Saturday, August 14, 2010

Close encounter with bears

Today I decided to try a more difficult hike – a 5-mile roundtrip up a mountain to a pond. Upon starting out, I had the usual reservations about whether or not it was safe for me to venture into the woods alone. I was the only car in the parking lot initially and I was glad the park had a hiker registration system.

The trailhead is located several miles down a dirt road, so one is already pretty well into the mountains upon beginning. Within a little while, you really feel one with the wilderness. The trail is narrow and heads steadily uphill. The forest is dense, green and extends as far as one can see. The plant and animal life is rich. I felt I was a visitor to another habitat.

A couple from Quebec passed me. But besides them, I didn’t see anyone. I felt more comfortable knowing that there were two normal-looking people ahead of me. I began to listen to a book on tape and continued to make my way uphill.

At one point, I noticed a curious pile of poop on the side of the trail – of a quantity that had to be a large animal. I took a picture to see if I could later identify it, but thought it might be from a moose or a bear. It awed me to think that both me and this animal were traveling the same path within a short time interval.

Not too long afterwards, the Quebecois came back down the hill. I asked if they reached the pond.

“No, we decided to turn back,” the woman said. Both of them grasped walking sticks and they moved at a steady pace. They appeared to be serious hikers. “We saw a fresh bear print and something didn’t smell right.”

Once they left, I knew there would be no one ahead of me. As far as I knew, no one was behind me either and I was miles from the car. I had no idea what to do if I encountered a bear.

The man said to stop moving, not make eye contact with the bear, and try to slowly back away. OK, I could try that, though I’d surely be terrified. But what if I was returning from the pond when meeting the bear and backing away only brought me back up the mountain? How would I ever get down?

“It was just a baby print, but it was fresh,” the woman said. “Whenever there is a baby, the mother is nearby.” I told them about the poop I’d seen and they said that was from a moose, that bear poop had a more solid texture.

I decided to continue on, the reward of another pristine body of water enticing me upward. However, I became much more cautious. Just that morning, the conference newsletter mentioned the possibility of running into a baby cub or moose and cautioned people not to approach, as the mothers were always close. I stopped listening to the audiobook and I kept my eyes open. Several overturned tree stumps appeared to be bears. I saw the baby bear paw print and then a few more. I started to imagine how I’d face a bear alone, what a horrible death being mauled would be, and how no one would find me for a long time. As I headed up along the narrow path into a darkened path of forest, I swear I also heard a rumble, like a low growl.

I thought about a friend’s mantra, how he always tries to avoid a “stupid death.” Would it be considered stupid to be mauled to death by a bear after I continued on when people who clearly knew more about bears than I did had turned back? I think so. I didn’t want to leave my son motherless out of stupidity. At that point I turned around. It wasn’t worth the risk.

On the way down, I passed a trio of woman chatting loudly as they ascended. I warned them to keep an eye out for bears, but the older woman – middle-aged and evidently experienced – didn’t worry.

“I have a pistol in my pocket,” she said. At first I thought she was joking. “When I shoot that, it normally scares them away.” She was serious. I wished I was hiking with her. Then I wouldn’t have to worry about either psychos in the woods or bears.

I asked if there were a lot of bears in the area. “Yes,” she said. “They are out now because it’s raspberry season.” She mentioned how she’d seen several bear trackers this morning. “That’s probably why they are up so high,” she said. “They are on the move, trying to get away from the trackers’ dogs.”

She suggested making a lot of noise to keep the bears away and if alone, like I was, to talk to yourself.

Upon descending, I looked up the local bear situation. I read there are 3000-4000 bears in the state of Vermont and that they are encountered in this area. But they are black bears, which are apparently less dangerous than grizzlies. The last time someone was killed by a black bear in Vermont was in 1940. So I guess I wouldn’t be frightened off the trails, but if I’m going to go deep and remote, I’d at least like to be with a companion. I didn’t make it to my destination, but I avoided a stupid death for one more day.

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