Thursday, September 07, 2017

Whether it is hurricanes, earthquakes, or bears, we are all at nature's mercy


Whether it is hurricanes, earthquakes, or bears, we are all at nature's mercy

Daniel Cano                                           The Bear

     When I first heard a voice call, “Over there!” my nineteen-year old grandson Anthony and I had just finished hiking five miles into the Sierras, a beautiful walk up the sides of solid rock mountains, through forests, and alongside the King’s River, to our destination Mist Falls.

     I’m not a serious mountain climber, not at my seasoned age, but I figured I could handle a casual ten-mile hike. The entire way to Mist Falls, even the rock trails are safely marked. Still, we were high above the tree line and could see canyon walls on either side of us. I admit, it is a mesmerizing vista, looking down on massive pine and cedar trees as if they are blades of grass.

    Once we reached Mist Falls, Anthony decided to walk above the falls to get a better view of the canyon. I stayed beside the river, refreshed by the waterfall’s cool spray, and I ate half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then came the second call, “Over there!”

     Leaning against an enormous rock, I looked along the riverbank and saw only one other person, a guy about fifty yards upriver. Annoyed by the people yelling, disrupting nature’s sounds, I finally turned around to look behind me. Across a dry, rocky riverbed, up on a ledge, in the tree line, five or six hikers were waving. I looked closer. Their lips weren’t forming the words “Over there!” but the word, “Bear!” “Bear!”

    At first, I thought they just wanted me to enjoy the sight of a bear, so I looked across the river and into the trees searching for the wayward omnivore (an animal that eats both meat and vegetation). I didn’t see anything, so again, I turned behind me. Now, the hikers looked desperate, on their tiptoes, waving their arms, still calling “bear” and motioning for me to retreat. I picked up my backpack and half-uneaten sandwich and started back.

     The rock to my right was so large I couldn’t see the other side. As I turned and walked beyond the rock, I stepped in front of a large, brown bear standing no more than five to ten feet away. (I wasn’t measuring.) All I saw were huge paws, a long, sharp snout, and black eyes. I imagined one quick move, and he’d have me by the throat. I think he (or she; gender didn’t seem important at the time) was as surprised as I was, but it didn't turn and run. It stood its ground. Then I remembered the half-eaten sandwich in my hand, and I froze.


    I wanted to run, but the rocky, dry riverbed under my boots nixed that idea. Besides, bears outrun, outclimb, and outswim humans. Then the voice inside my head told me, “Don't run. It will see you as prey.”

     My mind reeled. A ranger once said to throw rocks to scare a bear. Well, this bear had a big, hairy head. Did I really want to piss it off at this range? Then came another thought, “If attacked just fall to the ground and cover your head with your arms. Play dead.”

     Forget that.

    Okay, back to basics: rangers also say black bears don’t attack humans unless provoked. It is brown bears that are dangerous. Well, this was a “veterano” (maybe “veterana”). His (or her) hair was matted and faded from surviving--who knows how many brutal Sierra summers. If it was a black bear, it looked brown to me, maybe even reddish in spots. How do I know a black bear from a brown bear? Anyway, if you are face-to-face with a bear, do you start deciphering colors?

   I swear, the creature had its eyes on my sandwich. So, I tossed it to him; though, truth-be-told, like I said, it could have been a she-bear. Who knew?

     I began moving backwards, slowly, hoping not to trip. It took the beast about five seconds to finish the sandwich and turn its attention my way again. I stopped moving, just for a second, then I started backwards again, slowly. I didn’t realize that the bear probably figured if I had one sandwich, I might have more. Bears know if there are people, there is food.

    Now, this is where my memory gets hazy. I don’t know whether I spoke to the animal or to myself, but I remember saying (or thinking), “Take it easy, be calm, nobody's going to hurt you,” and I kept backing away, slowly, hoping for the bear to go on about his business. But he (or she) kept looking at me--bait dangling from a hook.

     I could hear the hikers behind me, “Keep coming. You’re almost here.” When I felt I was a safe distance from the bear, I turned and ran like hell, hopping over the rocks and up the embankment where the strangers grabbed me and pulled me onto the trail.

     “Man, we thought you were dead,” somebody said.

    “Yeah. That was close,” said another. “Didn’t you hear us calling?”

    I answered, “I didn’t understand what you were saying.”

    We stood on the trail for a while and watched the bear meander along the riverbank. Just then, the guy who had been standing upriver from me came running through the forest towards us. My grandson Anthony came down the trail calling, “Did you see the bear down there?”

    “Did I see it?”

    Somebody else said, giggling, “It almost ate him.”

    The other hikers didn’t want to hang around in case the bear came back towards us. They disappeared down the trail.

    The guy from upriver, said, “I left my backpack down there. It’s got my car and house keys in it. If I lose my keys, I won’t be able to get home.”

    I asked, “You got any food in there?”

    “Yeah, a sandwich.”

    We saw the bear edging towards the blue backpack, sniffing around, then tearing into the canvas bag and ripping it to shreds as if were tissue paper. The bear found the sandwich and began eating. “I guess he likes ham and cheese,” the guy said.

Fifteen minutes or so passed, but Anthony and I didn’t want to leave the guy alone.

     “I need to get down there and look for my keys. Can you distract the bear while I go search? Maybe you can throw rocks at him, you know, wave your hands around, just give me time to look around.”

    Anthony, lowering his camera, turned to me. “Sure,” I said. “Go ahead.”

    The guy sprinted up the trail. Anthony and I started yelling and throwing rocks. The bear saw us and lumbered our way. Just then, the guy jumped down from the embankment. He cautiously moved over the river rock to the different pieces of blue cloth that had been his backpack. Slowly, the bear kept coming our way. Each time it turned back to see the guy, we began yelling and tossing rocks. I saw the guy drop the last piece of blue material, and he leaped onto the ledge and came back up the trail. “I’ve got them,” he said. “They were tucked into a small pocket on the side.”

    “Look,” Anthony said. “The bear is still coming.” It was moving faster now. “Let’s get out of

    We started running down the trail, the bear was hot on our heels. I read a story once where a bear chased two people for miles as they paddled a canoe down a river. Every time the canoers thought they’d lost the bear, there it came running around a bend, still chasing them, following the current. What a way to die, ripped apart and eaten by a wild beast.

     We warned hikers coming our way. Instead of turning to run, they excitedly took out their cameras and ran towards the bear. When we finally reached the trailhead, two hours later, we told a ranger about the bear. She just laughed and said, “Black bears won’t hurt you unless you provoke them. All you had to do was wave your arms and jump around. They usually just run away.”

    I said, “I stood right next to this bear. It was brown, and it wasn't running away.”

    She said, “Yeah, they all look brown, some gray and blonde ones too. But bears in California are considered black bears. Only grizzlies are brown bears. There aren’t any grizzlies in California.”

    “What about all those pictures at our campsites that show cars with their tops ripped off and ice coolers smashed?" I asked.

     “That’s why we have bear enclosures. It’s the food they want,” she said.

    “Don’t they see us as food?” I asked.

     “They like ham and cheese,” the guy said.

   “No, not black bears," said the ranger. "They will only attack if they feel threatened, especially if cubs are around.”

    “Then, they can attack people?”

    “It’s rare in California,” she said.

     So did I stand face-to-face with a peace loving mammal, a friend to wayward campers? Or did I encounter a father or mother bear with its cubs close by and ready to attack if threatened? I guess I'll never know.

    What I do know is when I see my grandson Anthony, I say, “Remember the day a bear almost ate me?” He laughs now. But he wasn’t laughing that day. He had me outrun by fifteen yards.

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