Sunday, September 15, 2013

Back into Bear Country

This week, we went back into bear country.

It was beautiful. More importantly, I was able to face my fear of a bear attack in a baby-steps sort of way. Facing my fear did not come easily or all at once.

There was one significant trail that I decided not to hike, despite my earlier hunch that it would be an ideal place to start. This trail was on the top of a bald, where dense trees and undergrowth would not obscure my view of any black bear presence.  I thought that I would be able to handle my fear better if the chances of surprising a bear were less.  Walking in dense vegetation and near streams increase the odds of a sudden encounter.  Walking in open spaces would give me the advantage of sight.

  When we reached the top of Black Balsam Knob in the Smoky Mountains, we parked our car, leashed the dog and noticed a large youth group preparing for an overnight hike.  I felt comforted by this noisy and energetic gathering of kids and silently wondered if they would mind if we tagged behind for a while. Being in a large group is the safest way to manage a bear encounter.  While the group gathered for a pep talk, I walked over to a sign with trail map and alerts.  The first thing I read was a notice about  current black bear activity in the area.

On one hand, this was a good sign, because it meant that it was likely that we would have an encounter and a chance to directly face my fear.

On the other hand, this sign made me pause.  After examining the picture of a bear, I read the detailed instructions on how to behave in the event of an encounter.  The first instruction was to make loud noises like banging pots together.  (I do not hike with pots, hiking allows me to be free of the kitchen.)  I did have an air horn, which I thought might do the trick.)

Then I went on to read the instructions for how to manage an attack.  It explained that if you are hiking with a dog, bears will be better able to track and follow you.  So I wondered  about the reassuring lingo that most wildlife officials provide when they say "bears don't want to be near you, either.  They don't want you to see them."

If that is true, why would a bear want to track us with our dog?

The sign went on to say that if you are attacked, be prepared to fight back, because the bear may decide that you are prey.  It specifically said to teach any children you are hiking with to fight back and that playing dead is the wrong way to handle the situation.

So while I digested this advice, I decided that I was not prepared to fight a bear with my hands, nor to effectively protect Elliot, even though Richard would be there to help and would probably be taking on the majority of the fight.

I then looked at the mountain, scanning the bald for dark, moving mounds of fur.  I looked at the half mile of woods I would need to get through to reach the balds.  I looked at the youth group, happily eating their healthy snack wraps and totally unafraid.

Then Richard said, "if you're thinking of hiking behind that group, forget it.  That won't be fun for me.  I don't think this is going to happen today, and that's okay."

I stood a while longer, just to see if my impulse to hike that mountain kicked in.  It didn't and I accepted that today I failed my challenge.  As we drove away, I noticed two trucks with reinforced cages in the back.  One cage held a group of beagles, the other was empty (ready and waiting for what?)  Later I learned that the men were tracking the bears with dogs, in preparation for hunting season in mid October.  More than the posted paper sign, those trucks confirmed bear presence.

After seeing the trucks and before learning the purpose of the cages (only to contain the hunting dogs, apparently), I assumed the trucks meant a search for aggressive bears was in progress.  The conditions for hiking in this particular area, with a nine year old boy and a dog, did not seem like a challenge I was ready to take on. Last year, five bears were removed from the campground near Mt. Pisgah.  The reason why bears would track us is because they associate people with sweet snacks and roasting marshmallows.  I wondered how many times people who carry food and encounter a bear throw the food in order to buy some time to get away.  I did not carry any food that day and did not have a sweet offering to save my life.

No matter my good intentions, no matter the logic I used to explain why I didn't hike that day, it felt like a huge FAIL.

But I am not a quitter.

First baby step:  a half mile hike to the top of Craggy Dome.  The trail was dense, there were weird musky smells and freshly dug earth.  I was constantly wishing for a comforting explanation of swishy sounds, smells and signs of stratch marks on trees and earth.  I cried a little when I got to the top and told Richard that this might be "it" for me.
Second baby step:  A hike on Mt. Pisgah, near a resort, a highway and a country store.  People are in the area, but none on the trail.  I wear a "bear bell" but this annoys me and disturbs the peace.  The farther we get in, the more uncomfortable I feel.  After a while, I tell Richard I'm ready to head back to the car.

Elliot understands that I am afraid, but he is not afraid.

Third baby step and a victory:  We return home for a restful night sleep in our own beds, then wake up and drive one hour north to the Sauratown Mountain range and hike in Hanging Rock State park.  Bears are in the area, although not in great numbers.  Not many people were out hiking that day, making it feel like deep wilderness on the Indian Creek Trail.  After the popular waterfall stops, we didn't see anyone for miles along the creek trail.  This trail was dense with growth and the sounds of a rippling stream to mask our presence.  I looked for all the signs of bears that I was familiar with, particularly scat.  My heart raced at the sight of a mound of dark, decaying...


After recognizing the mushroom as a mushroom, I was very strict with myself and told my brain to "stop freaking out already!!!"  It was exhausting to carry on this way.  I told all the imaginary bears that I was prepared to use my air horn.  I walked on.  Slowly, I started to enjoy the woods.

I remembered to be faithful.

And to enjoy the beauty of this land.
I celebrated sharing the journey with my loving family.
And my husband, who is kind, understanding and supportive.
I believed in the possibility that there would be light at the end of this tunnel of fear.

And after climbing the rocks, there was light.

And sweet relief.

On the top of Hanging Rock, I fully relaxed and basked like a lizard in the sunshine.

Fear is an irrational sort of thing that can paralyze a person into safe comforts.  I've decided to keep hiking because it brings me great joy and a deeper appreciation for the gift of life.  I have decided to get tough with myself when I need to be, and gentle and understanding when I fail.


Have peace. 
Be kind to yourself, but:
practice going beyond what you think you can do.

Define your own version of wilderness.
For in that wilderness you risk being lost
and helpless.

Then you will find
your shining spirit
which will carry on. 

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