Backpacking, Bears, Balance

I was always told not to run too far ahead. You miss the scenery and besides that, there are bears and cougars out there. There are things to see, I’d be told. Things to hear. Instead of striding along with your head down looking for the next step and the one after that, take a breath and smell the air and look around and feel nature. Maybe listen for a bird or the sound of falling water. Focus your eyes on movement in the distance, but stay still. Keep your eyes peeled for slugs and birds, squirrels and deer. They’re out there, but you have to slow down. You have to look. It’s not a race, no it’s not.

We went up to the Olympic National Park to have a look around, not to mow down miles and barge through the finish line. A 13-mile there-and-back trail would give us a marathoner’s distance, and we divided it up to force a strolling pace. The scenery was breathtaking from the first few steps. We crossed the Quinault river and its feeder creeks over and over again, sometimes walking with and against a trickling flow of water. The trail was just wild enough, passing through ferns and over roots and in between the occasional well-cut fallen tree. The forest never really crept in over us, instead shooting up for the sky as though it didn’t care to smother us with shade and color but couldn’t help exploding in thousands of shades of green.

Joe, Rami, Tessa, Kristine and I made up the crew, but if you’d remove Joe we’d be essentially useless in the wild. He was our expert, planning meals, offering advice here and there, scolding us whenever necessary. “The tent should be about fifty feet from the kitchen. Pick a spot and then look up to be sure there isn’t a hanging branch threatening to crash down on you in the middle of the night.” “The fire is the area of the campsite where you spit your toothpaste and dump your cooking water.” “LEAVE NO TRACE!” Joe’s got quite the enviable résumé, with countless trips through the Rockies of Colorado, the canyons of Utah, and the Oregon wilderness. He’s spent time building trails and skiing cliffs and scaling mountains and when he’s at rest, thinking–about what the wild is and what it ought to be to us.

Joe is a big guy with a body like a Division III college running back and a smile like a seven year old at Christmas. He’s thoughtful and deliberate–the sort of person who makes sure to bring everything you’d need for a camping trip, and then a journal and a pen to capture the in-between moments when others are still sleeping and dawn is creeping over the hills and lighting up the water. He’d tell me that he never brings toilet paper because he “hates to pack it out,” and just takes it for granted that you’d know what inevitability that meant, though never explaining what leaves to use or how to grab a clump of moss and use the best of it. There’s an indescribable common sense to the way he moves around, the way he thinks, the way he carries himself. Some of my favorite moments of the hike were behind Joe, matching him stride for stride as he worked his way to the top of a sharp incline. At the end, he’d pause and say “that lunch gave us some good energy!” He’s the sort of personality who develops leadership as you know him–a friend you’d follow even when he doesn’t know quite where he’s going. There’s a calm to him that others don’t have. That’s something you can get behind.

We ventured out without a map, but with a pretty clear sense of where we were headed. It was a straight trail to the Enchanted Valley and back, and we’d decided ahead of time that we would make camp at the third post, near Pyrite Creek. From there, we could get 6 miles into the Valley and back without our packs, and then load up for the trip to camp 2–our last night in the wild. Night one was great. We settled into camp with a few hours of daylight remaining, and had plenty of time to pump water from the river, rinse our feet, gather firewood, and begin dinner. Rami treated us to a reading of The Hobbit, complete with a pretty spot-on Gollum voice. Joe spied a black bear lumbering down to the river for a drink, and we all hustled over to the edge of the creek for a better view. We saw birds and squirrels here and there, but this was a big encounter with nature–the first wild bear for almost all of us.

From that point on, I looked for bears everywhere on every part of the trail. I’d hope that a fallen tree with two pieces of bark jutting out of its broken stump was a black bear with perky ears. I tried to will a bear out of the woods at the far bank and into the same river where I was cooling my feet. At every turn, I thought about coming upon a bear, the startle that would greet both of us, and the birth of some fantastical amicable relationship between man and beast that I could share with people at cocktail parties for the rest of my life. There was really only one time that I hoped I wouldn’t run into a big bear, and that was when I had to take a shit in the woods.

When I was about eight years old, my dad took me on my first hiking trip that would take us far enough from a bathroom that we’d have to do some digging to take a shit. We were up in the Four Peaks wilderness just east of Tempe. I imagine the light was getting then and the air was beginning to cool when I innocently told him I’d have to make a poopie. (I don’t know if I actually called it this, but I seriously doubt I was throwing around the word “shit” until I was at least 11). Here began one of the more important teaching moments for father and son in the wild. “Alright, let’s go,” he said. He walked me over to his pack where he’d stashed a shovel and a roll of TP. As usual, he’d point at the items and say, “Now what do you think this is for?” as a way to make me think through the scenario on my own. As I was playing through things in my head, we walked up into the deeper woods and he told me the rules:

1. “Get yourself far enough away that you can’t see anybody. And then walk another two minutes. You don’t want someone coming up on you while you’re pooping and they sure as hell don’t want to see you either.”
2. “Find a spot with a good view. You might be here a while and you want something nice to look at. Don’t put yourself behind a tree. See if you can find a high spot and look out over a mountain. It’ll be the best looking shit you’ve ever had.”
3. “Dig a hole that’s deep enough.” This is maybe the most important rule.
4. “When you’re done, it should look like you were never there.”

Near twenty years later and I’m still thinking these things through. He had a way of  making things sink in, often by giving terrible and memorable examples of what might happen if you don’t do things the way that you should, which is the way he said that you should. For about five years, every time we saw a place where someone had left some TP behind, he’d point it out and say that person didn’t follow the last rule. My dad never said anything about wildlife in the process. I think he just assumed that looking around for people meant looking around for animals, and that one would have to be pretty stupid to let a bear catch him with his pants down. The likelihood seemed low, but this is the sort of stupid shit you think about when you’re in that vulnerable spot in the woods.

Fortunately, we didn’t run into another bear until the next day in the Enchanted Valley. Snow melt was falling down the mountains all around us and the sound of the river couldn’t be escaped. The sky was as blue as you could hope in a rainforest. We were lucky with the weather all weekend. Other campers were stopped on the trail, looking at a hairy black rock not fifty yards away across a field of grass. We got closer and saw that it was a bear, out from the woods to forage for a mid-day snack here and there. Back in the tree line, another thirty yards or so, we could see a little cub hanging back and eating his own share of grubs in between long stares at the strange humans paying so much attention to him. The bear was remarkable in its passiveness. People walked back and forth and he hardly looked up. Kristine snapped about forty photos of a black lump. Two turned out to be really nice. Pretty much worth it.

Still riding the high from our sighting, we almost flew past a couple of young elk on the return trail–slightly more skittish but still pretty comfortable in the belief that we weren’t there to harm them. It’s a National Park. Their territory after all.

You could consider the trip a great success. We feasted on oatmeal, curries, peanutbutterandjellynutella tortillas, sausages, and beef tacos. We saw more wildlife than humans. We drank more water than fell on our heads. The nights were cool and breezy but our sleeping bags were warm and cozy. There was time for self- reflection, storytelling, sharing, and learning. I’ve always loved hiking because you can let yourself fall behind the pack or run ahead of the pace or just let yourself hang with the group. You can share stories and look at the sights with your friends or you can hurry ahead and make time for yourself to see and feel the power of things around you. When you head out into the woods, it’s impossible not to find–in yourself–a new balance.


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