Monday, January 27, 2014

Keeping My Eyes on the Lookout while Hiking in Bear Country

Wouldn't you love to see a bear in its natural habitat?  I would.  I'd also like to see an elk and a moose, up close this time, please.  I think I would prefer to see these from the relative comfort and safety of my vehicle though, now that I think of it.

A long time ago, when I was a young bride still trying to find some common ground with the man I married, I agreed to go on a bear hunt.  We had to wait until we were both off of work, and then we drove through the dark to the Henry Mountains of Utah where we planned to camp and hunt. It was pitch black dark when we arrived, and my husband stepped out of my Nissan Sentra, and walked around for a moment.  I saw him kneel down and look at something on the ground.  He told me this place was perfect, and we proceeded to put our sleeping pads and sleeping bags on the ground. "What makes this place so perfect?" I asked.

"We are sleeping on bear tracks.  This is the path they're using, so I there's a good chance I'll see a bear in the morning."  This was not good news to me.  This was terrifying news to me. He woke up around 3:00 the next morning, and left me there to fend for myself.  I grabbed my sleeping bag, climbed into the car, and locked the doors.  That was my first "experience" with bears.  I didn't see one, thankfully, that time.  If I had, I'm not sure I would have survived the shock.

Nowadays, I live in a sleepy little town at the mouth of Bullion Canyon.  Bullion Canyon is considered to be bear country.  There's a sign back down the road about a half a mile from our house by the church that warns folks about the danger.  I try not to think about it when I'm hiking up the hill, but sometimes it makes me a little nervous.  If I think about it too much, every little twig snap, and rustling of brush sets my nerves on edge, and my imagination is on fire, thinking every magpie and mule deer is a carnivorous threat.

Marysvale is home to some of the most down-to-earth humans you could ever hope to meet, and plenty of wild animals.  Our yard has frequent visitors: a great number of turkeys roost in our tall pine tree, an owl lives just beyond the big garage, herds of deer forage on our property, and just last month, I spotted my first coyote in our side yard.  Each time I see these animals, I feel like I've been blessed with a gift from nature.  

I, personally, have never seen a bear on our lot, and hope I never do.  It would scare me to death. My friend Pam has neighbors who had a bear visit on their back porch, and leave his, um, calling card behind.  That's just a little too close to nature for me. I have a healthy respect for wild animals, and realize keeping a safe distance from them is never a bad idea.

Just recently, I have begun working out in earnest, walking up our canyon in the early morning. During the winter months, I dress for the weather.  Ralphie's little brother Randy in The Christmas Story has nothing on me.  When it's about 15 degrees out there (the Weather Channel tells me it feels like minus two) I dress in layers.  I wear my knee-high ski socks, two pairs of yoga pants (they double as TV viewing pants, too, but rarely see a yoga session), three layers of long-sleeved shirts, topped off with my hiking windbreaker.  My jacket has lots of pockets.  I like to be sure to tuck in chap stick, my cell phone, in case of emergency, and tissues, in case of that OTHER emergency.  

There are landmarks that serve as mile markers along the way.  It's a gentle climb into the canyon, rising in elevation about 375 feet, if I remember correctly, so it's a breeze coming back down. The first landmark is the one mile point at the shack, the next one is a mile and a half from home where the blacktop ends, and my goal spot, where I turn around, is where the second fire hydrant is after the beginning of the dirt road.

As soon as my son leaves for school, I like to head out the door.  I want to watch the changing of the guard, so to speak, as the night sky gives way to the sun. This is my favorite time of day, when the moon is still out and some stars are visible, and there is a slight glow along the eastern mountains as the sun begins her climb out of the darkness.

By the time I reach the bend where the road levels out for a bit, the sun is usually making its presence known.  Daylight is my friend.  By the time I come back this way, the sun will be hanging above the mountains, and the temps will climb a few degrees, which feels so great.  I try to keep flexing my fingers to keep the blood moving.

A couple of years back, a girls' youth group from a church the next county over came up our canyon to the Firemen's Park for their summer camp experience (The picnic area is actually labeled"FIREMAN'S PARK."  I'm not sure which ONE of the firemen the Fireman's Park is honoring. As a retired teacher, that sign always makes me wonder). of my friends was a youth leader for this group of girls. She had stayed behind to tend camp while all of the other leaders took the girls on various hikes. While she was there all alone, she heard a disturbance beyond where she was sitting.  As she peered across the campsites, she saw a bear rummaging through the trash cans.  My friend jumped in a nearby vehicle, and was quite relieved when the bear finally left the camp.

It is somehow comforting to me to know I don't hike as far as the Firemen's Park, though. I always turn around a couple of blocks' distance before the entrance.  Yeah, that isn't much assurance, but hey! It's winter.  Bears hibernate in winter, right?  I should have nothing to fear for another several weeks, according to my calculations.

I love watching the magpies land in the bare-limbed trees in the distance.  They seem to congregate in small groups.  I often wonder if they plan these gatherings, or if they just meet by chance.  The little chickadees flit from sagebrush to sagebrush, always just ahead of where I am walking.  When the sun comes up, I'm usually blessed with watching the eagles soar overhead.  They look like they're just having fun, floating on the drafts above me, but I'm sure they are in search of breakfast. My favorite bird, which I don't see much in the winter is the Rocky Mountain Bluebird, the bluest blue bird you'll ever see.  If I were pressed to choose a favorite shade of blue, the feathers of that bird would be the color I'd pick.

