The Problem Bear
The Sun was shining brighter than it had all week, and we found the trail on the northern end of Newport Road, where we began climbing.
“So you did it right there on the ground?” Muffin Man asked me.
“Yeah, I got dirt all over my balls,” I said while taking long strides up the hill.
“I figured something happened between you two,” Good Talk added as we walked, “with the way you were cuddled up on the couch together.”
“Yeah, everyone probably thought we were a couple with how indiscreet we were being.”
“That’s hilarious dude. I didn’t think it would happen, then I saw you two walking over to that little shack,” Tarzan said glancing back at me as he walked.
I laughed, “Did you hear anything?”
“No, the last thing I wanted was to hear you doing it. I went back inside.”
I laughed harder, then Clovis added, “I missed all this. I fell asleep on the couch before any of it happened. But I did wake up to the sound of someone puking.”
“Yeah we were up pretty late playing cards,” Muffin Man said.
“So Romeo, is she your Juliet now?” Clovis asked me dryly. He had way of speaking with a monotone inflection, even when telling a joke. His dry tone always added humor to the things he said.
I laughed at the question, “no, I wouldn’t say that. It was just a hookup.”
“What if she wanted to do it again though?” Good Talk asked.
I hesitated before answering, “I’d do it again, no doubt,” I said, still smiling.
There was a collective “ohhh!” From the group. Oh jeez.
“Romeo’s gotta trail boo!” Tarzan added.
“Trail tail!” Good Talk chimed in.
“Pink blazin’!” Muffin Man fed the flame.
“Looks like you’re a couple now, dude,” Clovis said grinning through his teeth.
“Fuck you guys!” I said laughing. I love these goons.
Further up the trail I almost stepped on a box turtle as he was right in the middle of the path. He caught my eye and I stopped dead in my tracks just a foot in front of him. I crouched down to get a closer look, and he immediately retracted into his shell, as if he were terrified of my presence. I picked him up, probably against his will, to inspect him further. It was like I was a child for the moment, in awe of something so relatively trivial. I rotated him gently, and his tiny head begrudgingly made it’s way from the safety of his shell so he could get a better look at the asshole who decided to interrupt his travels, me.
“Hey little guy,” I said, starting a conversation with a non-human.
With his nub like feet he reached out to scratch my hand, but his attempt to use his claws to escape my grip were futile, though intriguing to see. I wanted him to realize I was harmless, that I was merely a curious entity, but it would be impossible to communicate anything to this fascinating reptile. He just wanted to be released from my intrusive grip. The best thing I could do for him would be to set him off trail, so no one accidentally steps on him. Suddenly I became a moral arbiter for box turtles.
We passed Johns Spring Shelter and Catawba Mountain Shelter with McAfee Knob just over the next mountain. Of the three peaks we were to cross, Dragons Tooth, McAfee Knob, and Tinker Cliffs, McAfee knob was said to be the most spectacular. With the recent memories of watching the sunrise from Dragons Tooth fresh in my mind, I excitedly raced up the mountain. The landscape vista we were granted on Dragons Tooth was something words can’t really articulate. Watching the sun illuminate vast expanses of wilderness, casting shadows all across the mountains, was sublime. I could’ve sat on that rock all morning and observed the beauty being displayed. How could that be topped?
When the terrain began to gradually flatten I knew I had reached the top of McAfee Knob. I could hear faint voices just ahead, and I rounded a corner to find large groups of hikers congregated around the mountain’s edge. Most of them were day hikers, as they weren’t carrying a heavy pack and they reeked of cleanliness. Nodding and smiling as I made my way by them, I found Tarzan and Muffin Man gazing out into the distance. Then I looked in the direction of where they were looking. Vast expanses of rolling hills made observable on this picturesque day captivated me. The clear sky allowed this view to be observed, but it also incentivized mobs of day hikers to crowd the place. That didn’t stop Muffin Man from finding two sturdy trees growing from beneath the rocks, and using them to set up his hammock. About three yards from the edge of McAfee Knob, he watched the view from the comfort of his hammock. Good Talk and Clovis soon joined us when they made their way to the mountain top, and we all sat near the edge, observing as far as our eyes could see. Swaths of grassy fields lay between vast areas of oak trees huddled together. Farmland and small houses abound over the grassy areas, though the houses only appeared small from our vantage point. One could hold up their thumb and index finger and crush the barns and houses if they merely squinted one eye. Over the mountains more fields and forest area lay in seemingly pristine condition, and with my childlike mind I imagined myself as a five hundred foot tall giant, walking thunderously over the mountains, picking up houses and cows like they were apart of a Lego set.
