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Ever wonder what you would do if you met a bear in the woods? I don’t. Not anymore. I found out once on a backpacking trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. It wasn’t something I really wanted to know, but now that I do, I feel the need to share the lesson with others.
The adventure began when my friend Lee suggested that we take a trip to mark his 40th birthday. I always assumed either the Marine Patrol or the grim reaper would take both of us before age 30, so living free and keeping a pulse was definitely worth celebrating. Especially in a place I’d always wanted to see in person.
Lee and our friend Steve had made several trips out west before, but all my backpacking had been east of the Mississippi. I was looking forward to the higher elevations, beautiful vistas and a chance to fly fish in the cold, pristine waters of the northern Rockies.
As we made our final preparations, though, I started wondering what we would do if we met a grizzly bear. Should we take a gun? Bear spray? A crucifix? I had no idea, but I felt like we needed a plan.
I posed the question in a chain of emails among the four of us who were going. Lee, expert outdoorsman that he is, responded with a painfully truthful non-answer.
“Bears will usually run from four grown men,” he said. “If you want something to worry about, just remember that we’re out-of-shape old guys with years of bacon fat running through our veins. We’re about to tackle a fairly tough hike at high elevation. At this point, a massive coronary is a lot more likely than a bear attack.”
He was right, of course. There was also the fact that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was definitely out of the question. If CPR was needed, it was most likely going to be performed with the heel of a boot (provided somebody had enough energy). Still, I couldn’t help but think about that hypothetical bear.
What I came up with was a escape strategy based on the knowledge that Steve and Lee each had more knee surgeries than Joe Namath. Mine was the classic “I-just-have-to-outrun-you” theory. Later, I learned their plan hinged on my extra 40 pounds of fat sending me into cardiac arrest. In short, a bear attack would boil down to a battle of the body systems: My cardio vs. their skeletal – winner take all.
I liked my odds in that scenario. As it turned out, however, I was all alone when the moment of truth finally came.
* * *
On the third day in, we reached Arrowhead Lake, an ice-blue diamond in a green valley below snow-capped peaks. The sight took my breath away. Or maybe the elevation did. Regardless, it was an awesome feeling (as hypoxia often is, I’m told).
So, while the other three were doing trivial stuff like pitching the tent, gathering firewood and cooking supper, I volunteered to go fishing. (Because I‘m a giver.)
As I worked my way around the lake, I was hypnotized by the music of nature playing to the rhythm of my casts. Birds sang. Fish jumped. And a platoon of chipmunks was at my back, frantically doing whatever chipmunks do. (Munking chips? Chipping munks?)
When I was as far away from the campsite as possible, I noticed the birds had stopped their singing and the chipmunks had stopped their chipmunk-ery. I was feeling a little ill at ease, but I shrugged it off because who knows, maybe they clock out at four or something.
A couple of minutes later though, I got the distinct and eerie feeling something was watching me from behind. So I turned around slowly — only to find myself staring directly into the glassy eyes of death itself.
What I remember most vividly is the late afternoon sun glistening on its brown fur and its menacing snout only a few feet in front of me. It was so close, I could all but feel its hot breath in my face.
My very soul was frozen as I stared at its . . . slender legs . . . with hooves instead of claws. Also, the ears of death were a bit longer and floppier than they had been in my nightmares. And it was chewing on a branch in a decidedly non-death-like way.
I should probably point out here that I had never seen a mule deer in person before, much less one standing on small rise less than 10 feet away. In my defense, if you brought that damn thing to Florida, I guarantee that somebody would put a saddle on it.
A couple of seconds later, the grizzly deer trotted away. And about five minutes after that I finally breathed again.
* * *
It occurred to me that I now knew exactly what I would do if I met an actual bear in the woods — die painfully, paralyzed by fear as my body got eaten piece by piece.
In fact, if I ever meet a grizzly face to face, I’m pretty sure my last hike will be on the trail through his digestive tract.
If that happens, my only wish is to finally get a definitive answer to that age-old question: Does a bear %$&# in the woods?