Denali 5. …shit.

Day 4:

Slept very well. Woke up cozy in my sleeping bag and slept in. Made move to camp 3 in 2 trips. I just don’t want to carry the heavy pack too much. Left tent for second trip. Finished move around noon as weather makes clear signs of rain. I hurry to deploy tent. It is windy, nevertheless I do the best job of it yet. Practice. I put on rain gear and pack water kit for a trip down to the river. Glassing the valley across from me I see what appears to be moose antlers. I decide to investigate at a later date. Rain on and off as I go to river and explore upstream a bit. Many moose tracks. What is proper moose avoidance behavior? it begins to rain harder as I collect water and head back. After dropping off water I go on a scouting mission to explore what might be an alternate route to the road. It isn’t, but I clarify the best route. I am planning to do this early on the morning on the 11th. I don’t look forward to the heavy pack, so I want to eliminate route mistakes.

In retrospect and even at the time, it is amazing to me how much I obsessed about what day it was, how many days I had been there, and when I was going to leave. This little trip to the road was all about trying to quell constant worries about whether I knew the way well enough. Also, I had been quite distressed by how hard I found it to hike with my full pack, and the return to the road on the morning of the 11th was the next time that I would have to face that.

I go all the way to the road. It rains hard most of the way back but the sky is clearing. Also: earlier after pitching the tent I was able to get a signal on the Weather-band radio. Isolated showers and thunderstorms. Clearing up by Monday. So I am not profoundly worried about the weather.

I had tried the radio at both of my other camps and got nothing. I assumed it was a bust and I had wasted money on the thing, but I think the higher elevation of camp 3 gave me a signal. I had to hold it in a very specific way which was not a lot of fun, but the robot voice of the automated weather radio system at least gave me a point of reference in terms of my own observations of the weather. The new camp was in fact a little exposed and I was worried about storms.

My rain gear is working well. Tent egress is tricky.

I rest in the tent when I get back and wait for a break in the rain to go out and cook dinner. Louisiana beans and rice with Earl Grey tea. Very good. I see a lone hiker with the red pack working up the river. I pack up the Jetboil, and check the hikers progress… skipping my valley. I go back to food storage to get a vitamin tablet after brushing my teeth. As I return I see something across the valley.

Grizzly bear.

It is slowly working its way back and forth across the valley opposite me. But he is definitely coming towards me.

The camera is not doing justice to this situation. Even at maximum zoom, it’s just that fuzzy dot. But in the flesh he was huge and coming closer and soberingly real.

I’m not sure what to do. We’re supposed to avoid them and not let our presence alter their behavior, but what if it’s coming towards your camp? It appears to see me at one point when it gets to the bottom of the valley. I wave my arms and yell “Hey Bear!” It rears on its hind legs to get a better look, and then follows the valley floor around to the south, avoiding me.

I follow it with the binoculars as it heads, ironically, in the direction of the site of camp 2.

After watching it for long enough to see that it is not decidedly leaving the area, I put up Lynn’s bear fence for the first time.

A huge part of what was so distressing about this encounter was that for some stupid reason, I had thought that the fact that I had seen no bears in my immediate vicinity and only scant bear-sign, meant that there were “no bears around here.” This is why I hadn’t ever put the fence up. It was now painfully clear that this assumption was based on ignorance. I fell for the oldest trap in the book, even though, intellectually, I quite familiar with the maxim that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” How stupid could I be?

And then when this guy shows up, all my knowledge about what to do in bear encounters is a tea-spoon of comfort in an ocean of doubt. I’m still not sure if what I did was the right thing. I was downwind and up-hill of him. But I was banking on the thought that he would avoid me if he knew what and where I was, early enough to save face. I knew that as threatening as it was, when he reared up he was probably just trying to get a better view of me. I was pretty sure that we were far enough apart that I wasn’t in violation of the distance principle, but I kept a mantra going in my head about most charges being bluffs.

