Denali 6. Hey bear!

Day 5:

Fitful sleep. Wind and rain and bear thoughts. Wake up to a layer of fog in the mountains just above me. No sign of bear. BRFC is undisturbed.

The standard practice I was told, was to put your Bear Resistant Food Container on end, mouth down (rain) and put a spare fuel can on top. That way, if it is even casually messed with by a bear, you will know. I kept my beloved granite-ware cup on top as well. The lid of the BRFC is designed to be easy for humans, hard for bears and is basically held fast by two little hooks that are flush with the surface of the container and turned with a screwdriver, key or coin. As it turns out, a quarter was the easiest tool to turn them with so I just kept one in my pocket with my knife. It was one step easier than opening my knife. I would get really nervous though when I was hiking etc, that I was going to loose my quarter. It took me until about day 5 here to realize that I could just leave the quarter under the fuel canister. This didn’t occur to me before because, I had to admit to myself, part of me was thinking that if I left the coin a bear would use it to open the container! It is a continual wonder that I have the wits to get food into my face!

Cold wet. Something wrong with the ignition on the Jetboil. I walk the perimeter of my little mountain.

I am much more aware now of where a bear might be. Watching that guy last night was a real education. Seeing how he could disappear into the little knots of scruff that are everywhere.

My attitude swung from “no bears around here” to “there could be a bear anywhere.” This was actually a bit more rational. There is no better way to learn how well a bear can hide out here than watching one popping in and out of view among the bushes and scruff. And he would very quietly stay completely hidden for minutes, in ways that would make my walking up on him very easy. I was very calmly recalibrating all of my instincts.

The thing about this landscape is that it is very difficult to judge what is going on, from a distance. Much of the ground itself is spongy moss covered tundra.

And what looks like alpine meadow from even a short distance can be furrowed with trenches and little creeks and sloughs. That first day getting through to camp 1 was almost all on rough ground like this.

There are no trails and the scruff and brush can get thick and impassible while offering excellent cover for animals. The area around Mt. Galen varies between this kind of land and actual alpine meadow.

After breakfast I make a little scouting trip out into the area where he was when I watched him. Partially it is verifying that he is gone. Partially to further my education about his behavior.

Looking back up at my camp from where the bear was.

My regular call of “Hey bear!” gets old fast and as I now know I need something more constant.

The bear-call that I picked up from the Rangers in Holcolm bay was a “Hey Bear!” that is very close to “AY-Bear!” It’s a good sound. It gets it out there. That opening “AY!” when projected sharply can really carry. What it reminded me of is the Louisiana pronunciation of the surname Huber. So the call would always make me think of my friend David Huber, with whom I share certain bear-like qualities. I have carried a bear-bell on my pack for years. I have one with a little magnet that allows you to muffle it except when you need it. But in the bear-awareness briefing in Denali the rangers made the point that your voice is better because it communicates more about you. It makes it clearer what you are. You are human. Given my artistic interest in the primacy of the human voice, and its role in expression, this is a deeply profound and attractive idea. So I didn’t bring my bell. From now on, I’ll just use my voice.

I do what I’ve heard so many hikers here do. I sing. At one point I simply talk to the bear. It gets kind of emotional. I realize that a lot of my fear is based on guilt. Species guilt. Civilization guilt.

“It gets kind of emotional” is a bit of understatement. This is hard to express. It wasn’t any kind of dementia or hallucination but I literally started talking to the bear I had seen. I tried to explain why I didn’t want any trouble with it and it quickly led to tricky territory. Trying to explain what I was doing there. Why I felt I should be immune from the rules of “eat or be eaten” which was the obvious local custom. I ended up begging forgiveness for the mess we were making of things in our stubborn and long-term attempt to shield ourselves from the discomforts of nature. Something deep rose up and came cracking out of my chest and I cried like a baby.

It starts raining pretty hard so I go back and sort things out a bit in the tent. It gets really cold so when the weather breaks I grab a quick lunch (tuna taco) and head out with the day pack.

A tuna taco is vacuum packed tuna eaten by wrapping sporkfulls of it in pieces of whole wheat tortilla.

I’m ready for rain, but it stays clear. I head back across “bear Valley” and find the antler I had seen.

I work my way up the rise along the ridge overlooking the river. The closer to the ridge the easier the walking. Every time I try to head towards Mount Galen I hit scruff. And yes, I’m singing. I’m like an iPod on shuffle. Simon & Garfunkle, Beatles, old Irish Sea Songs. While looking for a good path down to the river I spot a sow with two cubs on the mountainside opposite me. They are further upstream and well up the mountainside. Nevertheless, after watching them for a bit I hurry down to the river. The wind is blowing upstream so I want to stay upwind of them if they cut down to the water. The theory being, mom will avoid me if she smells me. I keep looking back and up the mountainside as I make my way downstream but I see no sign of them. During my early-morning perimeter scam, I saw the red back-pack in the distance, disappearing up the river. I wonder where camp was, and if bear contact was made. the river is swollen and watery coffee color from the rain. When I get to where I hiked yesterday I can see how the terrain is totally changed. By the time I get to the little canyon that leads up to my tent, the sun is shining but I’m seeing dark clouds. I do my water filter thing and head up my mountain. I come up with a version of “Suffragette City” with “Hey bear” instead of “Hey man.”

The Alaska Range minus Denali is waiting for me. It is breathtakingly beautiful.

The mountains are constantly changing. The light is always doing amazing things.

The peaks of mountains that were bare yesterday were frosted with snow this morning, but much of it is now gone. The sun is out and I am in Alpine paradise. I’m still concerned about the mom and her cubs so I go to the river Ridge and spend a good while glassing the area I saw them, and both up and down stream. No sign. This is not reassuring. I would rather know where they are or wetn, but I am getting used to my ignorance and the base level of fear it stokes in me.

It has turned into an amazingly beautiful evening. The only thing missing is Denali which has been very shy for days now. Perhaps I was to forward camping here in such a great place to see all of it… I spend some time drying boots and socks. No bugs!

Time moves so slowly here.

This is truly one of the most profound revelations I had on this trip. I had always known that civilization was speeding up time. But to feel the difference in one’s bones… I know this is part of why Lynn didn’t want me to bring a book. To really feel the wide open space that is a day. How simultaneously liberating and terrifying it is. Minutes take days to pass and hours became lifetimes. Part of this is the flat rotation of the sun around the sky. It is not the midnight sun which I experienced as a teenager in northern Norway, but the days are long and the night never really gets dark. But the more important factor which I am acutely aware of, is the absence of the tick-tock, tick-tock of human interaction. And as I’ve said, I developed a weird interest with time: Making little lines in the sand by the river to count the days. Lining up pebbles into little calendars. I never took my watch off. And almost always knew what time it was. It wasn’t like a tick or a clinical-type obsession, but when there was nothing else to occupy attention, time was right there waiting to take up some brain-cycles.

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