12/09/2013 06:41 am ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

Ol' One-With-Nature

Sometimes it is necessary to lie about the little things in order to tell a larger truth. Like the time I was attacked by a herd of bears.

I was hiking south on the Blue Haze, on my way to Falls River Gap, where George and Sandy would pick me up. They had dropped me at the trail head five days earlier. Yesterday had been both the best and the worst day of the trip so far. The best because, four days into the trip, my back was at last finding comfort on the hard ground at night, and my pack was really lightening up, and my hiking boots were proving they were worth the extra fifty bucks I put out for them. This was a hike I could do in five days if I needed to, and which I planned to do in six, but I had told them to meet me in seven, to give myself a little goof-off time, if I wanted it.

Yesterday had been clear and sunny and warm edging towards hot. I made good time, sweat a lot, and drank a lot of water. I stopped at 4:00 to fill my canteens and water bag at the last water source, because I felt good and wanted to keep going, which meant camp that night would be dry. I finally found the perfect spot just before 7:00--off the trail and a little secluded, with good shelter from some rock ledges, but with a good sight line both up and down the trail. I set up camp, such as that entailed, and then walked off a ways to dig my latrine hole. I was about to find out why it was the worst day.

I heard the rattle but couldn't see him at first. Then, there he was, not four feet from my right foot, coiled and looking enormous, the way a 22 cal. looks like a 12 gauge when you're looking down the barrel the wrong way. A coiled rattler, close up, looks about ten feet long and a foot thick. Head like a flat iron. What do you do when you find yourself in this situation? Freeze, right? So, I froze, and the son-of-a-bitch hit me just above the right calf. I screamed and flailed at him, and purely by luck, found my hand behind his head and yanked him out. With a presence of mind I'm proud of to this day, I managed not to stomp him into a bloody pulp. So, there we are, me holding him very firmly behind the head, his body writhing and wrapping around my arm like he's playing boa constrictor. He wasn't a foot thick after all, but he was heavy. I've heard rattlesnake is good to eat, and this one had some meat on him for sure. I was tempted, but instead I got his tail end pinned down with my left foot. I got my sheath knife out and cut off his rattles. Using my left hand and what with his thrashing around, I got a little of his tail too, but this wasn't operating room surgery, and I figured he should be happy to still have his head. I don't know how long he was, but I kept my right hand clamped behind his head and my left about a foot up from his tail, and even stretched as far as I could, there was plenty of snake left over to writhe and coil. I wanted to let him go, but couldn't figure out how. This isn't too well covered in any of the books I've read. Finally, I whirled around, like a discus thrower, and then just let go, left hand first. He sailed up and away and landed 20 feet up the hill side.

I've thought a lot about it since. I wonder what he thought of all this? Here he is, minding his own business, when he is suddenly threatened by this gigantic beast. He does his snake thing and strikes, and all of a sudden, he is being strangled, stepped on, rattles amputated, whirled around, and then suddenly free, flying through the air. This is a perspective that few snakes ever gain. What does he think, I wonder? How does something this bizarre affect your world view?

I picked up the rattles and walked back to my camp, latrine forgotten, and assessed my situation. I had a snake bite kit and used it, for whatever good it might do. I didn't see any venom, just blood. I could sit here--or closer to the trail--and just wait. Eventually, someone would come along, one direction or the other, and I would be helped. I imagined being carried out on a stretcher, or maybe even being helicoptered out. I hated the victimness of that, but I also disliked the thought of dying, and I might suffer the first fate to avoid the second. Or just maybe, I could still walk out. The bite was sore and a little swollen, but really nothing like I imagined a snakebite would be. I had heard of "dry" bites, and I was beginning to think I had lucked out an got one, if getting bit by a rattlesnake can ever be considered having lucked out. It certainly didn't hurt like I imagined. I remembered stories of legs swelling until the skin burst, turning black, delirium, agony. What I had was a sore knee and calf, a little swelling, and two bloody holes. I began to have the inklings of a great story. Hit by a rattler, rattles and scar to prove it, and walked out! I didn't decide this then, but I began to entertain the notion. What I did decide was to sleep on it. If I felt this good in the morning, then maybe.

