Monday, May 5, 2014

Bear Encounter!

In my travels I have seen many, many bears. Black bears in the Sierras and the Olympics. Grizzlies in the Tetons. Coastal brown bears in Alaska. I've seen them swimming in the ocean, sliding down snow patches, walking past my camp, and eating sedges in estuaries like a herd of cows. The number of bears I've seen over the years is easily one hundred or more.

On Friday, I hiked happily up the Imnaha River trail, not thinking about bears My pack was light, and I needed an escape. Because nobody else seems to scout, I had no idea how far I could make it. One mile, two? Nobody had been farther than Blue Hole, a sweet summer swimming spot that today, was neither a hole or blue, spring snowmelt turning the water into a churning brown chaos. The only footprints in the snow patches were mine, with the exception of a fresh mountain lion track.

I observed it carefully and when I looked up I saw the bear. A very large cinnamon color, it gazed right back. That moment of mutual recognition is always the same. A dozen thoughts windmill through my head. Pepper spray, talk loudly, wave trekking poles, wow a bear, cool, wow a bear, yikes! I waited for the bear to run away like they usually do. This one didn't. It took a few steps toward me.

This is not supposed to happen, I thought. I waved my poles with renewed vigor, thinking how utterly alone I was. There had been one car back at the campground, miles away. How long before my body would be discovered? I had left a flight plan at home, but my husband would just think I was enjoying the woods too much to come home right away the next day. It's strange though: when confronted with my worst fear, a calm sets in, the same calm when a bear charged us at a remote lake in Alaska.

What was going to happen? I was deeply aware that this was not a good situation. The bear finally slowly ambled off the trail and I hiked on by. When I looked up, there it was on the rocks above me, paralleling my course. Competing emotions ran through my mind. I really wanted to go farther. But the bear! It didn't act like normal bears, and now, in spring, is when they are really, really hungry. Unsure of what to do, I kept hiking.

When I reached my destination, I sat and looked around. It was beautiful: snowy peaks in the distance, a wide grassy bench, the silver and brown river. I really wanted to stay. At the same time I knew if I did, sleep would never come. I would think about that bear and wonder if it was going to follow me into camp.

I looked at the time. 5:30. If I hiked fast I could be back out to the car by 8. With a sense of defeat, I munched on cold pizza and hoisted my pack on my back. Braver people than I would have stayed, and I felt somewhat silly giving in to my fear. But hiking back past the bear gauntlet, I felt a presence. I knew the bear was still around there somewhere.

All was not lost. I arrived back at my car to find a sports drink in snow and a note from some friends telling me where they were camping. That night I slept next to people and dogs and a river, and I felt safe.

I know that I pass by bears and lions and who knows what else all the time, and I don't see them. It's irrational that because I saw a bear that didn't act like 99% of the other bears that things would have gone wrong. But solo, it's easy to talk yourself into things, like hiking out of the woods.
Looking upriver. My husband asked if I got a picture of the bear. Um. No.

(This was night #11 in the backcountry. I am going to count it! Darn it, I hiked 12 miles with my backpack. It's got to count).

In backcountry fears, bears rank #1 for me. Other friends fear lightning and wolves, and one friend, who makes herself go in, fears fish. Do you have a backcountry fear? How do you get past it?


  1. Knowing the statistics, I should be more scared of lightning than I am. My real fear is hypothermia. I always pack extra clothing. I packraft alone and in the shoulder seasons portage around anything remotely gnarly looking. I feel chicken but if I'm going to practice wet exits, gear recovery, and fast warmups I want it to be intentionally. Being solo makes me very cautious of compromising my ability to keep myself warm.

    My second biggest fear is probably ticks. The disease vector aspect combined with the creepy crawly factor makes me freak out a little. I hate ticks!

    1. ugh ticks! They bother me, but not as much as poison ivy. Or bears.

  2. I think you did the right thing. Better to camp among friends. Glad the outcome was ok.

  3. In the wilderness, I'm definitely one of those people that listen to their fear instincts. That's what they're there for! I think I'm equally afraid of both heights and bears, grizzlies especially. I probably should be more afraid of ticks, but growing up with them around and learning some safety tips, it doesn't seem like as big a deal even though Lyme is very serious business.

    Cool you found your friends the second night!

  4. Shane and I see Bear every summer when packing in the Wallowas. We have never had any trouble with Bears and we very much enjoy seeing them, that said we remember to respect them and try to always hike and camp smart. We always keep our dogs close and Never let them chase any kind of wildlife. I do have a little concern now that there are wolves back in the Wallowas, not so much for me because it would be a dream come true to see a wolf in the wild, but the concern is for my dogs. Just another reason for them to stay close to us, I'am so glad that we taught them that from the time that they were pups.

  5. In my neck of the woods, an accidental rattlesnake encounter is my fear. I try to keep my eye peeled for that twig in the trail that suddenly becomes a snake and ears aware to the warnings at my sides and most of all REMEMBERING to stop and look before reaching over, behind and under boulders and logs. I fear my day will come when my luck runs out and one gets me and then what? I know not to panic, I know basic first aid, I know, I know, I know . . . but most likely I'll be alone and far from a trailhead . . . one of the many reasons I've considered getting a SPOT type device.

    Ditto to listening to your instincts. Bears, mountain lions, thunder and lightening storms, those are next on my list . . . well behind human weirdos, those actually are probably at the top.

    1. Oh yes, snakes, I probably should be more afraid. I stepped on a rattlesnake once!

  6. Always been afraid of bears. We have three kinds here. I grew up camping near where they relocate the grizzlies to when being nuisance bears in my area. I huckleberry pick in the same patches we've seen them eating berries in. We don't carry bear spray, we just always stay talking or singing. After hearing your stories we may invest in spray this year. The fear of the unknown is the worst.

  7. Greatest fear? Not being able to make it back to the backcountry.

  8. I'm with you on the fear of bears. On my first hike in Glacier when I worked there in '12, *two* grizzlies (a mom and a yearling?) were seen ambling down toward myself and the guys I was with. We stopped and watched them as they opted to break into a run in our direction, and it was like time stopped. When they got to us they abruptly changed course and kept going, but I was only a leap and a half from them. I could feel their footfall in the earth and the big one took a glance up at me as she went on by. Ears back, mouth open. . . aaagh! The horror! My palms are sweaty even as I type this up.

    Here's what bugs me most about my bear-fears: They say animals can sense fear, and I for the life of me don't know how to turn that switch off. I'm sure I just reeked of it. Any advice?


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