This story is by Angela Byrnes and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The anticipated call finally lit up Janine’s phone. She patiently listened, “one…two…three…” rings, sweat formed in her armpits and the palms of her hands. She serenely answered on the 4th ring, “Hello?”, to hear on the other end a National Geographic representative, inviting her and her team to photograph and document the black bear coming out of hibernation in Utah’s high Uintah Mountains. Staying in a yurt for six days, just above 7,500 feet; with the heavy snowfall over the winter, the path was expected to be covered in snow and ice. With temperatures between 50 degrees F in the day and dropping below 20 degrees F at night. Not her first time spending weeks in freezing conditions. After listening to the assignment details, Janine responded with an excited “Yes!” to the opportunity knowing her team, Gabrielle and Edmund, were on board for this assignment.
As she packed her SUV for the week’s adventure, assuring she had all 6 camera batteries and chargers, 20 SD cards, a tripod, a laptop and charger, and 3 of her favorite wildlife and landscape lenses. Food, drinks, and a small bag of clothes were swallowed by her camera gear in the trunk space. Gabrielle and Edmund met Janine at the yurt a couple hours before sunset.
As the evening air turned colder and the tree’s shadows began to grow, they unloaded their vehicles and claimed their sleeping quarters. Edmund stroked a match to a pile of freshly split wood in the fireplace, the fire warmed their bodies as the night air continued to dip below freezing. Gabrielle uncorked a bottle of Champagne celebrating this milestone in their careers. Edmund continued to stoke the fire throughout the evening as they discussed their itinerary over the days ahead. The bubbly ran dry and on cue Edmund brought out a bottle of whiskey. The hours flew by with planning and excitement.
All three sitting near the fire as it dies down, sipping whiskey and swapping stories of the most absurd creatures they have come upon during their wildlife photography careers. Gabrielle came upon a drove of hogs while following a band of coyotes; startling each other, thankfully the hogs ran away from her, “I kept looking back, expecting they were right behind me. Hours I was looking behind me.”
Edmund was chased by a prickle of porcupine, a mother and her young offspring. And that is why he wears multiple thick layers on his legs while on assignment; “Those damn quills hurt more than my 17 tattoos.”
Janine, she came face to face with a black bear who’s ego was too big for his feet. This bear, he was not aggressive, but assertive, he was not moving. She blew her whistle, he growled at her. She moved toward him with her long and thick stick, he moved into it, “Almost as if he was grinning at this dance” Janine said. Relieved when a group of hikers came up behind her and scared the bear away. “And here I am, on assignment to capture black bear as their hungry and grumpy selves wake from their long nap!” The room filled with laughter then quieted as the said goodnight.
The morning came early as the night’s celebrations left Janine’s head a bit fogging; onward they went. Six in the morning and ready for work. Janine hiked east, Gabrielle south, and Edmund west. Their backpacks filled with snacks, water, extra layers of clothing, and of course camera gear. Around their necks hung their camera bodies with their favorite lenses attached. Radios charged and clipped to their backpack straps. They agreed to meet back at the yurt in 4 hours to discuss their findings and eat a warm lunch.
Every noise in the forests alarmed yet intrigued Janine, she was on hyper alert for any ruffle a bear may make. An hour into her hike, she only encountered squirrels chattering high in the trees, a porcupine wobbling away as fast as the spiked being could, a herd of deer startled by her sound, their feet rumbling away in the distance, and a gaze of raccoons minding their business while crossing her path. When, out of the corner of her eye, she sees a bear, a tall bear, a huge bear. A bear walking steady on his two hind legs. “What the fuck! That’s not how a bear walks, nor are they this tall. What…what am I seeing?” The ungainly being runs in front of Janine, not noticing her at first, but then struck with surprise when locking eyes. Wide-mouth and scared, Janine caught her breathe, her arms raised up at the elbows, and said, “Holy fucking shit! You’re, you’re a fuckin mystical creature!”
Fumbling for her camera, she swung it off with gusto just as the large beast raised his arm up and began to run away, hooking the camera strap on his arm. With such force, Janine’s grip on her camera was gone, she watched in horror as her prized possession swinging hard side to side with each movement of the beast’s strides. Her camera continually bangs against the beast’s body and the forest trees as his grandeur movement was long and wide. Coming to her senses slightly, she began to run, chasing her camera. The adrenaline rushed through her giving her the speed she needed to be strides behind this aloof beast.
Moments into the fast paced chase, a stitch appeared in her right side, short of breath, she pressed her hand into the pain, her pace dramatically slowed giving great distance from her and the beast. Coming to a complete stop as the stitch was too much, she winced in pain. She lost sight of the beast. Panicked, she moved around the area with haste, ignoring her side stitch; confused and flabbergasted, “How can that be? What did I just see? Am I hallucinating? Was that…? No, not a bear, I’ve seen bear, THIS IS NOT A BEAR” She cried out loud. “He was right here, I can see his huge footprints on the damp earth floor, but they trail off leaving nothing to follow.” Moving to the right a few feet, around to the left, circling and circling, pondering the physics of this large, aloof beast just…just disappearing.
She stops circling as something big catches her eye, the scattered sunlight filtered through the trees shimmering on her camera, hanging from, “Hanging from nothing?!” Her camera dangled from 7 feet above the earth’s floor. No tree, no large rock, or earth close enough to hold it. “Seriously!” She exclaimed, “What the hell is going on here? Where did this beast run to? Why is my camera dangling from… nothing? And if this is not a bear, what the fuck is it?”
She ran toward her camera, jumping and jumping, giving all she had to reach it. Standing at 5 foot 2, jumping to 7 feet took more than just adrenaline, excitement and fear played a grand part. Her left hand finally had a hold of the long lens, pulling viscously she was able to bring the camera to her standing height, but the camera was not freed. Janine screamed, she cried, she yelled, and begged for whatever energy had a hold on her camera to release it. Her tight grip on the camera began to slip as energy opened as if an entrance, a portal. Little by little, the scene unravels to another world. Janine’s eyes did not register what she saw, as if someone painted a great picture in the forest of a bright, quiet, and serene world. Her camera still attached to the beast’s arm, her fingers gently released her camera and slowly it swung into the beast’s body, cushioning the movement. The beast standing still, ogling Janine and yet, he is there on the other side of this perfect painting. The painting opened more and more as the beast tried again to remove the object secured around his arm. Janine looked beyond this beast to see not one, but hundreds of them staring back at her. Scared and breathless, all she wanted was her camera back and to document what she was seeing. In desperation, she calmly maneuvered her camera off the creature’s arm. In fear, she swung the camera toward all of the eyes staring at her and snapped the shutter uncontrollably, praying she got some quality shots of what she saw. She reached for her radio, pressed the talk button and told her team, “Guys, Sasquatch. Hundreds of Sasquatch!”
There was a great tug on the end of her camera, the largest of them now stood arms reach away and pulled on her long lens. Janine’s grip on her camera was strong, the beast pulled and pulled, moving her closer and closer to all of them. Closer to the entrance of the perfect painting. She struggled to maintain her stance, but the force was too great.
One step more and the perfect painting sucked her in too.