Monday, September 6, 2010

West Virginia, Putting the 'Wild' in Wilderness. A True Story

“And then they was et by baars,” said Thomas, drawing out the ‘aaa’ sound in 'bears,' so that he sounded like Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter. A little teasing thrown our way as he whizzed by on his way to bring appetizers to another table of diners.

Sure, an encounter with a black bear was very funny now that we were warm, clean and safe at the Elk River Inn. And also fortified with margaritas.

For years, I kayaked with an informal club. We’d meet up at a designated place and time and paddle together, usually all day. I was game for anything but I am sure that I had the unofficial and quite dubious title of 'the most ill-prepared paddler.' I never had a change of clothes (not even for the coldest of paddles) and needless to say, the thought of me carrying first aid materials was laughable. Many days, I didn’t even have lunch and when I did, it was often in the form of whatever I could buy at some convenience store passed along the way (i.e., the least offensive granola bar on the shelf and a Snickers.)

But I am older now. And wiser, too. Also, I am more infirm. So this hiking trip, I was prepared for nearly any of the myriad of injuries that befall the wilderness hiker. I was ready for aches, sprains, cuts and even a broken bone or unforeseen overnight stay in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. I had in my pack, I kid you not: a soft splint, an ace bandage, a huge bottle of ibuprophen, chapstick, bug spray, duct tape, neosporin, a swiss army knife, an extra fleece, a change of socks, sterile wipes, band-aids, sterile gauze, a small packet of blood clotting powder, a headlamp and one of those foil blanket things they give marathoners after a race (in case things got REALLY ugly.) Plus enough food to get both of us through the night if need be -- 64 oz of water and 32 oz of gatorade, a small bag of cashews, six Clif bars (three for me and three for Geargirl). I was so prepared I was almost smug.

Wolves don’t "officially" exist in the West Virginia forest, but they are there. This one was grey (coyotes, I later learned, are always brown). He was also a mere 30 yards up the hill from us.

I might not have seen this wolf, but for the howling of a pack of what must have been coyotes down the hill from us. First, I thought it was just some dogs at the campground by the trailhead, but the howls and growls got more and more ferocious, more feral and more wild. Nope. Those weren’t ordinary dogs.

We stood there, frozen, listening, facing the sound of the howls below us, and when I turned to look at Geargirl, I saw the wolf, who bolted up the hill away from us.

We considered the options. The wolf was gone, so that was one good thing, but still, what were likely coyotes remained. We would have to go in the direction of the sound of the howling coyotes to get back to the trail head, or we could go on and complete the loop.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “Wolves, like, never attack humans. Well, not human adults. They really mostly go after infants or livestock and then, usually the lame or otherwise ill, small or meek.”

“Just how do you know so much about wolves?”

“Oh, I saw a thing once on TV about wolves,” which I realized as it left my mouth made me less than credible. Yeah, I saw some special about a decade ago, and that has given me perfectly accurate information upon which we should be basing life and death decisions vis-a-vis American gray wolves, which are not supposed to even been in these freaking woods; beyond which, there remained the baying coyotes down the hill and though they did seem to be more interested in their own intra-coyote squabble than they were in coming up the hill to attack us, who knows what’s in the mind of a hungry coyote?

“Really, they never attack anything as big as full grown human adults,” and I hoped I sounded more confident than I really was.

So we pressed on. We continued to talk. Somebody once told me something along the lines of the sound of the human voice kinda freaks out wildlife or something. Supposedly, it scares off most critters, even critters out looking for a meal. Or maybe I learned that from that same stupid documentary I had seen which, over time as we walked, I remembered focused on the Iberian wolf, which could be worlds different than the wolves in W.Va., not to mention coyotes. (Maybe we should have been talking in Spanish. Or Portuguese.)

I kept my misgivings to myself and put the swiss army knife in my front pocket (that would show those coyotes!) and we decided it was a good thing to keep talking and stay close, so we talked and talked. Sometimes we clapped and eventually, we were calm enough that we resumed a more normal conversational pace, which is to say, barely talking at all, but rather taking in the amazing scenery and getting sort of lost in all of it.

