A bear of a predicament | AspenTimes.com

A bear of a predicament

We were in an area with a large grizzly bear population, more than 100 miles north of Dawson City in the Yukon. Our travel area was in the Ogilvie Mountains, a little-known range in northwest Canada where we would be hiking near the border to Alaska. Even though we had been out in the mountains for 13 days, we had seen no bears. We had seen plenty of signs – just no bears.When you’re that far north in June you have lots of daylight, so even at 10:30 p.m. it might as well be midday, even though the sun rotates at a funny angle. After hiking all day and into the evening, we set up camp and had a quick dinner. I keep to a pretty regular schedule as far as my bodily functions are concerned, so after dinner it was the time for my less-than private walk away from camp.This was a National Outdoor Leadership School course with three instructors and eight students, and I was the course leader.Back in the Yukon Territory’s capital city of Whitehorse, we had gone over bear protocol. Part of the bear protocol involved detailed instructions on how we would go to the bathroom and still maintain a level of safety. In other words, no one could wander off alone to defecate or urinate.We all agreed to go in groups of three or four with one person carrying a can of bear spray. After traveling between 200 and 300 yards from camp, everyone would separate a few yards, turn their backs to one another, squat, dig a cat hole and take care of business. It was the type of bonding experience no one would relish, and at the same time it gave us a reasonable degree of security.After dinner on the 13th day I had to go and had no desire rounding up like-minded persons. The only person who had a similar urge was Bill from Alabama. Bill was a pleasant young man who desperately wanted to be a NOLS instructor.As we were walking away from camp he said, “Are we going to take anybody else with us?”I gave Bill a sideways glance and said, “Nope.”His next question was a little more direct, showing his concern for proper protocol.”Ron do you have the bear spray?””Bill, it’s OK, you’re with me,” I said. I had pulled out my trump card, so Bill had no further questions.We arrived at the location where I was going to start digging so Bill moved off a few yards. No sooner had I achieved a reasonable size cat hole when I looked up to find Bill standing over me.”Bill, I’ve got to go.””Ron, there’s a bear.””Where?””Right there!”A mere 75 yards away was a mother grizzly bear with her back to us digging for ground squirrels. I knew it was a mother because on either side of her were these cute cubs about the size of raccoons. How I had missed them, I have no idea.My first thought was that Bill was in a lot of trouble. I had traveled 13 days with him, and I knew his fitness level and how he moved. There was no way he could keep up with me in a sprint, even on a bad day. And at that moment, I was feeling like I could have a really good day. My next thought was how would it look, me sprinting across the tundra leaving Bill to die? I was pretty sure it would be difficult to explain; still I felt I could live with myself. Rationalization can be a beautiful thing.I put my finger to my lips to let Bill know verbal communication had ceased. We started backing up to camp. Fortunately, the wind was blowing in our faces. We made it back to camp and then I got to share with everyone the intelligence of their course leader. We used my stupidity as a teachable moment. The students loved it; I still get e-mails from them, asking if I’ve stumbled across any bears lately.Black bears around here can be chased off with harsh language – which grizzly bears could care less about. Most black bears shy away from confrontations, unless you come across one in a confined space, say your kitchen or bedroom.Proper protocol in backcountry camps involves having your kitchen and sleeping areas separate, and hanging your food away from camp. By having clean backcountry camps with separate kitchens you’re actually protecting the life of bears. Ron is happy he did not have to mourn Bill’s passing. On Tuesday, he and his daughter, Megan, saw three bears across from Lazy Glen, just off Highway 82. Tell him about your bear sightings at ronlrash@aol.com.

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