Posts Tagged ‘Bears’

Denali 7. WOW!

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Day 6.

July 9th, 2012


It starts with another crystal clear view of Denali during a 2am pee, but even when I get up later it is still clear.

Panorama I stitched together with Photoshop

For part of the morning, Denali is wearing a small beret of cloud but no matter. The range is as clear as could be as the moon makes a slow daylight journey over it.

Hard to see the moon in pictures, but it’s there above Denali.

I spend the bulk of the morning just watching the light move across.

I am in a heightened and constant state of utter awe for the entire morning. I take a lot of photos. I rig my Gorilla Tripod to my treking poles as a makeshift tripod.

I realize that this day is why I came here! This is my gift from Denali! I savor it.

I was so concerned that I get a good picture that I spend 15 mins cranking the handle on the weather-band radio which has a USB power output, to get just enough charge on my iPhone to get the above picture. I crank and crank and crank, get the one shot and it dies… This is perhaps the one day, I wished I had a better camera. I don’t mind not lugging a huge lens around to get close-ups of bears, but I do wish I could have given the mountains and sky more justice.

The day is clear and warm, and after lunch I look at the broad green slopes that lead up the north side of Mt. Galen and I decide to take a walk. I decide NOT to commit to climbing Mt. Galen. Just a walk in that direction that might end up on the summit.

Photoshop panorama of Mt. Galen

I’m prepared either way. I get to a point further North than I’ve yet been and am looking up the slopes when, BAM! There’s a bear. Smack dab in the middle of where I need to go to approach the mountain. I have time, and he is plenty far away, so I sit and watch him to see what his intentions are. It quickly becomes clear that napping is the order of the day for him. I keep an on him as he shifts positions in his snoozing. The term “lolly-gaging” comes to mind. For fierce beasts these things can get pretty silly.

This is again the age-old paradox: The beautiful landscape can kill you. The terrifying predator is cute. etc. It is disturbing to think how accurate Disneyland’s Country Bear Jamboree actually is.

The fact of the matter is that in the environment I was in, a bear would first appear in the landscape as a fuzzy caterpillar. That’s what I would look for, perhaps because I grew up with caterpillars and can see them more easily. It reminds of a time when I was a teenager, shortly after moving to North America from Japan; I was riding my motorcycle at night, and suddenly there was a deer right in front of me, and I had to swerve rather violently to miss it. The thing is that it took several seconds, after I was safe and the adrenaline was dripping off of my brain, to realize that it was a deer. The alarm thought in my head was “That’s the biggest dog I’ve ever seen in my life!” Now that I knew to look for fuzzy brown caterpillars on the hillsides, I was seeing the bears.

At one point, I think he’s gone, but then his head pops up as he is apparently doing the back-stroke in the bushes. It becomes clear: Mt. Galen, by the Northern route, is off for humans today.

This is the thing about this place: You don’t try to alter the environment to your wishes. You adapt to it. You evolve. You change. And it’s not about being powerless or weak. It’s about being attentive and in tune. I’m not saying that I am. But I am beginning to hear that I am off key…

I took some time, while I waited, to use another piece of equipment that I bought at REI in Anchorage. My Sanitary Trowel. I haven’t been bringing that up, but yes, I have been using my trowel from time to time.

A scoping of the river valley to my left reveals that it is open, so I cut down to the river and continue exploring upstream. After quite a bit of picking my way up the river I hear a trotting sound and a caribou comes jogging almost right up to me. I see him before he sees me and when he does see me he stops and does a kind of “Oh Shit!” and then buries his head in a bush, almost casually, as if to play nonchalant.

My first sensation is relief that it isn’t a moose, followed by “what do I do now?” The valley here is narrow enough that it’s hard to simply move around each other, and my prime directive in Denali is to not alter the behavior of wildlife, so I began to calmly back away, as I gingerly get my camera out.

He turns and trots back the way he came, and I turn and move downstream a bit more quickly.

After a bit though he turns around again and tries to pass me on my right.

He stopped and looked right at me basically posing for a picture, while we both seemed to be feeling an awkward sense of, hoping no one was looking, because this was NOT how we were supposed to interact. There was a weird sense of embarrassment. And wonder… Embarrassed wonder.

He gives up and backs off again before trotting past me on my left with an almost audible “Fuck it!”

I wonder if all the moose tracks that I’ve been seeing are in fact caribou, so I go over and check…

…and these are indeed quite different.

When I get back to camp, there is a ground squirrel near my tent who seems to have had it with me. He is “cheeping” and running around. I explain to him that I’m leaving soon and am sorry if I’ve caused distress. Every once in a while he pops out to check things out, or he just “cheeps” at me when I’m in my tent.

All in all, an AMAZING day…

Denali 6. Hey bear!

Saturday, September 1st, 2012

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.

Denali 5. …shit.

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

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.’