Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Platte Clove Residency: Encounter On Devil's Path

Devil's Path Trail; Catskills; NY; July 2012
I value solitude, but prefer not to hike alone. In the event of an injury, it's always better to have a companion. Moreover, since moving west, I've learned that even an ambitious mountain lion is unlikely to consider two or more humans fair game. Simply put, a duo or small group is afforded greater peace of mind. Sometimes, though, in order to take advantage of a window of opportunity, hiking solo is the only option.

Frankly, as I set out from the Platte Clove cabin on my first morning in the Catskills, safety concerns were far from my mind. I'm a confident hiker and I was excited to explore the 7.5-mile route I'd plotted the night before. My planning, though, had been cursory. I didn't realize that Wikipedia describesthe longest segment of my loop as "the toughest hiking trail in the Eastern United States." (In retrospect, I should have been clued in to the trail's difficulty by its name, Devil's Path.) I also shrugged off wildlife precautions. Though they may be the region's namesake, mountain lions were extirpated from the Catskills by the early 20th century; American black bears, however, are plentiful, and regional trail guides encourage hikers to wear bells and to talk at a normal volume so as to alert the animals of their presence. That's good advice, but amateur naturalists like myself shun bells and, when on trails, frown upon extended conversation. We don't go into the woods or up mountains for a constitutional. We go to see other animals, be they birds, porcupines, snakes, squirrels, or bears, and the less noise we make, the more creatures we're privileged to see.

About thirty minutes from the cabin, I paused on the trail, removed my backpack, and crouched to take a few sips of water. I thumbed through the pages of National Geographic's Birds of North America and contemplated the glorious morning -- warm, but not hot, with a mountain breeze. I'd neither seen nor heard any other hikers, but the Catskill woods were alive with bird song, the sprightly sounds of squirrels and chipmunks foraging, and the occasional rattle of a cicada. Yet as I skimmed the bird guide's descriptions of different species' calls, I noticed that a relative quiet had come over my area of the forest. Some squirrels still bounced through litterfall, but fewer birds sung out, and less regularly. I lowered the field guide and looked around. Through some trailside saplings, I glimpsed a dark shape about sixty yards ahead of me on the trail. Because of the distance and the obscured view, I couldn't be sure of the creature's size. I thought it might be a large turkey. I lifted my binoculars and, as the form came into focus, realized I was looking at fur. I panned slightly to the right and glimpsed the animal's eyes and tan snout. It swung its head low above the trail, scenting. I was thrilled! I'd hoped to see a black bear while visiting the Catskills and, half an hour into my first long hike, I was admiring one!

It was an average-sized bear -- it stood a little under three feet to the shoulder -- and I was unable to determine if it was male or female. Disappointingly, less than a minute after I'd trained my binoculars on the stocky caniform, it disappeared behind a boulder situated at a blind turn on the trail. As soon as it was out of sight, my delight was subdued by practical considerations. The bear was ahead of me, hidden from view, but ambling along the same trail. Black bears aren't aggressive animals; they rarely attack humans and, when they do, they are usually repelled if the human defends itself. Had I been hiking with a companion, I wouldn't have given our safety a second thought. Standing alone on the trail, though, I felt quite vulnerable. The same trail guides that encourage bell-wearing suggest that if you've seen a black bear that hasn't seen, smelled, or heard you, you should make a detour or head in the other direction. Were I to ignore that counsel and instead proceed, I might surprise the bear and there would be some risk of it attacking in panic. Still, that outcome was extremely unlikely, and I was only a half-an-hour into a day-long hike. I was unwilling to turn around.

Platte Clove Nature Preserve Trail; Catskills; NY; July 2012
As I shouldered my backpack, I scanned the ground nearby and spotted a fallen beech branch about 4 1/2 feet long and four inches around. I picked it up and tested its strength. It didn't give. Holding it like a staff, I raised it a foot above the ground and brought one end down, hard, on a slab of bluestone. The sound of wood on rock reverberated throughout the surrounding forest. Head cocked and ears attentive, I listened, hoping to hear evidence of the bear's hasty retreat. Silence. I struck the bluestone again. As before, no sign that the bear had responded to the sound.

