I left Seiad Valley feeling much stronger and had considerably lightened my load by getting rid of the bear can. Uh-oh. Actually have no regrets on that one (in spite of what follows) as it was too heavy and bulky to carry, but I had not yet become “bear savvy” and was also just plain unlucky. Here’s what happened.
During my second day out I passed many Northbound hikers (I am in the minority travelling South) and in the exchange of pleasantries was recommended several times to camp at “Buckhorn Spring” where I would find both a spring and level ground for sleeping.
Maybe 1/2 mile or so before reaching the campsite I came around a corner and saw my first bear. Picture downloaded from internet (not mine).
He (or maybe she but I’m going to call it a he) looked as startled to see me as I was to see him and booked off–and I mean really sprinted away–before I could even raise my trekking poles to bang them and make noise, which is what you are supposed to do. I thought to myself “Wow, I am mighty, bears run from me!” Famous last words.
First mistake. I should just have given up on “Buckhorn Spring” and kept going to the next good place to camp, as the site was way too close to where I saw the bear. Instead I nonchalantly cooked my evening meal, allowing the smells to waft into the environs, and set up my tent for sleeping. I had not been sleeping long however, when the bear came back. He wanted my food. I had strung it up in a tree as instructed, but the guides tell you that this will only delay the bear, not stop it, from getting your food.
The problem with letting the bear get your food is that then they acquire a taste for, and reference experience of, human food, and they want more. I was afraid that if this one got my food bag, he’d want whatever crumbs happened to be attached to my other stuff and would go after it, my tent and me. So I girded my loins (what does that really mean anyway?), got out of my tent, and banged my trekking pole on my metal cup making as much noise as I could and shouting rude words at the bear. He ran away.
Apparently, however, the bear did not think I was mighty, but rather pretty wimpy, because he came back. I banged and yelled and he ran away, and then he came back. And again. And again. By this time I had observed he was circling around my camp and the circles were getting smaller. He wasn’t getting scared off and going away.
I decided to pack up and get out.
While packing I had to scare him off a few more times. Then I waited until his circle passed by, and strode off down the path with my headlamp on to follow the trail. I think it was around midnight, pitch dark at any rate.
He followed me for a couple of miles. Every now and then, just when I thought he was gone, I’d hear some crashing around in the brush to my right, swivel my head and shine my headlamp in that direction and see his yellow eyes reflected in the glare. He really wanted that food. Then I’d bang my cup (which I was now carrying) against my pole and shout a bit and carry on.
I’ve since learned that all this behavior is extremely unusual for bears in this wilderness area. This one must have had human food before and wanted more.
To understand the next bit, you have to understand how freaked out I was, and therefore how little of my brain was actually working (or that I had access to). In 20/20 hindsight I think he’d let me alone by this time, but at the time I still thought he was nearby, or even just behind.
In the dark, I lost the trail.
I think I lost it at a spot where the trail made a hairpin turn downhill and I kept going straight, on what was probably just a game trail, or just a rock configuration that looked like the trail continued straight. When it petered out, I thought the bear was still behind me, so instead of turning back I started sidestepping up and then down–right and left–looking for the trail…doing everything you’re not supposed to do if you lose the trail and internally indulging in helicopter rescue fantasies.
I had installed a new ap on my ipad while in Seiad Valley with a GPS locator, so I knew I was very close to the trail but my tired, freaked out brain could not master the navigation of the ap and as I was in “flight” mode (of fight, flight, or freeze) I couldn’t get myself to stop long enough to figure it out. After about an hour of casting about looking for the trail and getting farther away from it, I finally convinced myself that the bear was gone and I needed to stop and wait for daylight. So I found a burned out stump (this area had been devastated by wildfire in previous years) and snuggled into it–throwing my sleeping bag over my knees for warmth.
When the sun came up (about 4:30am) I could see a lake. I thought I knew which lake it was and decided to forget about trying to figure out the stupid GPS ap, and just get to the lake and pick up the trail there. After an hour and a half of arduous bushwhacking down a very, very steep hill I got to the lake only to realize that the trail was not there, and after another bit of noodling around I figured out it was not the lake I originally thought it was, figured out which lake it was (and therefore where the trail was) and realized I was going to have a hell of a time getting out. To get back on the trail was basically vertically up hill unless I wanted to swim across the lake and take an “un-maintained trail” to where I was going (not really feasible).
There follows a cliff adventure which is mostly just embarrassing in how stupid I was to even try that route, let’s suffice to say I got close to the top before realizing I couldn’t make it the last 50 yards even without my pack and had to go all the way back down. Finally I realized I had to bushwhack back up the very steep hill I came down in the first place. Heartbreaking and very arduous work.
I regained the trail about 1:30pm but the ordeal was not quite over.
I got to the next campsite and started to set up, when I noticed I didn’t have my sleeping bag. I went back quite a ways on the trail but I’m pretty sure I lost it somewhere while bushwhacking up from the lake ( I know I had it on the cliff scaling fiasco because I remember adjusting the straps at the bottom). I was all over the place for hours so there was no way to find it there (at this point the helicopter rescue fantasies get really intense).
So I had to walk out and camp for three nights without a sleeping bag and it was really cold. I tell you you don’t sleep much when you’re that cold and shivering. I put the rain fly on my tent each evening to keep out the wind and put on every single article of clothing that I had, including putting the rain cover for my pack over my head and back like a turtle shell. I should have been able to make the walk out in two nights but I was so sleep deprived that I made a mistake one day and got turned around and walked backwards for 2+ miles before figuring it out. Argh. 2 miles doesn’t sound like much but one thing I’ve learned is that there are different kinds of miles…some miles take 20 minutes and some take an hour. Those miles were somewhere in the middle.
One night I camped near a forest ranger’s cabin and broke in to sleep inside. There wasn’t any bedding but having four walls was warmer than my tent and felt safer (at that point my mind was turning every rustle of my own clothing or breathing into a bear). Plus I got to see where and how they make the trail signs which was kind of cool.
Eventually I made it to Etna Summit from where you can hitch the ten miles in to town. I got a ride from a lovely lady named Martha, who had a van full of Hispanic workers and they all worked for a reforesting company that subcontracts to timber companies and goes in behind the cutters planting trees. She made the guy who was riding in the front go back with the rest of the gang and had me sit up front with her to chat. After hearing a bit of my story she finally paused and looked thoughtful and asked “Don’t you think you should go home or maybe go with a friend?”
She’s probably right. But after resting a bit, I resolved to keep going. I have ordered yet another sleeping bag from REI and am comfortably situated at the “Hiker’s Hut” (a cabin with a bunch of bunk beds available to PCT hikers in the side yard of the Alderbrook Manor Bed and Breakfast), resting and waiting for my stuff. I should be moving on again on the 26th and meanwhile my friend Sharon will come to visit. Yay!
While walking out, I chatted with a bunch of hikers and picked their brains about bear strategy. I found out about something called an “Ursack” which can protect your food against bears but is a sack, not a can, so it only weighs 1/2 a pound rather than 3, and fits in your pack much better (I ordered one immediately). I also learned about the “bearmuda triangle” which tells you that where you sleep, where you brush your teeth, and where you cook/hang food should be at least 50 feet apart. And I ran into a guy whose strategy I will emulate. He stops at about 4pm and cooks, eats, and brushes his teeth. Then he packs up and walks another couple of miles and sleeps.
Sounds like a plan.