(Victoria Roberts / For The Times)

Three hobbled horses tore up the embankment like wildly rearing rocking horses, then stood stock still, ears pricked and rigid. My family and our two guides were eating chicken legs by campfire. Having gone to fetch a sweater from the tent, I paused to wonder at the horses' sudden fright. I approached the big brown Morgan and stroked its neck. It remained taut, alert.

Jake, our 12-year-old son, called to me. "Hey, Mom. Bear."

The giant head of a grizzly bear loomed just beyond the campfire. It sniffed the air and peered at us, as if it couldn't quite believe its eyes either. I had never seen a bear in the wild. Now its visit seemed preordained.

When my husband, Michael, our sons Jake and Will, our guides, siblings Russ and Jamie, and I had returned from a day's ride in Wyoming's Teton wilderness, we discovered that our campsite had been wrecked and looted. Locked bear-proof boxes were tipped over, latched coolers were riddled with teeth marks. A can of condensed milk had been squeezed empty like a juice box. Having pried open a cooler, the bear had polished off everything but the wine.

"It doesn't look like organized crime," said Russ.

So the stories about prowling ursine vandals weren't exaggerations. And neither was the precaution of keeping a canister of bear pepper spray in each tent. Aim for the eyes, Russ and Jamie had told us. Neither they nor their dad, who had been leading wilderness pack trips for nearly 20 years, had ever spotted a bear near camp.

I know from experience, as a journalist who once lived in Africa, that chancing on animals in the wild is a privilege and a piece of luck. At the first whiff or sound of a human, they usually flee.

But sometimes wild animals don't follow that safety drill. When people get into trouble with animals, it's usually not because of beastly malevolence but because of over-civilized stupidity and because people forget that a wild animal is just that; it won't tolerate taunting or having its young stalked with a camera.

Once we had cleaned up the mess, we thought no more about the raid. While Jamie cooked dinner, we took turns reading cowboy doggerel around the campfire. The roasting chicken and potatoes smelled awfully good.

On that point, we and the bear agreed.

Consider it from the bear's point of view: Lunch had been delicious, and from the scent wafting in the night air, dinner promised to be spectacular. But something was wrong. At lunchtime, the grizzly had had the restaurant to itself. Now, other guests had claimed its reserved table.

The grizzly saw us, but it didn't take off. But neither was it particularly menacing. The humpbacked creature, with a heavy head and a slow gait that revealed raw power, hovered, lumbered closer, squinting and sniffing, unsure what to do next. If it had really wanted to attack us, we were easy pickings. We couldn't have outrun the creature. Grizzlies can run 35 mph.

And I can't.

Jamie and Russ kept their little cans of pepper spay poised.

Michael picked up his video camera. I retrieved my binoculars from the tent and urged them on our boys.

"Look at this. Look!" I said, dumb awe having reduced my speech to Dick and Jane. "You'll never in your life get an opportunity like this. Look!"

Will, who's 11, is not keen on those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that also risk being end-of-a-lifetime experiences. He was plainly terrified. He didn't want to look and tugged at the binoculars so I wouldn't look either, as if my curiosity might offend its subject.

The bear moved closer to the campfire, and we backed off slowly, staying a good 30 feet behind Jamie and Russ. We were all torn between fear and fascination, but my scale tipped more toward the latter.

Russ hurled a piece of firewood — not a great move in my opinion. Clap your hands. Bang pots and pans. But don't taunt. The firewood sailed past the bear. It didn't seem to notice.