I'm comfortable and confident with firearms, and I longed to have one at that moment, a precaution in the unlikely event that the bear should decide I was a threat better attacked than fled from. Standing on the trail with the branch in one hand and binoculars in the other, I was surprised to find myself recalling a term paper I wrote during my senior year of high school about William Faulkner's 1942 short-story collection, Go Down, Moses. The principal focus of my essay was "The Bear," the longest story in Go Down, Moses and one of Faulkner's most famous works. "The Bear" chronicles the relationship between Faulkner's young protagonist, Isaac, and Old Ben, a large black bear. Old Ben is no ordinary bear, however. He is, metaphorically speaking, wilderness incarnate, and Faulkner introduces the bear through the stories told about him.
"...the long legend of corn-cribs broken down and rifled, of shoats and grown pigs and even calves carried bodily into the woods and devoured and traps and deadfalls overthrown and dogs mangled and slain and shotgun and even rifle shots delivered at point-blank range with no more effect than so many peas blown through a tube by a child... [...The bear] ran in [Isaac's] knowledge before he ever saw it. It loomed and towered in his dreams before he even saw the unaxed woods where it left its crooked print [...] too big for the very country which was its constricting scope."
Written in Faulkner's characteristic run-on style, the passage paints a picture of a frenzied and invincible beast, a fearsome animal that haunts the imaginations of the author's fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Isaac, however, is unlike most of his Yoknapatawpha neighbors. Faulkner portrays the adolescent as a budding steward of the land, a proto-Leopold type who understands the forest as few people do. After initially tracking Old Ben without success, Isaac recognizes that he must be on equal terms with the bear in order to encounter it. Thus, the teenager enters the forest without a firearm. From my high school paper:
"The boy travels nine hours into the wilderness before he realizes he has not done enough. Isaac still has instruments of our 'progressive' civilization upon him. He removes his watch and compass, leaving them on a branch near him. [...] He has now thrown all forms of civilization away and is giving himself to the wilderness. Because of this action, Old Ben is now able to show himself."
On the Platte Clove trail, I was, like Isaac, unarmed. Unlike Isaac, I was uncertain and a little afraid. Although the symbolism and message of "The Bear" shaped my worldview in significant ways (I like to think of myself as "an Isaac"), 17 years after I first read the story, I was unwilling to advance on faith alone. The flesh-and-blood black bear ahead of me on the trail may not have been familiar with Faulkner; it might not have known that it was supposed to respect this particular clothed ape as a fellow child of the forest.

I hung my binoculars around my neck and picked up a heavy stone, one a little larger than my fist. I took a tentative step forward. I banged the branch staff on the ground again and, without consciously deciding to do so, expelled air suddenly from my abdominal cavity to summon a deep, rough bellow. It was an odd sound for a human to produce, my best approximation of an African lion's warning "cough." Years ago, when camping in Botswana's Okavango Delta, I'd been impressed (and surprised) by the big cat's vocalization. I hoped that my meek imitation of it would let the bear know where I was and convince it that I was a creature best avoided. More importantly, though, the "cough" made me feel more substantial. It didn't matter that it was a bluff. Adrenaline did its job; hackles raised, I felt stronger, intimidating.

I moved on, a few steps at a time, punctuating my progress with staff strikes and "coughs." Each of these noises was, like the first strike, followed only by silence. Birds in the area had stopped calling, presumably perplexed by the curiously loud and high-strung human. Still, although I hadn't heard it turn tail, I became increasingly confident that the bear had fled the area. Before long, I stood at the place on the trail where I'd first seen the bear walking. The boulder around which the animal had vanished from view was on my right. Before taking the step that would allow me to see what lay beyond the bend, I "coughed" once more, for good measure.