I knew I didn’t know enough. I also knew that no amount of knowledge would be enough. This is reality. It can be pretty scary. Even a pretty mundane encounter like this one, can be pretty scary.

I’m pretty sure he saw me and will avoid me, but I’m not absolutely sure. Just when things were tiny bit in control… Or seemed that way.

Finishing up this post in Madrid Spain, almost eight weeks after the day in question has put this day in a different context for me. For one thing, Madrid has, as a heraldic symbol, a bear eating from a madroño tree, so everywhere I look here, I see bears. And then a couple days ago I got an email from Lynn Schooler, with a link to a news story. It is no longer true that there have been no bear-fatalities in Denali park…

A 49 year old man from San Diego was found dead along the Tolkat river on Friday August 24th. There appears to have been a violent encounter with a bear. A bear which was sighted from a helicopter in the immediate vicinity of the remains was shot and killed as well. It has been established that this was the bear that killed him. The man’s camera was found, and the last 26 pictures on the camera were of the bear that killed him. The bear’s behavior in the pictures appears to be placid grazing, however there only appears to be about 40 yards between the camera and the bear. This is by Denali regulations, way too close. However, as David Tomeo wrote me in an email after the incident:

“…pictures likely don’t tell the whole story. Why was he so close to this bear and not backing off, perhaps other bears were just encountered behind him, in the direction of retreat. The bear in the images appears to be feeding, but it is known that bears will often ‘ease up’ on their prey by casually moving closer and closer. If this hiker backed away as soon as he saw the bear, would things have been different. We may never know the full story.”

As I said, the incident throws my own little encounter into a totally new light for me. If I were back at my camp today and I saw that bear again, I would probably try to move away without letting it see me and try to find a vantage where I could watch my camp and the bear from a “safe” distance. The fact of the matter is that I will never ultimately know if what I did was the best choice. I didn’t have a “negative incident” so, on one hand, I was categorically correct, but I will probably always wonder about it.

Aside from my sympathy for the lost man’s family, I worry about the repercussions of last week’s tragedy. For the park. For the bears. For the community of people who work in the park. And for my own sense of proportion about it the next time I’m in grizzly country. David says:

“I’d like to emphasis that in some ways this is very much like a rare lightning strike or a weather-related car accident. It does happen, but not very often. Thousands of people walk through grizzly bear country everyday, some may take it for granted, but sometimes, just sometimes lightning strikes.”

I know that it is MUCH more rational in my life to be afraid of cars and busses. I am much more likely to get hurt or killed by these dangerous things that surround me every day. But I am a product of millennia of evolutionary programing, and that programing has a very old and powerful piece of code that asserts itself in the presence of a predator. Rationality has little to do with it at that point. And that piece of code just picked up another little bit of power last week. It hunkers down, deep in my amygdala and mutters: “…see… I was RIGHT!”

From the very first time that I went hiking in Alaska the presence of grizzlies, and my knowledge that in that environment I was NOT on the top of the food chain, was the active ingredient in the acidic solvent that I could feel, burning my hubris away. However, I do not think that the humbling nature of the cosmic perspective gained, is worth being actually mauled and eaten for. David is right, and wise, to point out how rare these incidents are. But if the lightning is striking you, there is really nothing you can do about it.

I don’t know of anyone in my acquaintance who has earned the right to a full-spectrum response to this kind of thing more than than Lynn. And I think he summed it up exceptionally well when he said in his email that his first thought when he heard about the incident last week was: ‘shit…shit, shit, shit.’

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2 Responses to “Denali 5. …shit.”

  1. Fiona says:

    Sounds like a real journey of the soul.

  2. Very glad that you are safe. Despite your story and perspective, though, I am still more terrified of busses. For me, a bus trumps a bear. Maybe it’s because one almost crushed me into a railing on purpose. Long story, but that particular driver no longer drives my commute route. I am safe for now… until the next rogue bus, that is. The bears I met in the Boundary Waters were the reasonable, predictable type.

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