The Fuzzy Ones

Posted on September 2, 2014

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There is no doubt that bears get a bad press. Less people have died from bear attacks than car crashes. But still when you are a city gal and find yourself in a remote part of the world with little to zero survival skills those stereotypes do loom large especially when a cigar-sucking local tells you to be, “Careful of the fuzzy ones…!”

There are four states that you should have your pepper spray in (whilst fastened tight to your rucksack)
1. Canister is in the holster – no bears in sight
2. Canister immediately comes out of the holster if YOU see a bear, but the bear does not see you.
3. Safety comes off the pepper spray when you see the bear and the bear now sees you.
4. Prepare to spray and/or spray the canister emptying the entire contents if the bear is moving or dare I say charging you.

The level at which you hold the canister is crucial. It has to be lower than waist height and the critter has to be relatively close enough to get a full whack of pepper as the wind blows it up into its nose. Bears use their nose like we use our eyes and the high charge of pepper will leave it blind and confused for ten minutes and irritated by pepper for roughly 30-40mins.

I never got to scale up the summit or even close to the summit of Franc’s Peak. In the middle of the night the wind picked up hard. It was so ferocious even wearing six layers, a balaclava with a down hood pulled up over it and my gloves on I was still freezing. The wind was blowing straight into the tent. Then the ultimate happened at midnight, my tent collapsed on me flattening me and everything in the tent. I couldn’t move from the pressure of the wind.

“BRI-AAN???” I yelled hard. “I THINK MY TENT’S COLLAPSED!!!!” I wailed like a child.

“O-K. COMING TO YOU. HAAANG ON.” he yelled back.

I waited for about 6-minutes. He was clearly struggling to get out of his sleeping bag fast enough and then was fighting the wind to stand up and get to me.

I saw a light shine into my tent.
“Hey there, you ok?” he said concerned.
“This really isn’t pleasant, I have to admit, can I sleep in the car. I’m freezing,” I whined trying to lift my head against the flattened top of the tent.
“Yeah I agree it’s pretty gusty. OK I’ll clear your stuff out and put it in the car. You go wait in my tent.”

After about five minutes we were both lay in the back of the truck in our sleeping bags. I have never heard wind like this. The truck which weighs about two tonnes was shaking hard and rocking from side to side like a craddle. “I just hope we survive the night,” I thought.

In the morning we packed up and cleared out. The wind was still strong and rain clouds were coming in. It was still bright out and the landscape at the bottom of the mountain looked beautiful bathed in the sunlight. Almost a different climate altogether from what we’d experienced.

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The rain drops began to fall as we snaked our way back down the dirt track. Plan B was to head to Yellowstone National Park. I never got a chance to go into the park when I was in Jackson Hole last year.

We spent the entire day driving around animal spotting from inside the car because it rained continuously and it rained hard. Thankfully luck was on our side and we managed to grab a spot at Pebble Creek campsite at around 6pm. The last one. Lucky because it is ‘Labor Day’ weekend and the park was busy.

I was given the task to set up my own tent and fix two Margaritas in the rain (we had tequila, triple sec and already prepped freshly squeezed lime juice in the ice cooler). I stood shaking our drinks, tasting and then adjusting the measures for the perfect tipple. A group of old guys shouted out to me in the next camping spot.
“How’s it taste?”
“A-maaazing!” I replied
“Ten out of ten for style little lady,” they replied.

Due to the rain we couldn’t whip up a grand fest so we decamped to the back of the truck to eat cheese and sugar snaps as a snack followed by pack Ramen Noodles.

My tent constructing skills still need to be honed. I hadn’t pulled the pegs tight enough so when bedtime arrive there was a pool of water sat on top of my tent and worse still, a small tear in the top of the material meant inside, my tent was now a bath. Everything was soaking wet. The temperature had dropped and it was icy.

So for yet another night I slept in the truck. This time in the front seat. Thank god for all the yoga practise I do, contorting my spine into awkward positions has been less painful than it should be.

The next morning we awoke to find snow had fallen in the mountains and there was yet more rain.

“This is unseasonal,” said B, somewhat annoyed.
“Hey I had no expectations, plus I am British, I grew up with cold, wet, weather.” I replied trying to see the positives. I knew camping was not going to be luxurious.

A quick chat with the campsite manager about bears and the do’s and don’ts made me feel reassured. At the end of the day we are not food to bears. They do not smell us and think we are a meal. They are not predatory Polar Bears. They are mainly herbivores but will eat probably 6 per cent of meat in their diet. Providing people make noise and don’t startle them when they are in their habitat they will leave us alone. Male juveniles can be unpredictable, but that’s true for all species including humans!!

This guy has been a volunteer for 16 years and said, “It’s the best job in the world working here, I get paid in rainbows!”. His comments made me smile.

The day redeemed itself as the rain stopped periodically enough for us to get out of the truck to see things. I saw my first wild wolf, two coyotes, cranes doing a mating ritual, a golden eagle, bison and elk.

At around 1230 we decided to take an off trail hike up Crystal Creek and down Amethyst Creek. I was nervous, but B is experienced in this landscape and has been doing this for the last 20 years. We loaded up our packs, I secured my bear spray and packed away my long lens. The rucksack was heavy.

“Boy I am going to burn some calories on this hike.”

The sun had come out and in the glare it was hot. My Merino wool clung to my skin and I started to sweat. We were headed in single file, looking around, calling out, “Hey bear, hey bear,” every so often. Wearing a bell incidentally is not ideal I have been told. It is a noise that bears don’t recognise and it annoys the hell out of other hikers – ha!

Ten minutes into our hike we walked close by a thicket of Aspen trees. Inside the clearing was shady and cool. An ideal resting place for a bear. The ground was thick with mud but bog like. You had to place your foot on the haphazardly scatted clumps of grass to avoid sinking into the muddy water.

B went from walking parallel to the trees to sudden turning right quickly and further away from them. He started to pick up the pace. He called out to me with tension in his voice, “ASHA, Follow me NOW. Stay behind me, Asha keep up.”

I knew he had seen something. Possibly a grizzly, but I was too busy trying to keep pace. I could feel my feet sinking into the mud. As I pulled up my legs each foot got heavier as gooey water oozed into my boots.

“Is it a bear?” I said looking at him anxiously but not brave enough to turn around. He ignored me and we kept walking, with him turning around every now and then.

Once we had cleared the spot and were in open meadow and on a hill he looked more relaxed.

“There was a Griz in the Aspens. He sat up when he heard us. And I locked eyes with him. But we were too close. I needed to get you out of the way because when I turned right you were between us.” he said calmly.

My heart rate went through the roof.

“So if you were to draw a line…..there was the bear….then me…then you?! And how far away was the bear from me????” I asked a little concerned.

“Probably 50 feet,” he reluctantly admitted. “Not ideal and I am embarrassed that we were that close. It won’t happen again. I would have had to spray the F*** out of it had it moved and I would have had you behind me,” he said trying to reassure me.

I picked up my binoculars and scanned the bushes, heart in my mouth now. Whether it was a male or female we will never know. But thankfully we hadn’t startled it because we were making noise on the approach.

“Let’s keep moving, I wanna give him enough space so that he feels comfortable,” said B turning on his heels.

The hike ended up being around 3 hours and took us high onto the hills and into some wooded areas. There were no more bear sightings but a lot of calling out from B and me!! The view was magnificent. The heavens did open at one point and we had to shelter under a big tree.

When we made our decent down we gave that Aspen Tree area a very large berth, to make both the fuzzy one and us feel a lot more comfortable.

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Posted in: Branching out