Northwest Travel
Sept-Oct 2003


Lair of the bear
A hiker's experience in the Pasayten (cover story)

 

 

"Yes, the man had
lied about his health,
hiding those telltale
white pills. And we’d
made a grave error.
But shouting would
not get us out of the
wilderness."

 

The man’s breath arrived in tortured puffs, hissing between white lips in a red face. "Just a bit farther," I coaxed. "Look you can see blue sky. We’re almost over the ridge."

But he couldn’t see much blue sky. Fog was rolling onto the Pacific Northwest mountain-top. The trail was tenuous – just rock cairns across alpine meadows. And our companion had suddenly revealed a heart condition, miles from the nearest trailhead.

My father and I exchanged a panicked look. We’d both had first aid training, but never expected to use it. Certainly not here, days from help, on a ghostly, ghastly slope.

"This isn’t happening," I told myself, straining to see the trail markers through the clouds. "This is just a jolly summer job, being a wilderness guide in the family business... it’s all fresh air, good clean fun, nothing serious."

My father’s voice, however, was serious. "Amanda, could I have a word?" he asked, those best manners signaling disaster. Then, 15 paces off from our gasping client: "Look at the map. Look where we are."

Distracted by the medical emergency unfolding, lost in the fog with no trail, we’d led Heart Attack man down the wrong side of the mountain. And there was no going back: One look at the hunched figure struggling for breath made that perfectly clear.

"Well, there’s another trailhead, which is closer – and it’s downhill all the way," I pointed out, tracing the contour with a shaking finger. "He can make it out there. The heart problem only seems to kick in when he’s chugging uphill."

We gave no voice to the frustration. Yes, the man had lied about his health, hiding those telltale white pills. And we’d made a grave navigational error. But shouting accusations would not get us out of the wilderness.

"The car’s at the original trailhead, 45 miles away. Someone needs to get it – and fast," my father said. His eyes were glowing. Dad’s a former Marine, trained to save the day.

Then reality hit: "I can’t leave an 18-year-old girl alone with a strange client," he protested.

"No. I’ll have to go."

***********

Dawn crept golden over the grassy valley, where we camped. Heart Attack Man muttered apologies, blessings, forced a cup of tea into my hands. Then Dad swung my pack – lightened as much as possible – onto my shoulders.

"I’ll walk you to the pass," he muttered. We strode quickly up the hill, then paused awkwardly at the crest. "Get going," said my father in his drill sergeant voice. Then, softening: "Be careful. You’re a good kid."

"I’ll be fine, Pops."

"You’ll be more than fine. You’ll fly. You’re younger than me, you’re strong and fast. You’re the right person to go ... Sleep with your ice ax and don’t take any wooden nickels." Tears were puddling in his eyes. "Get going now."

I did fly those first miles – five in all, around the valley’s sweeping bowl – and every time I looked back, I saw his small figure silhouetted against the sky, watching. But I kept walking, walking away from childhood.

***********

My feet were bloodied and blistered after 25-miles of the North Cascades’ rugged terrain. I needed a campsite, but not an established one. Who knows what horror movie freaks lurked in the backcountry, waiting for frightened young co-eds? Better to be off the trail, off the map, hidden.

I arranged a discrete stone marker, then plunged into a thicket. Here was a little stream, a mossy bank, protective boughs. Perfect. I collapsed into my sleeping bag, nibbled some food and waited for sleep to wash over my shaking limbs. The last sight my consciousness registered was a pile of scat, not far from my pillow. Bear scat. Fresh bear scat.

I awoke, every nerve strained by adrenaline. Something very warm, something very furry was perched on my head. The bear! Yes, I’d camped right in his thicket, right in the lair of the bear. I would have wept with fear, but dared not disturb the savage beast. Minutes passed. Hours.

Wait. A male black bear can weigh 880lbs. If one sat on your head, surely you wouldn’t ever wake up ... which meant my Davy Crockett hat was certainly not King of the Forest. A simple twitch sent the small critter – perhaps a raccoon– scuttling back into the underbrush.

My relieved tears shifted into laughter and back again. What a cry baby! What a fool! When the sobbing stopped, I heard the telltale rustling and chewing. First bears, now mice. And the night was young.

Flashlight in one hand, ice ax in the other, I defended my small store of food. First the bolt of light, then the swing, the scuttling, the silence ... lasting, say, ten minutes. Then we would begin again.

Before dawn, I gave up. "Go on, chew all those precious granola bars," I told those little squeakers. "See if I care."

They stopped. Perhaps we all grown weary at the same time. I didn’t care why. I’d never been so exhausted.

The bellow cut into my restless dreams, the insistent drumming of hooves. My sleep-blurred brain dredged information to the surface. I pictured the sweat-stained hiker cheerfully reporting the trail gossip yesterday. "Yep, there’s a bull moose running around these parts. They get aggressive during mating season. You can’t be too careful."

Was this moose mating season? Did it matter? The bellow swung closer, branches snapped. I sprang upright – no mean feat in a sleeping bag – and came face to face with a herd of cows. Stampeding. At 6,000 feet in an alpine meadow.

What could I do, but hit the trail? Giggling, dizzy with fatigue, I stumbled those last 20 miles. So this was adulthood: conquering fear, discovering that fear was unfounded, then shouldering your responsibility, keeping going past the point of exhaustion and despair. I had set out a child, Daddy’s girl, but reached that trailhead a woman, wise and strong.

*********

The next morning, I appeared at my father’s campsite during breakfast. "Pumpkin," he called. "You did it!"

"Yeah, Pops. But what a tough night."

"You had a tough night? I had a tough night." I was braced. Oh God, the weak heart…the lightening storm…the hidden pills.

"Some mice ate a hole in my tent!"

 

 

 

 

 


"Something very
warm, something
very furry was
perched on my head.
The bear! Yes, I’d
camped right in his
thicket, right in the
lair of the bear."

 

 

 

 

 

"Yep, there’s a bull
moose running around
these parts. They get
aggressive during
mating season.
You can’t be
too careful."

 

 

 

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