and some windows. The position of the hide provided clear view of the forest opening below, where Alin’s friend and driver had dumped boxes of stale bread and corn to attract bears. Regular feedings, over time, draw the bears to this area on a regular basis. That’s how it worked for Ceausescu’s hunting expeditions. Now, the roles were a bit reversed, as the prey dumped food on the ground and hid in a hideout up above to watch with terrified awe as twelve different bears, each weighing more than 300 pounds rolled through for food. The mother and her cubs came, too, and the cubs spent their time playing games with the stale baguettes left in the circle.
As the crowd of bears grew and the sun began to set, Alin said we should go. “There are too many bears here, they will be swarming this area soon, and we will be trapped.” At that moment, being trapped in a bear hide sounded a lot better than heading back onto the trail to which we just drew every bear in the area for an evening snack. But, Alin maintained “I have all the tricks. No bear can attack me.” And with that, we bolted from the bear hide and began the long hike back to the car, watching every thing that moved and a lot of things that didn’t.