There was an explosion of needles, leaves, and twigs from the other side of the boulder, accompanied by a startled yawp. Aghast, my heart seized. This is it, I thought, as I turned the staff out like a lance and raised the rock in my left hand, ready to put up what fight I could when the bear charged. The bear, though, wasn't at all interested in a confrontation. After the sounds of its initial shock, I heard the bear's heavy retreat; it scrambled away from me at first, moving west, parallel to the trail, then turned north and blundered downhill. Standing next to the trailside boulder, still on edge and clutching the rock and branch, I wondered why the bear hadn't responded to my noisy approach before I'd moved so close. Fortunately, it was at least as frightened of tangling with me -- or, more accurately, of tangling with the lion-creature it heard cough so nearby -- as I was of it.

After I put down the rock, regained some semblance of composure, and continued on the Devil's Path, I found myself thinking about the role of stress in our lives. Surely it wouldn't have been a good idea for me to bound carefree up the trail, likely surprising the bear with no boulder between us, but was my level of wariness warranted? Had a useful stress response become counterproductive? I believe so.

Jimmy Dolan Notch Trail; Catskills; NY; July 2012
In RadioLab's episode on stress, originally broadcast in 2007, Robert Sapolsky, a neurologist at Stanford University, explains that the classic physiological effects of stress hormones-- the rush of adrenaline, the increased heart rate, and the body's turning off of non-essential functions such as digestion and growth -- are "a great thing if you're stressed like a normal mammal." Stress evolved to help us stay alive. The trouble is, modern humans aren't typically stressed in the same way that other mammals are. In the example used in the RadioLab episode, if you're an impala fleeing a lion on the African savannah, the stress response provides the antelope with a chance of survival by making it temporarily stronger, faster, and hyper-alert. But "when people talk about stress," RadioLab co-host Robert Krulwich asks Sapolsky, "or stress diseases, or being over-stressed or the stressfulness of modern life, what does that mean?" Sapolsky responds,
"Almost certainly it means it has nothing to do with an impala running for it's life. Very few parking space fights are settled with axes. We don't have to wrestle people for canned food items. […] When you're actually getting stressed in the way that we talk about in the everyday sense, we're not being physically menaced. What we're doing is turning on the stress response in the anticipation of a stressor. […] That's not what the system evolved for. […It's one thing to] increase your blood pressure out the wazoo to run for you life for three minutes. Increase it chronically every time you come to work and -- stress-induced hypertension -- you're going to damage the walls of your blood vessels."
My encounter with the black bear is more similar to Sapolsky's fleeing impala example than to first world problems like dropped cell phone calls, crowded supermarkets, or fraught workplace relationships, but my stress response was still anticipatory. I wasn't yet running from or wrestling the bear, but my body was already on red alert, muscles tensed and mind electric. Even after the bear had fled, I remained apprehensive. By contrast, once the impala is out of immediate danger, the animal's stress response halts. Although (as I explained in an earlier Platte Clove residency essay), nature's existential threats can free us "from the burdens of our domesticated lives because, for a moment or minutes, nothing matters except survival," I believe that the anxiety of my bear encounter was far greater than it needed to be, a result, I think, of the languishing of my "inner Isaac."

In 1999, Baz Luhrmann scored an offbeat pop hit with his single, "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)", in which he read all of Mary Schmich's famous 1997 Chicago Tribune column, "Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young." The song/column includes the line, "Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard; live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft." Whether I qualify as hard or soft, I've followed the geographical recommendations to the letter. I came up in rural Virginia, but adopted New York City as my home immediately after college, and lived there just long enough to be deemed an official New Yorker (conventional wisdom sets 10 years as the mark). Now, I call San Francisco and the greater Bay Area my home range. I've lived in cities for fully half of my life and, although I spend more time on trails than most city dwellers, I am essentially an urban creature. I'm reluctant to characterize myself as such -- I wear camouflage hunting caps and claim my rural southeastern roots with pride -- but perhaps I was so anxious as I approached the trail's bend because, deep down, I know I'm no longer a "child of the forest," if I ever was one.

Being honest with yourself is not always easy. Sometimes, hiking solo is the perfect opportunity.

Image credits: all photographs, Christopher Reiger, 2012

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