I posed the question to Clovis, hoping he’d entertain my childishness, “What would you do if you were a giant, so tall that your head could reach McAfee Knob?”
“Like I could peak my head up here and see all these people like ants?”
I laughed, “Yeah! Exactly like that.”
He looked at me and smiled while I waited for him to say something. Then he stuck out his tongue and made a slurping noise, as if he were pretending to be a chameleon eating an insect. I burst into laughter, nearly rolling off the mountain because I was laughing so hard. His response took me by surprise, and the mental image of a giant slurping human beings up like insects struck a very sensitive, and childish, chord in my sense of humor. We both shared a long laugh together, and at that moment I knew I wouldn’t mind hiking with Clovis until we reached Katahdin.
After everyone exchanged phones so we could all get pictures of ourselves standing on McAfee Knob, we considered where to go to set up camp for the night. We weighed our options considering it was already two o’clock in the afternoon.
“How bout Lamberts Meadow Shelter? It’s about seven miles away,” Good Talk suggested.
We were looking at our guidebooks, observing the upcoming terrain and thinking of how long it might take us to get from point A to point B. “That would put us right past Tinker Cliffs. We could watch the sunset from Tinker and then it’s all downhill to the shelter,” Muffin Man said in agreement.
Tarzan stroked his beard and nodded, “Sounds like a plan.”
We trekked further north together and we came across a sign that read, “Sightings of problem bear in the area around Lambert Meadows Shelter. Shelter closed temporarily.”
“What’s a problem bear?” I asked.
“It means the bear was giving hikers a problem,” Good Talk said, “he probably took someone’s food bag, so now he associates hikers and the whole area with food.”
“Yeah, a lot of section hikers and day hikers will see a bear, then drop their shit and run. Exactly what you’re not supposed to do,” Tarzan added, “that’s how the bear associates humans with an easy lunch, he can just take their food when they drop their shit and run.”
“You’re supposed to stand your ground, right?” I asked, “make yourself appear larger than you actually are, and make a lot of noise?”
“Make the bear think you’re the alpha,” Clovis said, confirming what I thought to be true.
“So what does this mean?” Muffin Man asked, “should we stop here, or keep going? Cause the sign says we can’t camp within five miles of the problem bear shelter.”
“You think there’s gonna be a park ranger waiting for us at the shelter?” I asked sarcastically.
“No, but I’m not trying to fuck with this bear tonight,” he replied.
“Dude, if we go to the shelter we probably won’t even see the bear, and if we do, so what, there’s five of us,” I pronounced confidently.
“If we go there, we’re just asking for trouble. I’ve done enough stupid shit in my life, I can’t be running around looking for bears,” he said waving his hand passionately.
“Oh come on dude!” I said excitedly, looking around to everyone else, “Let’s go there. Fuck this sign and fuck that bear. We could take him.”
Clovis and Good Talk started laughing, “Come on guys it’ll be fun!” I continued, “I wanna see this bear.”
“You’re just asking for trouble. This is stupid,” Muffin Man rightfully said, but I still tried to convince him.
I held my arms out and cocked my head, “don’t be scared, homie.” I purposely tried to annoy and galvanize him into coming to the shelter.
He doubled down with, “you’re a fucking moron.”
I turned to Clovis, Good Talk, and Tarzan, “What do you guys say?”