In fact, the next morning I felt worse, but still not like I thought I should, given the size of the snake and what I knew about snakebite. I dithered a bit, decided to stay and then reversed myself three or four times, and then about 10:00 said, "The Hell with it." and packed up and started out. Almost at once, I realized that I wasn't going to be making record time. The leg was sore and even more swollen, but I could walk on it, I was sure, with a little help. I found that help in a sapling not 10 feet from the trail. I used my hatchet, though I probably could have done as well with my sheath knife. Pretty soon I had a serviceable walking stick; inch and a half at the base, tapering to an inch at the top, all of six feet long. I tried it out, and it worked just fine.

I made my way slowly but steadily for the rest of the morning. The trail was climbing in a series of gentle switchbacks towards Kronkite Pass. From there, it would descend steeply into the high valley beyond, run along another six miles, and then crest the far side and descend to the gap. Piece-a-cake, even in my current condition.

I hit Kronkite about 2:00 and decided to rest a bit and have lunch. A steady breeze was blowing from behind me down into the valley ahead. There was no one visible, either behind or before me, so I dropped my pack right on the trail and pulled out my camp stove. First order of business was some hot chocolate. Yesterday had been almost too hot, but today was making up for it. Overcast, cool breeze, smelling like rain, or if it cooled off a little more, maybe even sleet or snow. Probably not, but hot chocolate would taste good. So I boiled water for that, then chocolate in hand, started a pot of chicken soup from a dry packet, but with extra canned chicken and some dried vegetables thrown in. I hadn't been hungry last night and just snacked. I was constantly thirsty, it seemed, and had used a lot of water. I wasn't really hungry now, but I knew I needed to eat, so used the last of my water for the soup. I would get more about a mile into the valley, and it was all down hill to there.

I was sipping my chocolate, watching my soup heat, when movement on the trail, maybe a mile ahead, caught my eye. I got binocs out and saw the impossible: a brown bear--not a color but a Grizzly--reared up on his hind legs, sniffing the air. Back on all fours, he jumped off the trail into the low scrub. I followed his progress by the movement of bushes, the trembling of small trees, and an occasional flash of brown fur. Suddenly he appeared on the trail again, less than a quarter mile down hill, having just cut off the long switchbacks I would take going down. He was moving in an easy lope, but was covering the ground between us at an alarming rate. The stories of bear attacks I had read flashed through my mind. They mostly involved brown bears, and since we don't have brown bears here, they were scary, but irrelevant. Besides, bears don't attack in broad daylight unless surprised or threatened. This wasn't some injured or sick or starving animal. He was big and healthy and approaching damn fast. For just a moment I toyed with the idea of putting on my pack and bluffing him. Luckily, the foolishness of that was obvious even to my numb and disbelieving mind. I grabbed my walking stick and scrambled up a granite boulder, which brought me close to the lowest branches of a good sized pine.

The bear tore into camp. I know it saw me, but it was neither scared nor interested. It went straight to my camp stove where the soup was just starting to boil. He stuck his long pink tongue right in and then jumped immediately back with a howl of pain and then rage. He charged me at once. The only thing that saved me, standing 12 to 15 feet up, was that he came straight at me and tried to scale the sheer face of the boulder instead of going around back, as I had done, where it was steep, but climbable. We both realized this at the same time. He ran to his left, and I, for reasons I will never know, clamped my walking stick in my teeth and jumped for the pine limb.

