Monday, June 22, 2015

It's Never a Mistake to Say Goodbye. My Daughter Encounters a Momma Bear with Cubs in the Wilderness

In one of his books, Kurt Vonnegut says something all adults know (and fear): "It's never a mistake to say goodbye." Anything can happen to our family and friends at any time. One thing I fear most is a car coming right at me at 60 miles per hour, the driver distracted by texting, the curse of our age. This is a real and present danger in America today, and I have a constant nagging fear for my safety and for those that I love. But what about encountering an angry momma bear in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a bear protecting its two cubs? Most of us don't have to worry about that! But my daughter Carolan has to give it some thought!

Carolan works for the Montana Conservation Corps. In the past weeks, she has put in long hours organizing the summer program, interviewing candidates for crew leaders and crew members, setting up the training regime, attending to every little detail of the summer youth program. This past Friday she worked until 8 PM and came home, totally worn out, to her place just below Big Mountain outside of Whitefish, Montana. What gave her some sense of hope, energy, and renewal was the possibility of hiking the next day from the Spotted Bear Ranger Station, just south of the Hungry Horse Reservoir, to the Pentagon Cabin in "The Bob" (The Bob Marshall Wilderness, one of the great wilderness areas in the Lower 48). And that is what Carolan did. Early Saturday, she loaded up her backpack, got into the old Toyota, and headed down the East Side Road along Hungry Horse Reservoir to Spotted Bear. Near Columbia Falls, still in reach of cell phone towers, she called home to tell us of her plan. I talked to her briefly and noticed how happy she was. As I said goodbye, I said, "Watch out for the bears. And mountain lions!" We both laughed.

All Saturday we thought about her hike to Pentagon Cabin, where she would see two of her Forest Service friends, including Jeremy Rust. I pictured the lonely hike down an old trail, a couple of creek crossings--mostly a long hard slog. I didn't picture an encounter with bears.

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Late yesterday, Father's Day, Carolan called me to wish me a happy Father's Day and to tell about her quick trip into The Bob. Again she was near Columbia Falls, where she had called from the morning before. When I asked her about her trip, the story caused the hair on my neck to stand up.

Carolan had been in a serious encounter with a bear about 9 miles (some three hours) into her hike to Pentagon Cabin. At this stage of her hike, she was getting tired and her attention waned. Suddenly, she heard some rustling in the bushes ahead. She was thirty feet from a female bear and her two cubs--the most dangerous situation you can have when hiking alone in the wilderness. Carolan stopped, and then slowly started backtracking. At the same time, her finger took off the safety on her bear spray--something she has never had to do in all of her years of hiking in this wilderness. The Bob is one of the last places in American you can encounter all the large primeval predators: grizzly bears, mountain lions, grey wolves, and black bears. They are all to be feared and respected. All will attack and prey on humans if they are hungry, provoked, or protecting young. The worst situation she had ever encountered in The Bob happened a few years ago when a local chef, camping alone and not following good procedure, was attacked and nearly killed by a black bear. The man was mauled and would have died if Carolan and her crew had not come upon him and rescued him, calling in over their radio phone for helicopter rescue. So Carolan was aware that black bears, considerably smaller than grizzlies, could wreck havoc--they could kill you!

Carolan's slow retreat gave the bear a chance to retreat also. And after a while, Carolan felt it was safe to proceed up the trail, this time singing her bear song ("Oh Bear, Hey Bear!") and making lots of noise. All the while, her finger was on the trigger of the bear spray, and her heart was beating a hundred miles per hour.

In less than an hour Carolan arrived at the Pentagon Cabin, but Jeremy and his buddy were not back from their trail-clearing work yet. After about an hour, a young man came running up to the cabin carrying a bouquet of wildflowers for Carolan. Jeremy was happy to see her. And Carolan was relieved and so happy to see him. And boy did she have a story to tell!

Here's an image of Pentagon Cabin found doing a Google image search:


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