Wednesday, July 30, 2014

How to Fend off a Black Bear Attack

If you happen to see a bear, but it does not see you, quickly and calmly leave the area, or make a wide detour around it.

If you happen to have a close encounter....

1) Talk calmly and firmly to the bear, remain calm. Bears can smell fear.
2) Back away while still facing the bear - do not, however, make eye contact. Similar to hippogriffs, black bears may interpret it as a sign of aggression. Give the bear plenty of room to escape.
3)  Whatever you do - don't run. Running is likely to cause the bear to give chase. You may have run track in high school, but bears can hit 30 mph. The bear will win. The same goes for climbing trees, and despite what the lego model at the Ohio State Fair may lead you to believe, bears are excellent climbers.
Seen at the State Fair - demonstrates poor survival strategy
I'm not entirely proud to report that during my first encounter with a black bear, I only managed to follow one piece of this survival advice - by which I mean I managed to avoid ending up in a tree.

Molly and I were finishing out a longer day on the trail, when my Achilles tendon began to ache. I became slower and slower, practically hobbling by the last mile as the sun was getting closer to setting. To make matters worse, we were expecting some heavy storms that night as the cold front came in.

"We're within a mile of camp, go ahead" I told Molly, knowing storms make her anxious and we'd already figured out setting our tent up after dark was a poor choice. "Set up the tent, get stuff ready, I'll see you at camp."

"Are you sure?" she asked, looking at my ankle dubiously and clearly hesitant to leave.

"Yeah, do it." I said, and after taking a moment to consider, she quickened her pace and rapidly moved out of sight.

Having been a runner before I was a hiker, I think of miles as short little things. Miles are knocked out in six or seven minutes. Backpacking is an entirely different beast though. Each mile is more like an impossibly long eternity and you try to cram up to 15 of them all in one day.

Hiking alone wasn't too bad. The woods were eerily quietly at first without Molly there - no conversation, not even the sound of her footsteps crashing over rocks and through the layer of past year's fallen leaves. But the eery turned to a peaceful stillness and I thought, I could really do this, I could hike solo. 

And then the crashing returned. I heard a the snapping of sticks and the sounds of something approaching. I wasn't even concerned, the AT intersected with another trail, Pine Knob Loop at that point. It was probably just another hiker. Or maybe it was even Molly; had she turned down the wrong trail or thought this was the off trail for our campsite?

I stopped. I stood. I considered. I peered into the woods. I was about to call out her name, to check, and just then, the bear emerged. My first thought was, 'wow, that's a lot smaller than I imagined' and my second reaction was a sudden swell of panic rose which rose up inside me. Here I was, alone and injured, on a mountain, miles away from civilization, five to ten feet away from a bear. There was no nice bulletproof glass between us like at the zoo, when you just get to stare at the bear and coo over how beautiful it is.

Holy. Crap. Why did I choose this? I brought this upon myself! Usually, the black bears here are skittish. If they hear you coming, they avoid you. I had snuck up on him.

All of the advice for dealing with bears that I'd read sped through my head in a flash. And then, I ignored it. All of it. I turned on my heel and walked rapidly away, which would almost be alright... if he hadn't seen me. In actuality, the bear and I practically made eye contact. I was not quiet by any means as I spoke-shouted a fervent prayer to the almighty.

Please God, Bless that I will make it to the campsite safely. 
Please God, Bless that I will make it to the campsite safely. 
Please God.... over and over again.

The bear wouldn't have needed to smell the fear on me, because it already manifest in the wavering of my voice. That mile was infinite. I had begun to worry too that I had somehow passed the campsite when I saw a figure running toward me brandishing something - Molly, it was Molly, rain jacket tied snugly around her waist brandishing her big Cutco knife (it was still in it's sheath).

I was so glad to see her! I burst into tears.

I stood there, in the middle of the trail, crying. The tough, wilderness-ready person that I thought I was, any image of that, crumbled away. I felt more like the cowardly lion than Bear Grylls. I was hyperventilating, probably the closest I've been to a panic attack in my entire life.

"Judith, Look into my eyes, deep breathes, look at me, are you okay?" The words tumbled out of Molly's mouth like one drawn out sentence. I could tell she was concerned, but also uncomfortable with the situation, "Is it your ankle? Is it that bad? We can go home early if you need to, it's okay. Are you okay?"

I gasped out an explanation about the bear and the onset of darkness and the bear and the bear again... and then let out a couple more chocked up sobs.

"You saw a bear?!" A grin spread across Molly's face, "I know now is probably not an appropriate time to say this, but I am so jealous!"

Of course. Of course she was. I could only laugh.