“I’m down dude. I like doing crazy shit,” Clovis said nodding.
“My fucking man! Good Talk? Tarzan?”
“I don’t know, it could be fun. But Muffin Man is right, we are kind of asking for trouble if we go there,” Good Talk said.
“Yeah, I don’t know, I wouldn’t mind walking five more miles past the shelter. But that doesn’t mean we won’t see the bear five miles past, or even here if we stop now. The bear doesn’t read these signs. It’s just in the area,” Tarzan spoke keenly.
“And they can smell your farts from like twenty miles away,” I added.
We continued on, and I thought about the possibility of seeing a bear. It didn’t bring fear to me, only excitement. I was convinced that if I’m with four other people, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. These are black bears, not polar bears or grizzlies. And we’re savvy with how we’re supposed to deal with a bear situation. Fuck it, I’ll fight a black bear if it comes down to it.
We stopped at the bottom of a hill for a moment to drink some water and consider where we were. We sat down on the grass, leaning on our packs for back support. I looked to Muffin Man, who was reading the guidebook.
“If that’s Lamberts Meadow Trail over there,” Muffin Man said pointing, “then we must be at Brickeys Gap. So, 1.8 miles from Tinker Cliffs.”
It was getting dim, the sun would be going down soon. Clovis took a deep breath and sighed, “I want to be there. I’m tired of hiking today.”
“Well, we have a pretty big climb to get to the top of Tinker,” Muffin Man said.
“I’m going now,” Clovis said, standing up and grabbing his trekking poles. He raced up the mountain at a pace I hadn’t seen from him before, and everyone else struggled to keep up as he huffed and puffed up the mountain. “I think my heart rate got up to about 180 beats a minute there,” he said after he caught his breath at the top.
I arrived a good five minutes after him and the others, as I hiked hastily, but not ferociously, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone hike so fast,” I said, “that was impressive.”
“So this is Tinker Cliffs,” Good Talk said as we stepped out to the rocky cliffs that extended northward up the trail for half a mile. We were greeted with a sunset almost immediately when we reached the top. Strong wind gusts penetrated the serene quietness that we found at the top. Other hikers were there, but nothing near the numbers we saw on McAfee Knob earlier that day. We could see McAfee Knob from the these cliffs, and we were bequeathed with the same landscape view, only from an angle seven miles north. The sunset that harkened us to observe it’s presence augmented the view’s dynamic, with shades of red and orange covering a lower layer of the sky, and blue hues that grew darker the higher my eyes looked up. Cold chills came in as the Sun lowered further, casting shadows on the earth all around us.
“So what’s the plan?” I said, turning from the darkening sky to face my friends.
“I’d rather just find a place to set up here than go to that shelter,” Clovis said, and we all agreed that we were done with hiking for the day.
“I saw some flat spots just over there,” Tarzan said pointing back towards the trees, “and there’s other people setting up camp down there,” he said pointing south.
“Lots of stealth camping up here,” Good Talk added, “Let’s see what we can find.”
I stayed a little longer at the view with Muffin Man while the others walked back from the cliffs, just a few yards towards the grassy trail and trees behind us. “So here’s our water source,” he said, gesturing to a puddle of clear rainwater that lay in one of the many crevices along the cliffs.
Filling up my water bag I said with a goofy smile, “so you really think I’m a moron?”
“Yes. You think you can fight a black bear and win.”
I laughed, “I don’t really think I’d win. I think I’d get mauled, but I’d probably survive.”
“A head kick wouldn’t work on a bear.”
I shrugged, “Probably not, but I’d still throw it. What else am I gonna do? Lay down for him?”
“No. But you want to see the bear. You’re asking for trouble.”
“I’m looking for adventure.”
He threw his arms in the air, looking all around him, “So this isn’t enough of an adventure for you?”
He had a point. This gave me pause, then I said plainly “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever done.”
He looked at me, seeing my sincerity. “Me too,” he said nodding.
