June 28, 2016

Visitor in the Dark: Black Bear Encounters on the Arizona Trail

What happens when a black bear wanders into your tentless camp in the dead of night along the Arizona National Scenic Trail?

Snap!

My eyes flicked open to perfect darkness. I had chosen not to use my tent and I lay alone within my sleeping bag under the fog of sleep. Had I woken to the sound of a branch splitting under the weight of something close?

Slowly, I lifted my head off a makeshift pillow of dirty clothes bundled within my rain jacket. I strained, panning my ears back and forth like choreographed radio dishes searching the depths of space. Pink Floyd lyrics echoed in the corridors of my mind: Is there anybody out there?

The reply was swift.

Crack!

sunset on Arizona Scenic Trail

I shed my sleeping bag, wearing nothing but my boxers.

The midnight air was crisp against my skin, but my blood was running hot. Relax, I tried to convince myself. It’s probably just a furry little—

Smack!

Heavy breathing. A snort. Something was lumbering nearby.

Awesome, I thought, with a churning in my gut–but also a genuine thrill. I was deep within a Douglas fir stand on the Kaibab Plateau. At up around 9,000 feet, I was close to entering the northern strip of Grand Canyon National Park.

My Arizona National Scenic Trail thru-hike had been much more desolate than I would have guessed. I had only seen two mountain bikers since launching at the Utah border, five nights and 75 miles ago. Whatever was out there at that moment didn’t sound much like a mountain biker.

Much of my first five days had been occupied with blisters and introspections, I wondered whether or not I had what it took to complete all 800 rugged and remote miles of the Arizona Trail’s Utah-to-Mexico transect. After all, I only completed 9 miles my first full day, all of it straight uphill, from the desert floor to the gorge-infested, piñon-juniper tabletop of the Kaibab. I was exhausted.

Rim of the Grand Canyon

I had slept out in the open that first night in a patch of sagebrush, depleting a whole box of matches figuring out why my camp stove wouldn’t light. The stars shimmered, the planets brightly displayed in striking alignment as they rose one after another from the east.

I’d never backpacked by myself before. I was lonelier than I had anticipated, but exhilarated by the utter solitude. Owls bore witness to my silent trek, surveying me at dusk from lofty bottlebrush snags.

I couldn’t have known it then, but that first week was arguably the most beautiful 100-mile stretch of the entire AZT. Good thing, too; it would have been easy to quit without benefits like the speechless beauty, big sky, unbroken landscape, and the wildlife.

The wildlife.

The huffing bulk was drawing closer, fast. With each heavy thud and grunt, I grew more certain as to what it was. A black bear. I took a deep breath, reached blindly for my headlamp and the only weapons I could think to utilize if things got…um, hairy: my trekking poles.

The headlamp was absurdly dim. I didn’t have spare AAAs, faithful hyperlight hiker that I was. Typical. I searched my mind for proper bear encounter etiquette. You don’t want it to be surprised. Make warning noises now, before it stumbles onto you—and freaks out.

“Hello, there!” My voice was gravelly, hoarse. I tried again. “Hello, Mr. Friendly Happy Teddy Bear! Nice to meet you. Go away, please.”

A black bear behind a tree in Arizona

The waddling ceased, just beyond the trees encircling my impromptu camp. The grunting, however, continued. I imagined a snout curiously questing the air for my scent.

A chill rifled up my back. Did five days of accumulated stank smell repulsive—or yummy—to my new friend?

I stood up, ready to spring in any direction as I tapped my trekking poles together. What a pitiful, inadequate ruckus I was making!

The shadowy presence circled my camp. If it charged, there was nothing I could do. I gulped back a desperate laugh, took stock of a half-amusing, half-alarming irony: Hadn’t I daydreamed this moment would arrive? Wasn’t this exactly what I had signed up for? Some kind of long-hike merit badge…?

You can keep your stupid badge, I thought.

The large, squat, heavy breather paused just beyond my dismally short periphery of vision. It paced back and forth as though considering the menu. A conversation I had had with my mom before I left came to mind.

“You should bring a gun with you, out there on your own.”

She was only showing concern for my crazy venture, but I had scoffed. “I’m not even packing extra batteries. You know how heavy a gun gets after 800 miles?”

Grunt.

Sounded like a snobby foodie taking a pass. I exhaled, pressed my advantage, clacking my poles together above my head, dancing in my boxers on my crunchy tarp. I pictured myself a crazy hermit loon, beard to my feet, in naught but a loincloth. If this animal had any dignity at all, it’d definitely pass.

“Beat it, buddy! No one invited you!”

We considered each other in the dark for what seemed an eternity. The interloper made up its mind. It charged—

—away from me, dislodging a large tree trunk from the side of a steep hill as it bounded off. The trunk rolled toward me and I had just enough time to be alarmed, though not enough to react. Luckily the log snagged to a violent halt somewhere above me on the uneven slope.

It was over.

I didn’t lie awake or bother to set up my tent. I was simply too exhausted from the past 75 miles of ceaseless climbing. I nestled into my bag and quickly zonked out—only to be awoken at dawn by an angry squirrel throwing pinecones at me.

desert near the Arizona Trail

Chit, chit, chit. Zing!

“Ah,” I said, smiling. “There’s my furry little—”

“Ow!” A spiky pinecone grazed my ear. The squirrel chittered shrilly. I could barely make out what it said. Something like, “Beat it, pal! No one invited you!”

Awesome, I reminded myself. Then, obliging the lofty critter, I packed up and high-tailed it down the trail, laughing like I had the world to myself.

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