That was the jump of a lifetime. I shouldn't have made it. Without the bear, I never would have. The branch sagged but held. I threw my left leg over and shinnied in to the trunk, then up another 10 feet until the trunk felt uncomfortably small. I hung on and looked down. The bear was letting out little grunts and huffs as, standing on the boulder now, it took swipes at the pine limb. It was either too dumb or too smart to try the jump I had just made. It looked up at me and I saw concentration, intelligence, and hatred. This bear wanted to eat me, but he wanted to hurt me first. I knew this beyond any possible doubt, even if it was beyond understanding, and knowing it, I also knew what would inevitably happen if I stayed here. Grizzlies don't climb trees. But this bear would. This bear would climb up without problem until our combined weight snapped the trunk of the pine. We would both survive the fall, but probably only one of us the subsequent encounter. I knew I had to meet him and fend him off further down the trunk. I started down carefully as I saw him leave the boulder. I felt his body hit the base of the tree at a full run, and he started right up. I barely had time to set myself before he was right here. I aimed my walking stick at him and I remember thinking that his sensitive nose was the best target as I pulled it back. Then animal viciousness seized me and I thought, "Hell, poke his eye out. Punch through into his brain if you can." I thrust the stick at him as forcefully as I could. I don't know if he knew I had this wooden spear or not. It may have surprised him, but you couldn't tell from his reaction time. Damn he was fast. I was still imagining his eye impaled when he reared his head back and the tip of the stick missed not only eye, but nose as well and banged into his upper lip and gum, drawing blood. Before I could even pull it back, he had snapped at it and caught the tip in his teeth. The force of my blow combined with his jerk must have loosened his grip on the tree, because he slid down two or three feet, losing his grip on the stick, before stopping himself and starting right back up. I had hung on for dear life and almost lost my own grip on both the walking stick and the tree trunk. I was in fact sliding down the trunk when the stick's tip, fractured and splintered, met his upward lunge squarely on the nose. His left nostril ripped open in a spray of blood, and he let out a roar that almost deafened me.

I managed, again just barely, to hang on to both the stick and the tree. He backed down the trunk in three or four long slides until his hind feet were on the ground and he stood there and shook his head. Blood arched out and he looked up at me and growled, but turned onto all fours and walked back, past my pack and camp stove, to the very edge of the pass, where it started its descent into the valley. He did something then that I've never heard of, before or since. He lifted up his head and howled. I've never heard a sound like it. You may not have heard bears in the wild.

When I was growing up, my family had a summer home in the wilds. Not too wild, I guess, because we had electricity and a phone, and running water. But kind of wild, because the kitchen sink still had the old hand pump for water, and the road was a single track of dirt with a high center which, in two or three places, hid large rocks which could and did take out an oil pan if you didn't know about them and slow way down. And also because no one lived closer to us than a mile. We would sit out back on a summer evening and sometimes hear the black bears hoot at each other. This was pretty exciting stuff for the city kids that we were. One night, in an excess of daring, after we had been listening to two of then across the valley, I declared that I was going bear hunting. I had my pocket knife and got all of 50 yards down the hill into the dark before I decided I probably wouldn't find them. They'd probably run away. So, I came home. Fast. My little sisters were in awe, but my Dad only said, "Get any?" I said no.

This bear was not hooting. I don't know how to describe it. It wasn't just a sustained growl, though there was a deep growl like component to it. I've never heard real wolves howl, but this was much deeper than they sound in the movies. After the first howl, he waited just a bit, then howled again--deep, long, loud. It was both frightening and strangely moving. It made me feel lonely and sad, and I felt sympathy for him and wanted to answer. I shouldn't have worried, because he got his answer, from down in the valley. He howled a third time and again got his reply, and then another reply, further away and to the west, but clearly the same kind of bear howl. Apparently satisfied, he came back up the trail to my camp stove and pack. With so little effort that it might have been made of tissue paper, he demolished the pack. Ripped it into shreds. He dragged the carcass a little way towards my tree, then plopped down where, almost by chance, he could glance up at me occasionally as he casually dismembered my effigy.

Sooner than I would have expected, I saw another brown bear, a female with two one-year old cubs, emerge from the brush just where the male had and start up the trail. This was not good. When she got here, the male would kill her cubs, but even if he didn't, there would be a terrible fight as she tried to protect them. I didn't see how the coming conflict could worsen my position any, but I felt a strong foreboding. This was the real Nature, not the sanitized, idealized Nature special we see on TV. Real Nature was often ugly. This was going to be ugly. Bears have great noses. I was surprised that she didn't smell him. Then I realized that the boiling soup must have caught her total attention.

