Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Encounter in the Cranberry
“Don’t talk to me for the next five minutes,” she said, both eyebrows raised, with a glare that could stop a man in his tracks. It was sudden, like the spotlight that hits a convict just as he is about to make his escape, involuntarily freezing his movement, utterly foiling what was only minutes ago a “great idea.” I could tell she was only half serious by the slight smerk beginning to form by the corner of her lips. By now we had been married for a little over a year, so the idea of me annoying Laura with a joke or prank, at her expense of course, was nothing new, and once again like so many times before and so many times since, I was being, as she so lovingly puts it, a “terd.”
We were spending the day hiking in the Cranberry Wilderness, a 35,500 acre section of the much larger 901,000 acre Monongahela National Forest. The Cranberry is but one of many little-known jewels of the natural world that Laura and I have had the opportunity to explore and experience during our time spent in the great state of West Virginia. Rugged mountains, thick forests of beech, poplar, maples, and rhododendron, and the melodic trickle of crystal clear streams all add to the beauty and allure of this slice of Appalachia at its finest. Today we were embarking on a loop hike, first making our way west down the Big Beechy Trail to its intersection with the Middle Fork Trail, where we would then head back southeast following along the banks of the Middle Fork of the Williams River, climbing with it to its headwaters. The hike had been great so far. For the first few hours, we had been engulfed by a thick fog, giving the forest an eerie, ghostly feel. We hiked through blankets of ferns and tunnels of blooming rhododendron. More than 900 species of flora have been identified in the area. Along rocky ridges there were gnarled and twisted trees, with their exposed roots desperately grasping to the earth providing evidence of powerful winds and storms sure to return. By the time we made it to the intersection with the Middle Fork Trail, the skies seemed to be clearing. Sunlight was beginning to make its way through the thick canopy above, awaking some of the 80 different species of birds surrounding us with their music. We discovered a small waterfall at the confluence of Big Beechy Run and the Middle Fork of the Williams River, both of us voicing our desire to come back and spend a night at this spot sometime soon.
As we continued on, now following the ascent of the Middle Fork of the Williams River, Laura was hiking in front. After a short time, she abruptly stopped, saying that she saw some dark, shadowy figure cross the trail up ahead of us. Having not gotten a good look a it, we could not be sure, but the possibility of it being a bear was good. After all, the black bear is the West Virginia state animal. In the years prior, I had experienced a handful of black bear sightings, but for Laura this passing shadowy glimpse was a first. Nerves and attention peaked for the next few minutes. I walked in front now, both of us making sure to take deliberate steps and make as much noise as possible. After about a half mile though, there was no sign of a bear nearby, and if there had been one, we decided that it was probably well on its way. With their acute sense of hearing and even stronger sense of smell, a black bear would know about us way before we would know about it. It was right about this time that I, much like the convict I referenced earlier, had a “great idea.”
Our conversation slowly tapered off, as it often does when we hike together. One of my favorite things about hiking with Laura is the balance we have of great discussion along with time to simply soak in our surroundings. Both of us have discovered the need and value to stop talking, and allow ourselves to hear from nature. We kept hiking, Laura still behind me, and I decided it was time. I slowly turned. As I made my way around, now facing back towards the way we came, I deliberately looked over Laura’s shoulder, back down the trail. As I did, I allowed my eyes become large, dropping my jaw, and as I began shuffling to run I let out an “Oh God!” This rapidly sent Laura into a frenzy, and, even though there was nothing behind her, she quickly decided that verification was not something she needed at that point. Looking back, I can not help but laugh. There is no doubt that what I did was mean and childish. I will not even attempt to defend myself, but the look on her face was absolutely priceless. Within seconds, I was bursting with laughter, grabbing to hug Laura, and she was realizing this was but another encounter with my maturity level. She quickly pushed me away and let me know of the newly enforced time limit. All in all, the punishment fit the crime.
We continued our hike and Laura soon forgave me for my childishness. The trail was becoming steeper now and the Middle Fork grew louder and louder as it maneuvered over and around the boulder strewn riverbed. Our minds wandered as we explored this mountain forest wilderness, and in time our thoughts of bears were lost to the forest as well. It was now, in the moment least expected, that I came face to face with my self-induced karma, and the tranquility of the forest and rushing waters were abruptly interrupted. The next few moments that probably took place in a matter of seconds felt as though they were taking forever to unfold. The first thing I remember is a slight rustling to my right, near the river bank. From where we were on the trail, there was a six foot embankment separating the us from the river. Before the rustling sound was able to fully register in my mind, standing before Laura and I was a full grown black bear. Looking back, I think the bear must have been getting water from the river below us and had not heard us due to the rushing waters. In any case, this 300 pound black bear was just as surprised as we were. In an instant, it had made the leap from riverbank to the trail and was now no more than 10 feet in front of us. All three of us froze, neither Laura nor I able to say or do anything, and the bear not making a sound. Suddenly the bear was on the move, coming directly towards us. In quick reaction, I stepped in front of Laura, placing myself between her and the bear. This was not an act of bravery, I will be the first to admit. As boisterous as it would be for my ego and sense of manhood to have selflessly protected the beautiful maiden from the oncoming assailant, sadly that was not the case. It was but a mere reaction. As the bear quickly approached, thoughts raced through my head at a million miles an hour. In an instant, the bear made a sharp change in direction to the left and, in the blink of an eye, was 25 feet up the nearest tree. To this day, I can vividly recall the sound of the bear’s claws scratching at the trunk of the tree as it made it’s ascent. Then, just as quickly as the bear had gotten up the tree, it stopped and immediately began making its way down. At this point, my fear peaked. As the saying goes, I was sure the “sh** was about to hit the fan.”
Just before the bear made it’s descent, there was a moment when, I swear, the bear looked down as I was looking up, and our eyes locked. It was only for an instant, but in that instant, that fleeting fraction of a second, I was overcome with a complete sense of humility and powerlessness. There was absolutely nothing I could do, no way for me to control what was about to take place. In a flash, the bear was making it’s way back down the trunk of the tree, and as soon as it’s paws touched the ground, it bolted a few feet in front of us, down the embankment, and a quickly across the flowing stream, disappearing into the thick woods before either of us could blink. Just as abruptly as it had begun, our encounter was over.
Needless to say, the remainder of our hike was “hyper-attentive.” I do not know that I can ever recall a time when my ears were more in tune to every crackle and rustle. As we think back about past adventures and tell share stories with friends and family, Laura and I often revisit and relive this hike in the Cranberry. It is always good for a few laughs, and as most stories go, in the end, one of the characters get precisely what they deserve. In this tale, that character being me, deservedly having the piss scared out of me after maliciously doing the same to Laura. Upon reflection though, on a slightly more serious, introspective note, I cannot help but think back to that moment of humility. Looking into that bears eyes and realizing that ultimately, what would happen next was totally up to him (or her, since, in the hectic pace of events, I never got the chance to, well, you know.) When speaking of the natural world, I more often than not hear people use phrases like “survival of the fittest,” refer to it as “the predatory jungle,” or site the rule “kill be killed.” There is this notion or assumption that life in nature is a constant struggle for survival, but through this experience and others since, I have come to realize more and more how much grace abounds in nature. In nature, the act of giving is held in high regard. By grace, the clouds give rain to the plants and rivers. By grace, the plants give themselves and their fruit as food to the animals, and the animals, in death, give the plants and the earth back their nutrients. By grace, that bear did not maul me or my wife. True, in nature, there are consequences, and some times those consequences even result in death, but what I continue to ponder is the even truer and more profound a realization that nature could not exists without grace.