Emboldened from our success (not being attacked by either wolf or coyote has to be seen as a success), the next day we set out for a longer hike, the shape of which would make kind of a big dipper, starting and ending both on the Gauley Mountain trail.

The canopy overhead is quite lush, making it nice and cool and kind of dark, even at 11:00 a.m. on a sunny day. The trail is also very narrow, especially so at some points and it is necessary to place your feet almost like a tightropist would in spots. Even where it widens out into a more comfortable path, it’s rocky and slick and full of deep mud bogs. I can see why it makes for some superb mountain biking. Also, it makes it necessary to look down every second or you will kill yourself on a rock or end up face down in the mud.

After our encounter with the wolf and the coyotes the day before, neither one of us wanted to say anything, at first, when we started seeing the tracks. But we kept seeing them. Big tracks. Constant, big tracks.

“Maybe it’s a dog,” Geargirl said hopefully.

“Or a wolf. Or coyote. Or something else with great big teeth, for chrissakes.”


But we kept walking.

There was one completely perfect claw print in front of me. It was so perfect that a good crime scene unit would have been able to lift DNA evidence from it. But you didn’t need fancy equipment to know what kind of print it was. Sadly, I didn't have the presence of mind to form this obvious thought: Bear.


I can say with complete and total certitude that this was the most singularly terrifying sound I have ever heard. Part growl and part roar, it was utterly savage and menacing. Nothing, not even the sound of the two gun shots wounding a man in the alley right next to my old house, scared me like this did. Like a cartoon character, I jumped straight up in the air.

If you drew a line straight through my hips and kept going for ten yards into the shaded woods, came the sound of a giant, apparently angry, black bear. I was the first down marker and he had the ball.

“What the f*ck was THAT!?”

“Bear! Run!” yelled Geargirl.

And so we did, but we both also remembered the thing about making noise and 'being big' and stuff. So I ran, faster than I’ve run in 20 years, and I roared. I gave out a barbaric YAWP that would do even Saroyan proud, I think. We screamed and hollered. And ran. I kept looking back, but no sign of the great bear of the great growl.

In retrospect, it was pointless to run; not even Usain Bolt can outrun a bear. But fight or flight kicked in and, if I was choosing, I was choosing not to fight. All those first aid materials? They were hardly adequate to dress the wounds one would sustain when being mauled by a great bear. Maybe I could have blinded the bear momentarily by winding my ace bandage around his eyes?

We stopped running when we reached our turn. We could turn right here, loop deeper into the obviously bear infested woods and take a trail that would take us right next to another trail titled, “Bear Pen Loop.” Huh. Wonder what they named that for?

Or we could go another half-mile straight out and onto the highway and if we stuck to the roads from there, it was another 18 miles to the car. (It was only another seven on the trails.) So we started down the trail, but it was darker even than the one we left and more to the point, it was positively riddled with what I now knew for certain were bear tracks.

We were rattled. We turned back and opted for the highway. We made it about seven of those 17 miles along the road before fatigue set in and I started to question our decision. I had this internal dialogue going. Perhaps we should have just gone on the trail. Bears don’t usually attack humans, right? Not unless they are threatened or unless you happen upon a mother and her cubs. It could be that we startled the bear as much as he scared us. Probably thousands and thousands of people have had similar encounters and escaped unscathed. Oh, now safely on the highway, miles and miles from the bear, and miles and miles from our car, I silently castigated myself for our foolishness.

Thankfully, it was at this point that Geargirl found Farmer Ralphie, the world’s nicest farmer, who agreed to drive us the rest of the way to our car. I owe Farmer Ralphie a huge karmic debt. Not merely for driving us the last 11 miles, but for confirming that the bear, a bear who was growling viciously no less, was a clear and present danger and that not only did the bears often eat through acres of his corn, but have been known to kill and dine on calves on the farms around there.

And to think, I always thought it would be so cool to see a bear.