When I pass the shack, I know I've completed my first mile.  I love that little one room cabin that someone has started to renovate.  You can tell they've re-chinked it, and the windows are new. It's for sale.  I wonder how much they want for it.  I suppose there is something appealing to me about living a simple life, with a minimalist approach.  It seems romantic, somehow.

After that first mile, I usually can't feel my legs; the skin on my thighs becomes numb.  If my fingers get too cold, I shove my hands under my armpits to keep the air from cooling them off any more than they are.

Last week after I'd hiked a little more than a mile, a dark image caught my eye.  What WAS it? Just a little farther up the road near my friend Gayle's house, it  looked like a dark form was just coming out onto the road...was it a bear?  I kept telling myself it probably wasn't a bear.  I slowed down a bit, and after awhile, I realized the "bear" hadn't moved in the moments my eyes were glued to the spot where I saw it. I assume a bear would SMELL me before I ever saw him. I felt pretty silly.  It was just an old juniper tree in the SHAPE of a bear.  My imagination is pretty active when my heart starts racing, and my breathing becomes shallow.  Those things can sure fool me when it's hard to focus before the sun fully rises.  

Continuing my hike, I passed where the pavement ends.  Each time I hit this point, I always think of the Brooks and Dunn song, "The Red Dirt Road":  "I was raised off of Rural Route three, out past where the blacktop ends, we'd walk to church on Sunday morning..."  Maybe you're not a country music fan, and that reference was lost on you.  I spent half of my life listening to it, not that it was my first choice, but the people in my life, my stepdad and my first husband, were big fans.  I guess along the way, I picked up a few favorites.  I listen to country on certain sad days now. ANYWAY...

That same day of the bear scare, I noticed another BEAR COUNTRY sign tacked to a tree, farther up the road.  Just a friendly reminder to be aware.  Those signs are a little disconcerting when hiking alone.  I look over my shoulder, and notice where the nearest house is.  (Like I could outrun a bear in pursuit.)  It gives my imagination something on which to focus. 

My knee still hurts from that same day; it was quite a memorable walk.  No, I wasn't mauled by a bear, but there are very real things of which I need to be aware that have potential for serious injury. My latest mishap occurred while crossing a patch of dusty ice. You've heard of black ice, of course. Well, after our last snowfall, nearly all of the white stuff had evaporated or melted off of the paved road, but on the dirt road beyond, especially in the shady sections, there was still snow.  As tires had stirred up the dirt, the dust had softly coated the ice and snowpack underneath so it had the appearance of being part of the road.  Dusty ice is to walkers what black ice is to drivers.
I had just hit the halfway point of my walk, and was heading downhill, feeling pretty perky, and slightly victorious, so I picked up my pace.  My iPod was blasting Owl City's song "Good Time" when I slid across the ice in a very un-Dorothy Hamill-like move, lurching forward and landing on my left knee with all of my weight.  OUCH.  My poor knees are missing most of their cartilage, and each tumble I've taken seems to take its toll on them.  I brushed the dirt off of my black pants, and limped on down the hill.  Ice would have been a good idea to help with swelling, and I consoled myself with the fact that on this particular day, the 15 degree air would suffice as ice until I could get back home.  

While there are plenty of signs to warn me of bears, there are none reminding me not to be a klutz. So far, my biggest concern in the wild is my ability to stay upright. Instead of looking for bears, perhaps I should just keep my eyes on the road.

I just learned, for $200,000, you can own this little piece of heaven.  A tiny cabin with a brand-new bathroom.  Indoor plumbing?  Say no more...


  1. Thanks for the virtual walk. In one week I go in to have my knee replaced and right now the virtual kind of walk is all I can do. You wrote about the chickadees and I remember that each summer as I drive the swather, the gulls begin to gather. First a small number and I think, "Ah, a branch meeting". Then more come as I turn around to make the next pass. "It looks like a ward party now!" and by the time I get done, the whole darn stake has assembled!

    1. So glad you came along. I love your church metaphor for the gulls. I sent you a message via FB. It's a sincere offer.

  2. $200,000...that is a nice reduced price :) . I'm very paranoid about bears and I can't believe that you slept on the tracks until your husband left, I think I would have been in the car from the beginning. It is also nice to know that those beautiful blue birds are called Rocky Mountain Blue Birds; we see them often but I've never known their name.

    1. Noelle, I always enjoy hearing from you. I just try not to think about bears and cougars while I'm hiking. Not the best plan, but paranoia gets me nowhere!

  3. So funny about the bear shaped tree. My husband and I used to walk up the canyon in Cedar City at night when we were dating, one night I swear I saw a bear and I started to panic. Then he started to panic and we were sure we were going to be eaten any second. Then he got brave and moved was a "bear shaped" garbage can. So embarrassing!

    1. It's easy to let your imagination go crazy when the lighting can't verify what your mind thinks it sees.


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