Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ruby Peak Sunset II

On my mountain adventures I often find myself hiking out in the dark. This day was no exception to that probability. There are many reasons for this tendency I think, not the least of which would be my aptitude for being late, which includes late to leave the trailhead. Then there is the fact that I am loathe to leave the sanctity and peaceful beauty of a high mountain summit, or any pristine wilderness destination. After working so hard to get to that moment of rest and appreciation for what you have accomplished and the beauty that surrounds you, it's difficult to get up and leave to go back to the "real world". (Although if you ask me those high mountain summits are the "real world", and this crazy chaotic mass of social humanity we immerse our lives in is the escapist reality.) I consider my adventures into the wilderness my escape TO reality! So I hate heading back, and that is another reason I linger and end up hiking out in the dark. One more reason would be that as any nature photographer knows, right before sunset is the best light to shoot in, when the late sunlight finally reveals the true beauty of the landscape in all it's glory. These are the moments we wait for as photographers, and they come right before dark. This is why I so often find myself stumbling down the trail in darkness, albeit with a heart full of fond memories and a camera full of photos to accompany them. Yet there can be a price to pay. Usually in the form of scrapes and bruises from sticks or rocks hiding in the dark, or stumbling on unseen obstacles. However on this particular instance, I almost paid by being mauled by an angry mother bear.

The delicious little purple Huckleberry treats I spent so much time picking and eating on the way up, which also contributed to my "lateness", should have been my first warning... the fresh bear scat full of berry seeds I stepped over hurriedly just before dark should have been my second warning. But in my distraction, and then my hurry to exit the darkened woods, I paid them no heed. One more wilderness lesson learned. Storming down the steep trail in late twilight just light enough not to put your headlamp on as it will ruin your night vision, I heard a hissing snorting noise and the scrambling of an animal scurrying up a tree to the right and in front of me about 50 feet. Looking towards the dark stand of trees it came from I saw nothing. Judging from the sound I knew it wasn't too large, perhaps maybe a Raccoon or Porcupine, both which will hiss when scared. My dog Kira who was still just a puppy, began growling and barking at the stand of trees. That's when I heard a much larger animal stomping around under the tree. In my gut I already knew what it was, but my mind wanted to tell me briefly that maybe it was an Elk under the tree, and a Porcupine in the tree! That still makes me laugh. Hoping against odds I guess... anyhow I began yelling at the noise loudly telling it to "get out of here"!!!! No sounds of running away in response, as would have certainly been the case if it were an Elk. Mustering a heart pounding effort to walk past the stand of trees and peer on the other side to ascertain what it was, I walked gently down the trail to look. As I was able to see around the stand of trees I saw it's back broadside to me, about chest high. The light just enough to make out the reddish brown tufts of hair along her back and shoulders. I watched as the large Cinnamon Black Bear turned towards me. About 50 feet away, I knew I had no time to grab my knife or light, or anything inside my pack. Fighting the urge to run, I began yelling and banging my trekking poles together as hard as I could, standing my ground with Kira cowering behind me. Turning to protect her cub that had scrambled up the tree, she began bouncing up and down and back and forth on her feet and pawing at the ground in front of her. I heard a deep kind of snorting, and will always remember those shoulders in the dim twilight moving back and forth with powerful intimidation. I also remember a brief foretelling flash in my head, picturing myself actually fighting with that bear, stabbing at it or in it's mouth with my trekking poles, or trying to grab at it's jaws and keep them away from me or pull them apart... all flashing through my brain in a brief moment of true potential reality, like that feeling when your car skids off the road. Maybe it was the confusion of human and dog smell, combined with inherent poor eyesight and falling darkness, but she did not charge. After a moment it became apparent that it was just posturing and fearful bluffing on either end, both of us waiting to see what the other would do. I gently began side stepping down the trail, watching her dark shape for movement in my direction as I disappeared into the woods. Once out of view I wasted no time exiting those woods, although I was much louder in doing so, banging my trekking poles and singing or making loud grunts and noises as I walked. Mindful of the thicker berry patches I had encountered farther down the trail and the potential for another encounter.

One year later as I write this I am thinking about those delicious Huckleberries popping out along the trail up there, and my dog is much bigger now, and it's not THAT late yet today...

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