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?