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The Province of Bear

The Belly River

unspools sinuous and lithe

through the glacier valleys

of northern Montana;

so named, I learned, for its likeness

to the splayed innards of a bear,

that being whose presence

still presides over all things

in that country

Evan, Lee, and I

walked three days along that river,

stroking trailside bear grass,

crossing and recrossing

the water with its cobbles below,

gorging on saskatoons

and thimbleberries by the pint,

with curious pine martens and

chickadees for company

We bathed beneath

waterfalls gushing snowmelt

and slept soundly beside clear, cold lakes,

beneath the cosmos

turning on its great wheel,

our legs soundly beaten

by the terrain, our bodies

ripe with the ancient satisfaction

of having earned rest

And though we spoke of wolf,

and wished aloud to catch even

the fleetest glimpse of wolverine,

rarely did our thoughts stray

from bear, whose great aggregate

scats spattered the trails

and whose tracks showed

in the dark mud and the fine sand

of the riverbanks

On the third day we passed a ranger

and exchanged the usual words

What wildlife have you seen? A sow and two cubs, he remarked,

at the river crossing this morning

Just ahead, around the bend

Black or grizzly, Lee asked,

the same question on my lips

Grizzly, he said

For the following mile,

I was someone else

We made the crossing one at a time

steadying ourselves with a cable in hand,

and with a kind of alertness

that only bear can make from you,

and though we never saw her

or her cubs, I cannot say

we didn’t feel them

It has been months now

but my thoughts return frequently

to the province of bear,

crossing that river in reverence

of the being that made my ancestors,

lamenting that in the place where I live,

settlers killed 10,000 grizzlies,

forgetting they were also slaughtering

something powerful in themselves

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