Mistaken Identity: Bears

by

Bear Cubs.. Not Porcupines

Paysayten Trail, WA

Paysayten Trail, WA

It was late in the day on a trail in the North Cascades of Washington State. I had been a course supervisor for a 22-day Outward Bound mountaineering course in the Paysayten Wilderness  on the Canadian border, and was hiking out to the trailhead to meet our logistics person. I had to head out to prepare for the course-end cleanup and ceremonies.  One of three groups of students was an hour behind me on the trail, following me to the same destination. I’d last seen them at morning camp in the wilderness about 10 miles ago, and told them I’d see them at the parking lot. I didn’t expect they’d catch me,  as I was in a hurry.
As I cruised along the wooded trail which wound around small contours in the Douglas fir forest,  I walked fast, using my ski poles for extra propulsion, and kept my head down.  As I strode at a good clip I heard a scratching high up in a tree to my right. Some of us get cocky after having been in the mountains for years.
Since I was in a hurry, I didn’t bother looking up, and deduced I’d just heard a porcupine scratching and climbing about.  I kept on.  But, after a few more steps, I heard the same type of scratching far up in a tree above me, but this time to my left.  So I thought, “Oh, must be another porcupine” but this time I decided to look up, and the thought occurred to me, “it’s odd, to have two porcupines in trees like this.”

"B.b..Bear!"

"B.b..Bear!"

And to my surprise, when I looked up I discovered it was a baby bear cub. It didn’t take me long to conclude: “If that sound is from a baby cub…then the sound back there could also be a…….baby bear cub.”  I looked back and high up, to the first tree, and yep, I was in between two cubs. “Breathe!  Look around! Where’s Mama Bear?”  My  thoughts raced nervously. There was no sign of her. “Not good! Now what?”
“Don’t run, just walk back calmly from where I’d come.” – Back down the small hill and contour to the north. I walked back a quarter mile, surveying the scene, and looking behind my shoulder the whole time. I was still alive anyway.

“Now what?” I thought, “the trail is blocked by those two cubs, and who knows where mom is,  and I have a group of students on the way!”  “Hmm,” I thought, “Make noise.”  But my pot and bowl were buried in my pack so what else could I use. I decided to pull my bamboo flute out and start playing it.

Never play a flute to scare off bears, or at least cubs.

Cub up close - not good

Cub up close - not good

As I played the flute, I still had adrenalin pumping, and was trying to calm down. I stood in the trail facing uphill toward the bear territory, but my gaze was down staring at the trail in front of me as I played. Pretty soon the two little cubs came running down the trail to see what the pretty noise was. The problem was, we didn’t see each other until we were inches from each other as they grinded to halt with their little paws putting the brakes on. Little puffs of dust came up from each paw, like a cartoon character. I’ll never forget seeing the little black nose and those big eyes in surprise, looking up at me. At that moment, they too, had just barely come into my field of vision because I was looking down at the trail, I didn’t see them until they were at my feet.  Our gazes met for a split second, I dropped my flute, and they wheeled around and headed for mom. This time, and without my pack which I left, I ran even further back down the trail towards away from my destination. In twenty paces I almost ran over the first group of students. All I could say was “Bb.bb..Bear!”

The North Cascades

The North Cascades

They couldn’t understand why I was so hyper, But I wouldn’t let them continue until 15 minutes had passed. We made it back to my backpack, which was still in one piece – not torn apart by bears. We continued up the hill, around the corner to the “t.tt..trees and b.bb.bear country”, my eyes wide with attention, moving ever so cautiously.  But the highlight had come and gone, no more cubs, no sign of Mama, and…no porcupines. We made it back to the trailhead without incident.  The moral?

Don’t be a know-it-all. Can you believe it? I tried guessing what animal was making those sounds in the trees..and didn’t even bother looking up! I was too busy, and too experienced. Hah!  I won’t act that way again!

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