He was now just inches away from me. Sharp, feral fangs. Thick wires of hair covering every inch of his heavy frame. And not to forget the firm, assertive handshake. These were my first observations of Dan Marin, the man who was going to lead me deep into Romania’s wilderness in search of a bear.
I met Dan in his hometown of Zărnești, a former farming village bordering the historic region of Transylvania. Here cubes of Soviet architecture overwhelm, while the couple of saloon bars create a racket on the otherwise deserted main road. Everything about Zărnești would have compelled me to board the next tin can train back to Brașov were it not for the muscular Southern Carpathian mountains that guard the horizon just ten miles beyond.
I was both intrigued and wary of these bear-infested mountains, and my fear was only exacerbated by the measly pepper spray can, apparently our only form of protection, stuffed in the side pocket of Dan’s rucksack.
“Here, eat this.” We had been walking for a few minutes when Dan stopped to tug a fistful of wilted leaves from the ground. I hesitated before shoving them into my mouth; a Wonka-esque burst of acidic berries smacked my senses. “This is sorrel. You will pay £5 for a bunch of this in England, but here it grows everywhere.” He popped a few into his own mouth, unflinching, and continued up the path. Since leaving his job at the local munitions factory in 1992, Dan has acquired an encyclopaedic understanding of these mountains, though perhaps even more impressive is that he has both taught himself fluent English and acquired a distinguished Home Counties accent.
The early stages of our route followed the trails of Europe’s last nomadic shepherds. Every summer a swarm of cattle stamps these paths flat, but today the traffic was made up of yellow-bellied toads who panicked from puddle to puddle. Dan delighted in scooping one up, showing me its elaborate colouring that would be far better suited in a Madagascan swamp. We soon discovered why they were in such a hurry.
“How long ago was it here?” I whispered as we bent over a series of bear paw prints. Recently, he told me, a few hours perhaps, and almost instantaneously my perception of the forest changed. Gaps between tree trunks became bears on their hind legs. Birds were no longer flying, they were escaping. Twig cracks and ground thumps closed in on us. The bear tracking had begun.
Our next clue was something that only Dan would have spotted.
“Do you see this yellow stuff here?” he was on his tiptoes pointing to waxy build-up on the side of a tree trunk. “This is sap. And do you see what is stuck to it?”
My eyes snapped into focus and a thin layer of hairs sprang from the tree. Sap is like catnip for bears, and once I started looking out for it almost every trunk had a membrane of hairs, as if the trees were passing through the final stages of evolution before becoming creatures of the forest themselves.
In the afternoon we went off-piste, for the first time escaping the confines of the forest and emerging in a bumpy hay meadow – an ideal vantage point to scan the surrounds. Here we sat, huddled completely still while Dan revealed his closest encounters with bears, grinning boyishly as he recalled the time he hid here for hours as a greedy male devoured a number of trees, only to creep up and taste the sap for himself after it had left.
When the sun cowered behind the snow-capped peaks and flies began to nip we left the meadow to begin our descent. This is when Dan came to an abrupt halt. Movement in the trees. But this time it was much closer. More disruptive. Heavier than before. Just metres away a blur of brown crashed through a clearing and disappeared quickly. A bear cub. I was desperate to catch another glimpse but Dan insisted we move on, as mothers get defensive when straying cubs get too close to humans. Enlivened crickets taunted us as we paced away to safety.
I was intoxicated with adrenalin after our encounter, and as we retreated back to Zărnești I realised I was no longer afraid of the bears that roam these mountains. For the man who plodded in front of me, quietly whistling to the birds, is not a visitor but rather a resident of the Carpathians. I now understood that his bottle of pepper spray was purely a gesture – he has never needed to use it and most likely never will. Dan respects the natural order of these forests as a matter of instinct, and perhaps it is his carnivorous teeth and hairy physique fooling them into thinking he’s a long lost cousin, but the bears certainly seem to have accepted him as a fellow beast of the wild.