We grabbed our packs and walked back towards the trees with the rest of our group, looking to my right I could see headlamps some distance away, marking the campsite of other hikers we’d be sharing the mountain with for the night.
“You guys wanna cowboy camp tonight?” Good Talk suggested to us.
“Yes,” Muffin Man said without a moments hesitation, never missing an opportunity to cowboy camp.
“Yeah, I’m down, it doesn’t look like it’s gonna rain,” Tarzan said.
Clovis and I also agreed to do the same, and we all laid our sleeping pads down on the grass and our sleeping bags on top. Cowboy camping is just that, not using a tent or hammock, but simply laying out a sleeping pad and sleeping bag and crawling inside it. One is far more exposed to the elements and whatever fauna roam around at night, but when the night sky isn’t obscured by clouds, or when you’re too tired to set up your tent, it’s worth it. When I first tried cowboy camping on the trail, I was terrified of the prospect of a venomous snake crawling inside my sleeping bag with me. While that is completely possible, however unlikely, the potential of that happening no longer bothers me. Why worry about things that aren’t happening now, or are unlikely to occur? A life without risk sounds miserably boring to me.
With our headlamps attached to our foreheads, we set up our cowboy camp, giving each other space while still close enough to talk in a casual voice. As we cooked our dinners on our stoves we heard people yelling from the campsite about a tenth of a mile south of us. Screaming and shouting inaudibly, we looked over to see headlamps moving all about, but no idea what was actually happening.
“Are they alright?” I asked wondering what everyone else thought.
“They’re being loud as fuck,” Good Talk answered.
“You think they’re partying?” Tarzan wondered out loud.
“Gettin’ drunk and loud in the woods after sundown? Maybe,” I replied.
We ate our dinners and listened to the shouting as background noise, thinking what the hell is going on over there? There had to be about ten hikers at that campsite, with several voices shouting loudly. One man seemed to be screaming himself hoarse. It was late, and we were exhausted from lack of sleep compounded with all the miles we hiked that day. The distant shouting seemed to quiet after several minutes, and we assumed they were just partying rowdily. We chatted idly about what could possibly be going on over there, then suddenly Tarzan interrupted with, “bear.”
His voice was quiet, plain, lacking emotion. I turned towards him, without processing the word fully, I said, “what?”
“Bear.” This time his voice was louder, and forebodingly stern, and I turned in the direction he was looking and pointing, and my headlamp revealed the black bear to me, only a few yards away, moving towards us almost in silence.
Before I knew it I was standing up, waving my arms in the air, shouting, “Get out of here bear!” I stepped towards him, and everyone else sprung to their feet, yelling with me. The bear stopped in his tracks for a moment, only about three yard away now and looked at us wearing a perplexed expression. He was a juvenile from the looks of it, not fully grown but still harboring formidable size and strength. He looked about four feet long, at least 200 pounds, but probably closer to 250. We all grabbed our trekking poles which lay beside us, still keeping an eye on the bear, still shouting at him, and we formed a line, standing side by side. Clanking our poles together, waving them high in the air, shouting “Get out of here!” We waited for the bear to make his move. He simply stood there on all fours, looking at us, sort of surprised, sort of dumbfounded, as if to say what the hell are you fools yelling at?
We all must’ve felt the same way about what the bear was thinking, because after a pause in the yelling, we stood there staring at him as he stared at us, then we all burst into laughter. Except for the bear of course, he kept staring. We felt ridiculous, yelling at this innocent bear who came wandering into our camp, and he wasn’t even phased by our shouting and stomping.
Then we got quiet again, trying to hold back our laughter as if trying to conceal it from the bear. Wouldn’t want him to think we’re bluffing. “So, uh, what do we do now?” Good Talk asked with a grin. At that point I couldn’t hold back my laughter anymore, clearly this bear didn’t give a shit about our loud noises.
Over our giggling Clovis tried to maintain his composure, calmly saying, “I don’t think we’re supposed to stop, guys.”