She was a lot slower than he had been in reaching the camp site, but she did at last, followed by the two little balls of fur. She went right to the camp stove, while one cub held back, and the other shot ahead of her, right towards the male. I couldn't believe she would let this happen, but she did. The cub went right up to him, and he nuzzled it, getting blood on the cubs fur. The cub licked him, on the lower jaw, bleeding upper lip, bleeding nose. The big male just let him. The second cub came up and the male licked it once, and then the two cubs were tussling and rolling around. Papa bear got up and walked to the Mother, who met him half way. They touched noses.

So much for my bear lore. I hung onto my tree and watched in amazement. Evidently Disney got it right after all. Some while later, a second female with an older cub--two or three years old--came into camp from the west. Her arrival didn't seem to surprise the other bears. There was no wild joy, but no conflict, except that the older cub was a little rough with the young ones when they ran up to greet him. His Mother and their Mother made growling, grunting remonstrances at him, and he walked away from them and touched noses with the big male. Just one big happy family.

About sunset, I noticed that the camp stove had burned out and that the soup was gone. I don't know who ate it. I was beginning to wonder how long I was going to be stuck up this tree. My right leg was real sore now, and both legs were sore on the inside from sliding down the trunk and squeezing hard to stop my fall. I was beginning to cramp up again from the prolonged stress of sitting here. Earlier, I had stood up to try and stretch, and my movement had generated quite a bit of interest from all the cubs. The older one started to climb up, but Papa bear let out a sudden savage growl and Buster came smartly back down. The younger cubs ran back to Mama. Buster took the long way around, but did the same. Papa had nothing else in mind, and peace returned. Now, all the bears studiously avoided looking at me, except every once in a while, Papa.

All I had with me was my fanny pack, a canteen, now dry, and my sheath knife. I had matches and tinder, my compass, a small flashlight, a space blanket, and 50 feet of nylon cord in the fanny pack. I decided to try and make a spear by tying my knife to the walking stick. I was awfully worried about dropping something. I worked slowly and carefully, and by the time full dark had arrived, I had the knife firmly, if inelegantly, tied to the stick. I had the other end tied to my right wrist by another two feet of cord. I even had myself tied to the tree by three very large loops which went behind my back and under my arms. I could hear them below me in the dark. This didn't seem like a good place for bears to spend the night. At least to me. It was fairly open and without water. I mentioned this to the bears, but aside from going completely quiet whenever I spoke, they pretty much ignored me. I had a good view from up here, both north, down the trail I had climbed, and south down the trail and into the valley ahead. I hoped to see a glimmer of light from a camp fire or camp stove, but all was pitch black.

I must have fallen asleep. I was dreaming that the big male had my spear embedded in his shoulder and had his jaws grinding on my right leg at the knee. He fell backwards, pulling me with him until the cord snapped tight against my back. For just a second we hung like that until my leg gave under the combined assault of his bite and his weight and ripped off with a gush of blood. I woke up screaming, leaning back against the cords, spear dangling from my wrist, my right leg throbbing, but still attached. It hurt enough that I questioned whether this was truly a good thing. I pulled the spear up and rested it across my legs. I was very thirsty. I pulled my canteen out before its weight reminded me that it was empty. I knew it was empty, but I unscrewed it anyway and found that, sure enough, there was not a drop to be had. I felt sudden anger--at my thirst, at myself for opening a canteen I knew was empty, at the canteen for being empty--and my anger made me careless. Trying to force the canteen back into the pouch on my belt, it slipped out of my hand and fell. Almost at once--way too soon, because I was 20 feet up--I heard a thump and a little "huff." Panicked, I managed to get my flashlight out without dropping it. I turned it on and shone it down the trunk, and there he was, not eight feet below me. The light was only a penlight, so the ground below was mostly dark, except for the reflection off many pairs of eyes looking up. The big male's nose was caked with dried blood, but still oozed a trickle of fresh blood, which reflected my light, as did his little pig eyes. I swear I saw malice in them. He started up at me as I switched the flashlight to my left hand and swung the knife end of the spear down towards him. For just a second my dream flashed through my mind, but the light from my flash glinted off the blade, and he stopped and looked at it. He looked up at me, back at the blade, then, keeping his eyes on me, he backed down the trunk.

