Tuesday, August 8, 2017

In Other Words: “Bears Do Not Talk and Wear Funny Hats. They Will Kill You.”



I was section hiking along the Appalachian Trail with two friends many years ago. Trail conversations among hikers are usually about where you are going and where you have been and what to expect. Some hikers told us about the “Six O’Clock” bear at a particular site where we planned to camp. We were actually kind of excited to have a close encounter with a bear.

Yeah.

We arrived at the CCC built shelter with plenty of sunlight to spare. The shelter was primitive - three stone walls, timber roof, chicken wire stretched across bunk frames, and a chain link fence that ran side to side and top to bottom across the front. There were two locks.  A “C” dropped from the post across the gate and a pin passed through it. The second was a chain wrapped around the the gate frame and the post. Another pin ran through that. My enthusiasm began to, I don’t know, waver. I was beginning to have some concerns.

We cooked our meals away from the shelter, strung a line and hung our food in the trees, and rolled out our sleeping bags on the chicken wire bunks. We set up the tripod and camera to capture the arrival of the Six O’Clock bear. We sat back and waited. This was going to be a real National Geographic moment. Yessir. It was going to be one for the books.

But about an hour before sunset The Lone Hiker arrived. This is unusual because people really shouldn’t hike in the mountains alone. You never know what’s going to happen. I mean, we were almost bitten by copperhead snakes on the trail a few times. We even had a swimming session in a beautiful mountain pond end prematurely when copperheads dropped into the water and swam toward us. We looked like cartoon characters running across that pond.



I don’t remember the Lone Hiker’s name but I do remember that he was on a mission. He held a park booklet about bears. It was a cartoon illustrated explanation of bears, habitats, and what to do if you encounter one.  The opening read, “Bears do not talk and joke and wear funny hats. They will kill you.”

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You see, The Lone Hiker was on a mission to see a bear - to come face to face with an animal he feared. I mean, he planned this. Who does that, I thought. He heard about the Six O’Clock bear and he set out to face it.  “Well, you’re in luck!” we said.

The three of us stretched out on the lower bunks and The Lone Hiker took a high end bunk against the wall.  Six o’clock came and went. Seven o’clock came and went. Eight o’clock came and went. Darkness fell. We got tired of waiting so we fell asleep.

Sometime deep in the middle of my REM, the Lone Hiker woke us with an urgent whisper of “They’re here.” We woke and he said, “Listen.” And in the mountain silence, we heard it.


We heard the soft padding of bear paws. We heard snorting and grunting in the area where we cooked. Now as black as that night was, it was still possible to see even darker outlines in the starlight. And that’s what we saw - two black images, lumbering their way across the face of the shelter. Mama and her cub. Sniffing. Snorting. Hunting.

Tom, one of my hiking friends, said, “Watch this.” I had a sick feeling that this was going to end badly. He crawled out of his sleeping bag. He held a flashlight. He squatted near the fence. As the bear passed in front of him and sniffed,Tom clicked on the flashlight and screamed. And that made us all scream. Now let me pause here for a second. I just want to remind you that every idea seems good up to the very moment when something goes wrong.

The mama bear was caught off guard. She reared back on her two hind legs, stood tall, grabbed the fence with her paws and shook it. It was a bearquake of noise. All of us yelled, banged on pots and aimed flashlights like laser weapons because apparently that’s what humans do before being attacked by wild animals.

After a few minutes of yelling and roaring and grunting and not knowing who was making which sounds, they left.  Only after we urinated through the fence and put our hearts back into our chests, did we threaten to throw Tom to the bears. We calmed down. The Lone Hiker didn’t say much of anything but he was definitely fulfilling his goal.  It was scary to be that close to being mauled by bears and walking away without a scratch.

We almost fell asleep when we were awakened again by an urgent whisper of, “They’re here.” Our “plan” was to make a lot of noise and shine our weaponized flashlights and hope for the best. And that’s what we did. Mama Bear created another bearquake. She shook the fence again. In the darkness we heard some cloth ripping, more snorting and grunting, and then they left - again. After all of that noise the mountain silence was deafening. Once again, we urinated through the fence, calmed down, and tried to sleep.  But I slept with one eye open. The Lone Hiker snored.

I was the first one to rise that morning. I surveyed the area. No bears. But I did see Tom’s shredded t-shirt in the dirt. He washed it the night before and hung it to dry. Karma. They also ate the flavored dirt where we cooked. I moved to unlock the gate, but that night’s bearquake shook one pin loose.  Turns out that we were only minutes from becoming the lead story in the local newspapers. And that was disconcerting.

About that time the Lone Hiker awoke. I unlocked the gate as he began to review the events. Ultimately, he was glad that he came face to face with his fear, bears, and he felt good about himself. I didn’t tell him about the pins. I didn’t want to burst his balloon. As his confidence grew, mine deflated.

But, you know, that bear still comes around in a different way. Bears are scary. They are not cuddly. They do not want to play or eat out of your hand. They will kill you. But I am glad for the experience.

Fear is like that. It sneaks up you. It’s confrontational. It rattles your cage and it makes you question. It makes you doubt.  It could kill you. The Lone Hiker taught me a valuable lesson about facing fears. The Lone Hiker gave me his park pamphlet before he struck out on his own that morning. “I won’t need this. Here,” he said. I held on to that booklet for many, many years.

But here’s the point. Like the Lone Hiker, all of us have faced a number of “bears” - fears - and we have either allowed that fear to win or we have faced it, took chances, won, moved on or failed and have to start over. Facing fear forces choices. There’s a lot of truth in that old saying, “Either you eat the bear or the bear eats you.” 

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