Fisher had called it: First hell, then paradise. A steep waterfall halted our progress, and we scrambled around it by bulling through some cactus and brush. A half mile later, we found an even higher waterfall, its water dropping gently into a crystalline pool. Everything in the cul-de-sac shimmered: the water, the leaves, our senses. We spent an hour skipping stones and breathing deeply in this private place.
We didn't attempt to get around these falls; again, the climb was too dangerous for a party of our mixed abilities.
On our way back down the canyon, we chanced upon a freshly dug den. The scat nearby told us that the habitant was a fairly young bear. "Probably his day-bed," said Fisher.
We had gone no more than a half mile farther when Fisher and I, casually leading the pack in tandem, pulled up short.
"Something big, on the right," he said.
I saw the cream-colored haunches protruding from behind a cactus about 25 yards away. I thought it was an elk or a big deer. Then the animal tensed and hopped once. It was a bear. Black bears range in color from blond to midnight black, and we had chanced upon a golden, 200-pound two-year-old.
The next 40 minutes were spent in a slow, long-distance waltz with the bear. He had spotted us, of course, and he climbed another 10 feet up the hill. He turned and chuffed once but didn't seem perturbed. I wondered if he'd ever seen a human being. We sidled along the streambed, careful not to spook him. At the closest, we were only 20 yards apart. He moved down the hillside and drank from the stream. I found a vantage point on a boulder and was enchanted as, quite quickly, humans and bear adapted to one another's presence.
He was a pretty animal, with Pooh's face and a smooth, healthy coat. He browsed on acorns, and every now and then issued a throaty but non-threatening bark, just to let us know that he was aware of us. The bear eventually tired of us and wandered up into the canyon.
The thrill of the close encounter was still with us a half hour later when we stopped for lunch on an overlook above the stream. "These canyons are good places for seeing wildlife because they are so little visited," said Fisher as we snacked on smoked oysters, apples, cheese and crackers. "Cows have never grazed in these places and the Apaches' horses rarely roam in here, so nothing disturbs the bears and other animals."
A little farther on, the canyon narrowed. We had to clamber over boulders, which really took a toll on my knees. But we were in the homestretch.