Monday, July 13, 2009

Bear Scare

I spent most of June in and around Ouray, Colorado. I was there in 2008, also for almost a month, and thought it was far too short. This time, I had to devote a fair amount of time to work, and so the sense that I left Colorado too soon is even stronger now. How I’d love just one more day to hike, or see one more cousin I didn’t get to see, or ride the gondola in Telluride, or soak in the local hot springs, or just veg in a pristine mountain paradise for another day.

Or see some bears-a great experience, now that it's over. Last time, I showed a picture of the Taylor job bear. This bold black bear showed up a tone of my dad’s jobs. You can see pictures of him in my October 2008 entry. The bear caused many construction workers severe psychological trauma, preventing them from working for the rest of the day. Apparently, the trauma was such that they required immediate and proactive destressing, which is one possible explanation for why Dad found them a few hours later in the town pub.

It’s a cute story. I could sour it with the ending. Just like the backstory to the writing of Clapton’s „Wonderful Tonight“ ruins the song, so too would the above story be ruined by two facts. First, that bear already had 2 eartags, meaning he was a „bad bear.“ This is indeed the official technical term for a bear who unlearned fear of humans, and poked around someone’s house or otherwise scared a human enough to call the appropriate authorities. The first time, they stun the bear, put a tag on his ear, then move him somewhere else. Same thing the second time. As long as he does not already have 2 eartags, he gets another chance. Otherwise, like 99% of disagreements between bears and men, the lack of lawyers within the bear community leads to a resolution most bears would find biased.

Of course, that bear was in human territory. It could be a different encounter entirely. If, for example, your neck is in their neck of the woods. So it was as I was hiking up Hayden Trail on a sunny morning, armed only with Wally the Walking stick, alone. I knew to look for bears and mountain lions, and usually did, although all I ever saw before were signs left by their paws and anuses. Unfortunately, I was at just that moment dreaming happily about a brilliant and beautiful woman at UCSD who I thought (quite mistakenly) was keen on me. It would have been a magnificently ironic time to get mauled by a bear, and fittingly enough, there was suddenly one about 40 feet away. Adult black bear. So this snapped me out of the clouds right quick, and I started backing up slowly, trying to avoid eye contact, which is difficult because IT IS A REAL FUCKING LIVE BEAR and the dew on the adjacent aspen was somewhat less absorbing than it was a minute ago. I briefly reviewed my combat options and most likely outcomes. It was a very different experience when tussling with, say, a duck or badger.

Bare hands: Perhaps throw cell phone for distraction. Try to gouge eye. Offending arm bitten off, then swatted with nearest paw, breaking my other arm that I tried to use as a shield. Try to ignore pain from bloody stumps and develop new options for unarmed combat until swipe from other paw splinters rib cage through internal organs.

With walking stick, Baseball bat style swat: Swing stick in wide arc to my right side, aiming for head. Miss because bear is lunging forward to position teeth to stomach. As bear's momentum is greater, fall backward, jiggling the section of my torso in his mouth.

With walking stick, impaling thrust: Try for direct thrust to eye. Maybe also try to impale paw or neck. (Bonus feature: holding the stick makes it much harder for him to bite my arm off.) Move in for the thrust. Offending arm badly raked, causing stick droppage. Subsequent rake from bear’s other paw hits ear and greatly expands Sylvan fissure.

Improvise new weapon: No rocks; sticks inferior to my walking stick; trees too big. While trying to uproot tree anyway, bear tackles from behind and bites through head before hitting the ground.

Climb tree: If unlucky, fail to climb high enough to escape jaws. Feel jaws biting through nearest leg and pulling me down for face eating. If lucky, get high enough that paws are needed to pull me down for the same outcome.

Flee: Would bear's first swipe tear off leg completely below the knee, or leave some tissue attached through knee skin? This might slightly affect my height when jaws avulse medulla.

Call in support: Remove cellphone from pocket. Open it. Dial the 9 of 911 before bear bites through offending hand and cellphone. Wave bloody stump in the air and yell, and/or try to spell „help“ in blood on the ground. While jumping, bear disembowels with mighty swipe. Land in own intestines.

Blogmock: Warn bear of damage done to ducks, badgers, monkeys, and other (smaller) beasts by mockery in previous blog entries. Promise a great story if he simply runs away. Bear charges, tackles, then goes for the throat. Die musing about bear eating my neck in his neck of the woods. Wit left unwritten. Bear unsympathetic.

Drop to knees and pray to Jesus: I am proud to say, quite honestly, I never seriously considered this one. Ironically, since one response to a bear is to play dead, this might be a good tactic. Other men might have had their lives changed, thanking Him forever for His mercy.

So there was my brief burst of high speed cognition, a phenomenon that continues to fascinate me more and more. It sure does seem that you think more quickly, decisively, thoroughly, and memorably in crisis. And this is hard to study, since you cannot really deliberately inflict real stress on research subjects. But there it was, a lot of thinking in well under a second. It was not enough time to really react emotionally to possibly imminent death, just enough to try to avoid it through that particular mechanism. I had said many times, before hiking, that getting mauled by a bear would be a great way to go. I since became a renewed fan of dying asleep in a bed.

And that outcome may happen, cause the bear had a different encounter strategy. He saw me, looked at me for a very long fraction of a second, and ran away loudly. I wondered what the flight or flight surge was like for him. Judging by the outcome, he had it all wrong. Why run from me? I’m not the same as the guy that blew away his brother. I had no real weapon, no protective SUV, no possibility of help, not even an attack chopper. Now don’t get me wrong, I thought that very quietly at the time. I’ll go with a bluff even if I didn’t plan it. I scared away a black bear. Don’t fuck with me.

After that, I stood there and pondered my next move. Unfortunately, the bear ran ahead. So, if I continued on the trail, I might run in to him. I eventually figured, he seemed really eager to avoid me before, and it’s too early in the hike to turn around. So I plugged on. There I had another experience in cognition. I walked up the path for a while, felt tired, and stopped. Went again, and stopped way too early. It genuinely confused me. I knew what kind of hiking shape I was in and how much I would take. Then I realized, my heartbeat was throwing off my own evaluation of fatigue. My heart wasn’t beating cuz I needed a rest. Ignore it. Three hours later, I was well above the treeline being hailed on, and thought that I should have turned around. And then, a couple hours after that, I got the following picture of Red Mountain reflected in Crystal Lake.

I put my other hiking pictures on my Facebook page, but this one is not only pretty, but has a story to go with it.

Only a week later, I was hiking the Weehauken trail with my parents. I was in front, and spotted a bear about 80 feet away. While genetically a black bear, this one was brown. And the same thing as before; I spotted him before he saw me, and once he saw me, he ran away. Dad saw him too. Mom did not, and asked if the three of us could have beaten him. No, we said. But we have sticks, she said. No, we said.

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