“Right, right,” I said. Then we all resumed yelling at the bear, as loud as we possibly could. It was quite exhilarating, cathartic even.
“Get out of here bear!”
“Go away bear!”
“Fuck off bear!”
Good Talk started roaring at the bear, channeling his most primal self. I found that to be amusing, but I held it together, trying to be as serious as possible about the situation at hand. The bear began to back up slowly, and the human wall we formed began to close in on him, however hesitantly. I felt braver and braver the louder I yelled, and my confidence grew like a raging fire inside me. It culminated in me thinking I can take this motherfucker. I really believed it. If this bear comes at me I will fuck him up. “I think I can take him,” I said to everyone’s surprise. Then I stepped forward boldly, out of formation, and yelled “Get out of here!” He looked up, directly into my eyes, and I stared right back, showing my teeth like some kind of savage. When two animals are about to fight they make direct eye contact. This bear might actually charge me. Then I realized I made a grave mistake. What am I doing? I don’t want to fight this bear. Clarity came to me, and I broke eye contact, looking down for a moment and then stepping back into formation.
“Romeo you crazy bastard!” Muffin Man said, “Get back in line!”
“Romeo was about to fight him!” Tarzan howled with laughter.
The bear continued to back peddle slowly, looking at us, with a frightened countenance. His hind legs stumbled upon a tree, and he turned to hug it, standing up on his hind legs now, looking at us but not making a sound. If he was making any noises, it was drowned out by our yells. As we circled closer, he turned away and retreated into the darkness of the forest. We followed behind him for a moment, trying to see his direction, but he was gone in an instant.
“Holy shit!” Muffin Man gasped.
“That was crazy!” Good Talk said excitedly.
“That was fucking cool,” Clovis nodded.
“I thought he was gonna charge me when I stepped at him,” I laughed.
“You’re crazy dude,” Tarzan said.
Muffin Man was shaking his head, “You really were about to fight that bear, you crazy fuck!”
“I don’t know man. In that moment I really thought I could take him. Then we locked eyes and I thought ‘oh shit'” I explained.
“I would’ve had your back, Romeo,” Good Talk said, patting me on the back.
I laughed, “Thanks dude, I would’ve had yours too.”
“Yeah man, if that bear would’ve jumped on you I would’ve kicked the shit out of it,” Clovis added.
We all walked back to our camp and sat down on our sleeping bags, “I gotta smoke after that shit,” Muffin Man said tiredly.
“Hey!” We heard a voice call out from the campsite south of us, “You guys okay over there?!”
“Yeah!” Clovis yelled back, “We’re fine!”
“We should hang these food bags,” Good Talk suggested to us, as we all had our food bags laying on the ground next to our sleeping pads and backpacks.
“I was just thinking that,” Tarzan added, “That’s what the bear wants, our food. Let’s not have it directly next to us.”
“Where should we hang them?” I asked.
“Somewhere where the bear can’t reach,” Clovis answered plainly.
“We could tie them all to one rope, tie the rope to a tree, then let them hang off the cliffs,” Good Talk postulated the idea that we all promptly agreed with.
“Muffin Man and I will stay here and watch the campsite in case the bear comes back, if you guys want to take our food bags?”
“Yeah that’ll work,” Tarzan said as they grabbed our bags and ventured towards the cliff edges. We stood there, waiting and watching. I circled around the camp, looking into the woods as far as my headlamp would shine, even using the flashlight on my phone for extra light. I saw nothing but dense foliage everywhere I gazed.
When the others returned, we all moved our sleeping pads closer together to form a tight circle, “if that bear comes back I want to make sure I’m as close to you guys as possible,” said Tarzan, and we all felt the same way. I thought about the possibility of waking up in the middle of the night to find a black bear three inches from my face, sniffing and growling. We all felt a little safer in a tight circle with our backpacks in the middle. Then we heard footsteps coming from the campsite south of us, and we saw their headlamps in a single file line as they moved towards us. When they came upon us, the leader of the line stopped and turned towards us.
