Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bears Begging in Paradise

I'm so tired right now I probably shouldn't be blogging. Today is my fourth day off in a row and I am exhausted. I can tell I am getting old because these days I think about the great relaxing holidays I'll be able to take in the future when my kids are older. . .

My kids get so excited about having a day off of school that they pop awake about 2 hours earlier than usual on Saturdays, Sundays and national holidays. Sigh. Daddy is allowed to sleep in, because basically you could re-enact the American Civil War on top of him and it wouldn't wake him up.

The girls have long ago given up on 2 things: 1. trying to wake up Daddy, 2. any pretense of being quiet in order not to "disturb" Daddy. This means that I, the world's lightest sleeper (did a down feather in the comforter shift? the ear splitting clamour of it all!) get the joy of being awoken early most mornings. My one chance at sleeping in usually comes with flu season when they are so exhausted from vomiting all night long that they sleep past the dawn.

So this weekend saw me stubbornly trying to indulge my adult appetites every evening(watching non kid suitable T.V. shows, reading, drinking red wine, trying to stay up for some time alone with Masa) and then having my puffy, sleep deprived face rubbed in it the following morning when I was forcibly evicted from my futon by my robust, extremely vocal and energetic offspring.

Yesterday we took them on a road trip to view the fall foliage. Before setting off Masa had called the local tourist center there and inquired into "kid-friendly" activities in the area. They recommended a "Bear Park." Okay. So we drove up and took in the amazing scenery--glorious fall foliage--brilliant oranges, reds, golds, greens splashed across mountain valleys. We kept the kids under control by reminding them of the end destination (at the end of the afternoon): Bear Park.

Now, up in what can not be called anything other than "Nature", I expected this Bear Park to be a kind of reserve. I mean, look to the left--a cascading waterfall, look up to the right--snow pack just above a brilliant splash of crimson. Look down at your feet--a daddy long legs making a dash for it, over across the top of your Nike and off to the mushroom the size of your hand by the side of the path. Crystal clear blue rivers flowing down into an emerald green lake. How could anyone keep a bear up here and not put it in a "natural" environment?

We got to the Bear Park and saw a small concrete entrance gate/booth. Two old Japanese women were inside. They looked like they were fighting off frostbite, wrapped in several layers of different ponchos/blankets. (Up on the mountain it was about 10 degrees Celsius). Nothing looked. . . very. . . .good. The one window on their booth was cracked and broken. All the exposed metal was rusted. Uh oh. I instantly pictured forking over our money only to pass by the concrete box and find one poor bear locked up on one small cage.

That would have been a good thing it turns out.

What we found on the other side of their cement outpost still disturbs me. It will always disturb me.

In three small outdoor concrete pits were bears. Maybe 60? 70? There was also another small series of cages in which were crowded more bears. In these concrete enclosures the bears had: each other, concrete and some pools of water that looked like they were filled at the mercy of the skies overhead rather than any hose or pump. No trees or logs to climb/play with. NOTHING green anywhere. Basically: nothing. No feeding troughs, no toys, nothing to climb. . .

As soon as the bears saw us they started to stand up on their rear legs and clap or pray. They had obviously learned what humans think is "cute" in order to get food. The two elderly ladies at the entrance had sold us two bags of apples just for this purpose and my family began to desperately huck apple after apple into the bears enclosures. I think even the girls felt a bit like they were in the middle of a starving crowd dispensing Red Cross supplies.

My usually stoic husband looked panic stricken. He hurried back up the hill to buy more apples. In fact, during our short time at the Bear Park, he went back up the hill about 4 times to buy more apples. In fact, we bought ALL the bags of apples.

When we left the bears were still clapping, praying and holding onto their toes (another cute pose that they had learned).

On our way out Masa asked the ladies at the gate a few questions. They seemed very, very defensive. He wanted to know where the bears slept? What did they eat? (other than the over priced apples tourists bought to throw to them) What happened to them when the winter snows came? Where were they from originally? What kind of bears were they?

Their caregivers didn't give many answers: they are bears. We got the first two from Hokkaido. They sleep in their cages. Rain? Snow? They are bears.

When we left Masa noted that the two elderly ladies were locking the gate and leaving with us. "I guess no one stays with the bears." he said. Then, "I guess no one is going to take care of them tonight, you know feed them, check their water. . . "

I reckon not.

Maybe their caregivers were thrilled when we bought the last bags of apples to disperse among the bears--their feeding duties for the day were over.

Just outside the Bear Park there was a beautiful outdoor vista area. In the middle of it was a natural hot springs foot bath. Before going into the park we had made plans to stop and take in the sun setting on all the foliage with our feet in the hot steaming mineral water. . . but after saying goodbye to all those bears, all those bears packed together, begging together from their concrete cages. . . we decided we didn't need a foot bath.

With the Bear Park about two kilometers behind us, I reached for a package of crackers and started to unenthusiastically (my mind was still trapped on hard concrete back with the bears) offer them to the girls. Reno looked at it and then looked carefully at my face, "Mommy. After seeing the bears, it makes you kinda not hungry, huh?"