I kept the flash on until there was nothing to see. I turned it off and sat there shaking, both from the adrenaline and pure terror. I couldn't believe what had just happened. That bear had been sneaking up on me. It had climbed the tree with deliberate stealth. Another anomaly in my now thoroughly discredited bear lore. I don't think bears are stalkers. In fact, I don't know what bears usually eat when they get a chance to be carnivores. Other than images of Kodiaks sweeping salmon out of streams, I had no real knowledge of their habits. I couldn't imagine a bear chasing down a deer, but I couldn't imagine a bear hiding in the bushes waiting for an unwary deer to pass. Except maybe this one. He probably hunted deer by setting dead falls. I grinned to myself. No, this one probably dug a deep pit and covered it with branches. My grin widened, and a giggle escaped. Maybe he had a 30.06 stashed away in his home cave. I laughed. This one probably drove deer off cliffs by fires he set from flints and rusty metal he found in campsites. I laughed hard. I could hear them below me. I laughed again. I couldn't stop laughing. "Hey, dumbshit! Forget which way to flick the on/off switch on your generator?" I howled with laughter. My wit was too much. "Okay, Bruno. You and me. Mano a Urso. Are you coming up or do I have to come down there?" They were speechless before my razor sharp words. In fact, they were now totally silent. My laughter trailed off. I listened. Nothing. I shone the flashlight back down the trunk. Nothing. Inky blackness. No twigs snapping. No huffs. I turned the flashlight off and listened. Nothing.

I sat there all night. Every once in a while, I would shine the light downwards. Nothing. It started to rain. I licked water off the bark. Pretty soon I was soaked, and I sucked water out of my shirt. Damn, it tasted good. I should have been freezing, but I seemed warm enough, somehow. Daylight was late in coming because of the rain, but when I could see the ground at last, there were no bears. In fact, there was no pack, no sleeping bag, no camp stove or pots or debris. I sat there waiting and listening. They're gone, I decided. I waited some more. They really are gone, I told myself. They couldn't all be hiding in the bushes waiting for me to come down. I was sure of that. I waited some more and fell asleep. When I awoke, it was starting to get dark again, early because of the clouds, though the rain had stopped. I couldn't face another night in this tree. I couldn't face another minute in this tree. I untied the cord holding me to the trunk. I remembered my challenge of the night before. I undid the first loop. I remembered the look on his face as he backed down the tree. I undid the second loop. I stopped. They couldn't all be waiting. But he could be. I undid the third loop. Looking South, I saw two people walking up the switchbacks towards me. Completely unsuspecting of the ambush awaiting them. Could I sit here and wait? See what happened when they got here? Maybe the bears were really gone. And if they weren't?

George and Sandy said they found me by chance. They figured I would finish early and so had come up early themselves to surprise me. They had walked up from the gap and started up the valley, expecting to see me at every bend. They weren't planning on camping out here, and it looked like I really was going to take the full seven days. They had just decided to head back when they heard my screams, and couldn't just ignore them, although they were so faint that they were almost indistinguishable from the wind in the trees. They found me and helped me back to the car, then quickly on to the hospital. They told me that when they got close enough to hear what I was screaming, I was yelling and waving and telling them to go back, go back, hysterical or delirious or both. I don't remember any of it. I remember starting to climb down from the tree, convinced I was about to be attacked, and must have blacked out. I woke up in a strange bed in a white room two days later.

They tell me I'm lucky it was a mostly dry strike. I agree. They ask what happened to all my stuff and I say I don't know. One doctor, a particularly obnoxious, self satisfied SOB, asked me if I had learned anything about messing with snakes. I told him, "This whole thing sure has been a lesson to me." I don't think he got it. Probably only listens to NPR. I told him there were forces in Nature we don't understand. Things we can't explain. And when a smart individual comes up against one of them, he just leaves it alone. Just walks away. He looked confused. "You're talking about rattlesnakes, aren't you?" he asked. "Yes," I lied. "I am."