“Did that bear come into your camp too?” He asked in a concerned, serious tone. The darkness obscured his face and everyone who was in line appeared only as a dark silhouette with a bright light beaming from their head.
“Yeah,” Clovis calmly replied, “He ran away when we yelled him down though, it wasn’t that bad.”
“You guys should come with us,” he said pointing, “It’s not safe here with that bear in the area.”
“We might leave, but, I think we might just stay here for now,” Clovis turned down his offer. I didn’t want to leave. I don’t think any of us did. Our circle was formed and the food bags were hanging off Tinker Cliffs.
“You know what that bear was trying to do,” he said in his serious tone, “It’s not safe.”
There was a pause in our group, “I think we’ll be alright,” I said finally. You know what that bear was trying to do? The fuck does that mean?
“Alright,” he said, “We’re moving on.” Their line moved forward as he called back, “Let’s get a headcount.”
I tried to hold back my laughter. This dude can’t be serious.
“What? Does he think black bears are gonna come out of the night and start picking his crew off?” Tarzan said mocking his unwarranted seriousness.
Muffin Man shook his head, “Section hikers.”
“I think we should stand our ground,” Clovis said, “We showed that bear we’re not pushovers, now we have to maintain our position.”
“Agreed,” Good Talk said nodding.
“I don’t know how I’m gonna be able to sleep knowing this bear is around here though,” Clovis added.
We all stayed up a little while longer, talking about the bear and how crazy it was to yell at him till he ran off. We contemplated the prospect of him returning, which didn’t bring us fear. It actually allowed us brace ourselves for what was to come. Then his quiet footsteps came. The faint rustling of bushes and leaves marked his return. We turned our headlamps back on to see the problem bear approaching us once again.
“Okay,” Good Talk said standing up and clapping his hands together, “Here we go. Here we go.”
Good Talk was ready for this moment.
“Get out of here, you bitch!” Clovis said in a deep bellowing voice that almost had me in tears of laughter.
We were far more confident this time around, and we were mentally prepared. We formed our human wall again, yelling and roaring at the bear, who already seemed reluctant to get any closer. He backed up behind a tree, peaking out from behind it, half exposing himself.
“Someone throw something at him,” Muffin Man put his idea forward and Tarzan replied, “Got it.”
Picking up a stick, he aimed and chucked it at the tree like he was throwing a tomahawk. The bear was visibly startled and moved out into the open. We all picked up sticks, still yelling in scattered voices, and began throwing them at the bear. Not aiming directly at him, but near and around him. It worked. The bear became frantic, moving backwards and side to side. We chased him down several yards, still shouting at him, until he turned tail and disappeared once again into the trees.
We all shared another jolt of adrenaline followed by a long laugh, then we settled back down into our sleeping bags. After that we felt a little more secure in thinking that the bear wouldn’t return again. Clovis summed it up nicely, saying, “I think he’s psychologically fucked now.”
I felt closer to these guys after that night, like I knew them a little better now. I felt like I could trust them without a moment’s hesitation. Like we understood each other better. That’s what happens when you share a profound experience with someone, or a whole group even. When you go through something like that together, you know those people better than you did before. It could be a great experience or a terrible one, that part doesn’t matter. What brings you closer to the people you share it with is if the experience was challenging in some way, and thus memorable for everyone involved. You feel closer because you got to see a side of those people that isn’t normally expressed in everyday passing. The experience challenges their character at it’s very essence. Which is what happens when we’re placed under fear or duress; the essence of who we are is exposed when we’re scared.
We all rose to the challenge together, without really saying much about it too. Physical action took over as the primary form of communication, and we got through it laughing and smiling the whole time. This night went down as one of the most memorable for me in the entire journey. It was the first time I saw a bear on the trail, and what an intimate encounter it was. After the adrenaline faded, we all fell fast asleep, and if the bear did come back, we weren’t awake for it, and it didn’t do us any harm.
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