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Again and again we went to watch this great bear, and somehow she became one of the most fascinating grizzlies we knew. Perhaps it was her size and the fact that she was a blind mother with the responsibility of a tiny cub not much bigger than one of her massive paws. Maybe it was because she was so devoted to her offspring, around which her world revolved. To be sure, she shed more light on the admirable character of the grizzly.
Several times we saw her suckle the cub. The gentle loving motions she displayed during this procedure, the hallmark of mother love among most all warm-blooded creatures, was enough to make a man swear never to kill another grizzly. At intervals of about one and a half hours, Sultana would leave off whatever she was doing and half-rear and spin on her heels to go over backward on the ground. She would hardly be flattened out before the cub would land ecstatically on the vast expanse of hairy bosom and grab a teat while she caressed it with gentle muzzle and paws. The cub would move from one dug to another until all were sucked dry; then they would play awhile, with the young one galloping and bucking up and down her belly, smelling noses, and playfully swatting with paws. Sometimes she would cut this off by abruptly standing up and spilling the cub to the ground. Sometimes they would drop into a short sleep. Once I found them dead to the world, the mother lying on her back with all four paws outstretched and the cub lying on his belly sound asleep on the middle of hers.
One of the desired sequences on our preferred-shot list was of a grizzly mother suckling her cubs. We recorded this scene at long range and now hoped to get a closeup. The chance came one afternoon while we were watching Sultana in some fairly heavy brush at the foot of a mountain slope. Suddenly she moved off, heading up behind a knoll. Instantly Charlie was on the move, swinging his camera up onto his shoulder.
“She’s going to feed the cub up in that hollow behind that point,” Charlie said. “I’m going to make a try for it.”
“She might hear the camera,” I cautioned, for he was going to be very close.
“There’s enough wind to blank it out,” he assured me as he headed out.
There are moments in a musician’ s life when the notes leap from his instrument as pure and perfect as music can be. The artist knows times when his brush seems to guide his hand into painting better than he knows. There are also moments in a nature photographer’s life when he is at one with his subject and the whole country. The light of the sun is his magic, the film is his canvas, and the camera is his instrument – golden inspiration stirs his heart. Then he can do no wrong and is truly the artist. To watch him in action in such an enchanted moment is something to remember. This was such a time for Charlie.
He went alone. Somehow, through willows as thick as fur, he worked his way soundlessly up the back of the knoll. It was a grand piece of stalking, and when he reached the top, I saw him spread the tripod legs and plant the camera in one smooth motion.
No sooner was the camera trained than Sultana appeared on the edge of a little marshy clearing fifty feet below. Almost immediately she sagged back and spun on her heels, going over on her back, whereupon the cub proceeded with a singlehanded riot. If bears can smile, Sultana grinned from ear to ear with pure joy – a sort of bearish beam of pleasure and indulgence. The cub pulled and tugged, leaped from one dug to another, and left wet spots in her fur to mark the trail of his passing.
Just as he finished, the wind died and the whirring of the camera caught her ears. Instantly she leaped to her feet, the picture of vibrant explosive menace. For a long, long moment it seemed as though even the mountains held their breaths. Then she was gone.
Sultana was blind, but it is doubtful that she missed her eyes very much, for her ears and nose were as sharp as razors and told her most everything she wanted to know.
Inevitably the time came when we had to tear ourselves away from these idyllic mountains. It was our last night on the Toklat, and we were sleeping under the spruces in order to get an early start in the morning. Something woke me from a deep sleep, and when I looked at my watch I saw the hands pointing to midnight. The whole country was enveloped in that great northern stillness so profound.
Through a gap in the trees over the mountains to the north the Great Bear, or Big Dipper, swung with its pointers zeroed on the Pole Star. I lay there snug in my robe, caught in the spell of the quiet, contemplating this group of stars and its related constellation, the Little Bear, and wondering at these ancient ties between bears and men.
From the Hardcover edition.