Go (away) bears! How my bear encounters made me a true Golden Bear

Photo of a golden bear
Natalia Brusco/Staff

Related Posts

Most people go a lifetime without encountering a bear. Throughout my life, I’ve been lucky enough to have had three encounters that transformed me into the UC Berkeley Golden Bear I now know I was always meant to be.

Baby Bear

My first encounter was back in 2008 when I was about 9 years old. I was in South Lake Tahoe, and my family had docked our boat in Emerald Bay so we could spend the day at the beach. We all had to use the restroom when we got there, yet we decided to set up our picnic on the beach first. My dad was supposed to stay with our belongings so we could eat together when we got back, but he decided that he needed to grab something back up on the boat, so he left the beach for less than 30 seconds; however, he turned around to see a brown baby bear sitting in his spot!

As we were walking back from the restroom at the other end of the beach, oblivious to what was going on, we saw a bunch of people passing by with cameras, saying “Oh, my goodness, that poor family,” “I can’t believe that was a baby; it was huge,” and then, “Hey, Mom! That family at the end of the beach … a bear is literally eating their picnic.” The last passing comment is what set us off. I remember we all froze knowing that we had parked our boat at the very end of the beach. As we approached the end, we saw my dad staring in astonishment at the bear casually eating our chips, trying out different pieces of turkey and attempting to finish an entire loaf of bread, all while about 20 people stood watching him. A park ranger eventually came and banged two sticks together to scare the bear off.

My parents knew he was only there for the food, but my 9-year-old self had no idea. In that moment of panic, I created an entire game plan. Plan A: If he charged at me, I would swim into the lake. Then my mom told me bears can swim. So, moving on to Plan B: run as fast as I can down the beach. My mom informed me that bears can definitely outrun me. Finally, Plan C: climb up a tree. Perfect, problem solved! Well, turns out they can climb up trees too, my mom told me. So, with no escape, I finished hugging all my family members goodbye to cherish my last moments on Earth before being eaten alive, until my mom said, “He just wants the food Natalia, don’t worry” with her motherly laughter echoing.

Mama Bear

When I was about 16 or 17, I went up to South Lake Tahoe with a bunch of my girlfriends to celebrate being halfway done with high school. We were getting ready to leave, but I decided I would pack the car while everyone was finishing up their breakfast. I mindlessly opened the back of my car and threw in a couple of suitcases, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw something huge and furry moving. I looked to my left and sure enough, it was a Mama bear. We both paused and stared at each other for a solid 25 seconds that most definitely felt like an eternity. Similar to my first encounter, thoughts of how to survive ran through my head. My first thought was to jump into the trunk and lock myself in it, but then I realized she could easily crush the trunk with one swing if she wanted to, and plus, I could suffocate. My second thought was to run the into the house, which was 10 feet away, and lock the door, but bears practically go right through doors. I decided to go for it anyways. I slammed the trunk down and ran for my life. (Despite all the movies and guidelines to never run from a bear, it was an instinct. Yes, looking back, it was the stupidest and most dangerous thing I could have done, but I was 16 and panicked). However, right when I started running toward the house, the bear began to sprint in the opposite direction, reminding me that usually, bears are much more afraid of you than you are of them.

Papa Bear

On a hike last summer, my dad and I passed a big group of hikers who warned us that farther up on the trail, they had seen a bear. However, we go hiking all the time in Lake Tahoe and whenever someone sees a bear, the bear disappears within two minutes, trudging off to find food or a place to rest. So, we decided to continue hiking. Of course, five minutes later, I rounded a corner to see a big bear walking right toward me. When he noticed me, he stood on his hind legs, which is never a good sign. He was a big one, hence his name: Papa Bear. What I did next surprised me, but again, it was an instinct. Without even thinking, I very quickly and calmly turned around and said to my dad, “Dad, we need to turn around. A bear is right behind me. Please turn around and continue walking back down the trail.” At first, he didn’t believe me, until ten seconds later, he saw the bear for himself. The bear then proceeded to follow us all the way down the trail. So, for a half mile, we quickly and calmly walked as the bear followed closely behind. When we got to the split in the trailhead, we found about ten people standing around and deciding which way their group should go. I started walking faster to warn them about the bear. Of course, when they saw the bear, one of the groups of hikers started screaming and running in the opposite direction. But the others remained calm like myself and my dad. We approached a more open area, where we all decided to stand to the side while the bear passed right by, proceeding to the lake. We later learned that this was a well-known bear that is spotted almost every day in the area because at around two in the afternoon, he goes down to the lake to catch fish and hydrate.

The day before this encounter, I had been telling my dad I didn’t feel like I fit in at UC Berkeley, but he convinced me that I’ll find my place and that everything happens for a reason. I now realize that the baby bear who stole my picnic, the mama bear who I had a staring contest with and the papa bear who followed me on my hike all left behind the essence of the Golden Bear I was meant to be. Throughout each experience, I grew calmer, my strategies definitely improved and I became more aware of how to address and handle the situation. This has also been my experience as a Golden Bear here at UC Berkeley. In my freshman year, I responded to situations by only thinking of the worst-case scenario. I have since grown and adapted to the environment, fighting stress with calmness and thinking through strategies of how I can be a better student in every way as part of my daily thought process. I am now the Golden Bear I was always meant to be.

Maybe you also don’t feel like you entirely fit in at UC Berkeley and that this isn’t the place for you. Even if it doesn’t involve encounters with real bears, I encourage you to think about your experiences in life and how they’ve brought you to where you are now. Trust me, you’ll find that you are here for a reason. And one last safety tip: Remember, for the most part, bears are more afraid of you than you are of them. On top of that, most of them want nothing to do with you as long as you keep your distance. Stay safe out there, Golden Bears!

Contact Natalia Brusco at [email protected].