It was in April 2017, when I stepped into the wilderness of the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) for the first time, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Himachal Pradesh. At first glance, one could gather from the receding snow and blooming flowers that the mountains were warming up for spring after a harsh and snowy winter. Listening to the orchestra of the free-flowing Tirthan river, we made our way towards the entrance of the park. Just before the entry gate, there’s a mini-waterfall called “GB’s Hippo”. A sedentary rock inside the pool of the waterfall looks like a hippo resting in the water, hence the name. The sounds from the waterfall echoed throughout the valley, but as we ventured deeper into the forest, the howling wind within the broadleaved forest took over. Carrying my rucksack, my head filled with thoughts of the various animal and plant species we would come across over the next few days, I dawdled along in the company of my colleague and field assistant until we reached a diversion point.

GB’s Hippo waterfall in Great Himalayan National Park GHNP
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"A sedentary rock inside the pool of the waterfall looks like a hippo is resting in the water, hence the name." GB’s Hippo, GHNP.

A crooked signboard read, “Khorlipoyi, Entry Prohibited”. The purpose of our visit was to deploy camera traps to monitor the mammals in the national park. Thanks to the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the National Mission on Himalayan Studies (NMHS), we were allowed permission from the GHNP forest department to conduct our research. We crossed an old wooden bridge to reach what appeared to be a natural corridor where animals could easily cross the river and set foot on the other side of the valley. We decided to place the first camera trap of our four-day trek on this patch. As we prepared to continue our trek, Pritam-ji, who was the field assistant on the expedition and one of the most experienced rangers in GHNP, warned us of a long ascent that awaits us ahead. I adjusted my rucksack, looked up, took a deep breath and started again. On our way, we came across numerous fallen trees and branches, indicative of the heavy snowfall the valley had received last winter.

Trekking in Great Himalayan National Park GHNP
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One of the many wooden bridges that you cross while trekking in GHNP. Photograph: Nikhil Singh Kahera

As we climbed higher, the mixed forest cover made way for a thick oak forest. The burbling noise of the Tirthan faded in and out, and soon the ‘long ascent’ started to feel more like a ‘never-ending hike’. We decided to take a break to catch our breaths and replenish ourselves with a packed meal. That’s when I noticed patches of freshly dug-up earth all around us. Pritam-ji instantly said “Bhalu”. All this digging had been done by a bear searching for insects and mites. Pritam-ji also mentioned how this particular patch of forest was perfect for sighting the “Bhura Bhalu”, which is none other than the endangered Himalayan Brown Bear.

Usually, brown bears tend to hibernate in winter and with the onset of the spring season, they come out of their dens and feed voraciously to try and satiate their hibernation hunger. Adding to the adrenaline rush of knowing that there could be a bear nearby, my head was immediately clouded with details of the Yeti folklore and how the Himalayan Brown Bear is proven to be linked to the Sasquatch that is known to wander the Himalayan hinterlands. With a shake of the head, I cleared away my apprehensions and we started to move towards our destination, the Khorlipoyi forest hut, which was still around 2 hrs away from where we were. Pritam-ji was sure about the time but not the distance we still needed to cover.

Mixed forests in Tirthan Valley GHNP
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"The burbling noise of the Tirthan faded in and out, and soon the ‘long ascent’ started to feel more like a ‘never-ending hike’." The mixed forests of the Tirthan valley.

I still remember it like it was yesterday, we hadn’t even taken ten steps when the entire group went motionless. Right in front of us, less than 20m away was an adult Himalayan Brown Bear, a huge animal with golden brown fur, busy digging with its long claws. Bears have a keen sense of smell and it took the animal barely a second to sense our presence. The hefty bear stood up abruptly, its nostrils flaring, as it looked right at us. To stare straight down the eyes of a wild bear that was stood not too far away was surely an extraordinary experience. Thankfully, the bear was alone; had it been with its cubs, she probably would have charged at us. Instead, this individual saw us and sprinted off gracefully in the opposite direction. Its shiny golden fur gliding like a sea wave as it hastened away from us. 

All of us stood spellbound. Pritam-ji broke the silence, “Take out the camera, click a picture. Hurry up!” I stared back at him to retort flatly, “I am busy thanking all the gods in the world right now.” We all laughed at that moment but I quickly realised I should have at least clicked one blurry image, as a memory or as evidence of our eye-to-eye encounter with a Himalayan Brown Bear. It’s not always you come across a gigantic bear in the wild, it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Once gone, it’s gone!

Camera trap photograph of a Himalayan Brown Bear cub
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Camera trap photograph of a Himalayan Brown Bear cub in the Tirthan valley of GHNP Photograph courtesy WII-NMSHE

By then the fearful state of my mind had been completely replaced by a feeling of excitement and elation as realisation washed over me that I had just had my first ever sighting of a Himalayan Brown Bear, that too on my very first trek in GHNP. After setting up a camera trap on a tree nearby, we continued ahead. The narrow forested patch soon opened up into a lavish green meadow of blossoming flowers, and a small hut came into view. We hustled towards our camping site, crossing a brook where a troop of Himalayan Langurs were drinking water. Once at the hut, Pritam-ji took over as he lit a fire and made us steaming cups of refreshing tea.

It was almost sundown, and the mountain tops took on a certain afterglow as bright amber hues coloured the huge expanse of sky above. With such calmness and elegance all around, I couldn’t help but look back on my eventful first day at GHNP and feel a sense of gratitude. Of how it gifted me with the imperishable memory of a Himalayan Brown Bear standing up on two limbs and peering into the depths of my soul.