Monday, June 20, 2011

My Close Run-in With Bears

A story about the true dangers of nature photography.

Normally, I am not afraid of much. I dislike spiders and snakes, especially when they turn up in bed while I'm reading. In the light of day I don't find any animals particularly terrifying. However, given the right circumstances, there is one thing that will cause me to sprint flat-out through a darkened forest in a pants-emptying hurry: an imaginary bear.

Let me explain. I was visiting a professor in Colorado and decided that I should do some long time exposure photographs of the crisp night mountain sky. It would just so happen that their house is located on the border of Pike National Forest and the only thing that separates the forest from their backyard is a wire fence about three feet tall.

Leading up to this excursion there had been plenty of talk about bears. (In Colorado, bears are the things people talk about when they really don't have anything to say; very similar to the way Nebraskans talk about the weather.)

So by the time my hosts had gone to bed and I decided to venture into the wilderness I had the following bear facts rattling around in my head:

  • Bears can climb trees.
  • Bears are waking up from hibernation and will be really hungry and in a bad mood.
  • Bears often come into their neighborhood when they are hungry and grumpy to eat food from new neighbor's trash cans.
  • A bear can DEMOLISH a trashcan.
  • The first sign when bears come into the neighborhood is that the wire fence gets crushed. 
  • A bear can run faster than a human.
  • Playing dead with only work on certain types of bears.
  • The other types of bears that can see through that bullshit look remarkably like the ones that can't.
  • In the dark all bears look the same, Terrifying.
  • If you're being mauled by a bear, lay face down and cover your head with your hands so you minimize your plastic surgery costs.
  • What bears do to people is called MAULING them.
  • If you see a bear in the daytime avoid it by a hundred yards. If you are surprised by a bear, try to make yourself look as big as possible, make noise.
  • If you make eye contact with a bear he will take that as an open invitation to begin MAULING YOU.
  • If you are surprised by a bear in the dark, he can't tell how big you are pretending to be, or where your eyes are and jumps to conclusions.

My brain had registered all these interesting things and tucked them away in the back of my head. I had mostly not remembered them, but that night they had conspired together with some amazingly awesome noises, a pair of dead flashlight batteries, and the dark forest to turn my perception of bears from normal, to the hairy version of batman, only with claws and things.


Having witnessed his parent's death as a cub, he grew up to stalk the night seeking justice.

I was trying a time exposure of the night sky and it would take me 20 minutes of not moving the camera at all to get ONE picture. I wandered off around dusk, without a coat, hopped over the wire fence, and wandered deep into the woods until I could not see the lights from the neighborhood.

I picked my spot, set up the camera, got everything in focus and tripped the shutter. What followed was the most nerve-wracking 20 minutes of my life. As the seconds began to tick away the temperature started to drop VERY rapidly towards freezing. (As I learned afterwards, ground at higher elevation is much closer to space, and when night comes the heat from the day gets sucked off the planet. Also, it makes for really clear skies.)

Sometime in my stint I noticed that I could see my breath. Then I began mildly to violently shivering. (Normally I love the cold and my viking blood doesn't let me shiver. "Maybe I have early onset Parkinson's ... that would be unfortunate." I thought to myself. "...but I would probably get to have a cool nick name...")

I was distracted from my lowering core temperature and hypochondria as the unmistakable cry of a mountain lion pealed distinctly through the darkness. My Red Dead Redemption sense kicked in and I pulled out the 15" machete I keep in my camera case, ready for an immediate attack.... Nothing.
You'll not kill my horse again you fuckers!

Knife in hand, I panned the darkness with my flashlight, looking for a pair of eyes or movement in the brush. Nothing...My flashlight batteries flickered. I nervously tapped them. It died completely. I pointed the end towards my face and tapped it on my knee, effectively blinding myself for a few seconds. That last self-crippling action was final bit of light I would see that night. I swore loudly only to be immediately silenced by the sound of mountain lion cubs, echoing through the distance.

This was my view of pike national forest for a while:

My brain relayed to me the following information: There was a momma mountain lion in the forest close by. She is probably teaching her children to hunt. Video games had not prepared me for this. My head flooded with visions of the mountain lion cubs attacking me while I was blinded and disoriented, like when the spitting dinosaur eats Newman in Jurassic Park.

In my thinking, I suddenly remembered I was still cold and getting colder. Meanwhile, the camera was still pointed skyward and I knew that I couldn't move it lest all the time that had gone by so far be for nothing.

The screeching and snarling noises from the forest continued, only to be joined by a chorus of barking dogs, echoing from the direction I had come. Let me be clear, this was not the normal "Bark bark, Hey I'm a Dog and I'm outside! Are there other dogs outside?!" kind of barking, but the "I SMELL SOMETHING IN MY TERRITORY, HOLY FUCK EVERYONE WAKE UP! IT'S THE COMING OF THE APOCALYPSE!!" kind of barking.

This served to put every hair on my body on high alert. Goosebumps formed on my arms and chills jolted down my spine. Knife in hand, I stared into the darkness and imagined the deadly killing machine that awaited me.

I checked my watch, only minutes left on the photo. In my head, hours had passed.

Waiting for a time exposure in the dark about to be eaten by bears causes one's perception of time to slow down. It slows down more than when you're waiting for something in the microwave, more than the last five minutes of class before summer vacation, even more than when you're at work, there are no customers, and you're staring unashamedly at the clock. I could feel my own heart-beat, slowed to a dirge, pounding in my ears.

I was in the final stages of a complete mental breakdown, jumping at the slightest noise, whirling around in the dark with a knife. Envisioning a horde of stealthy animals in the dark ready to rip me to pieces, I panicked. All logic was gone. I experienced the kind of fear that you vaguely remember from you childhood. The kind where you wake up from a nightmare in a cold sweat, stare into the shadows and see unthinkable horrors from the depths of your imagination. The kind of fear where you want to run screaming to your parent's room or turn on the light, but you have convinced yourself that if you move you will die and you don't move. You are sure that you will never move again.

Then from the crushing darkness came the unmistakable sound of a large animal exhaling. "HRUFF". I jumped three feet in the air. It sounded close. My heart-rate doubled. I sheathed the knife and very, very slowly collected my camera case. Certain that at any moment a batarang would whip out of the darkness, pinning me to the ground and then the mauling would begin.

My camera clicked. The picture was done.

Like that small noise was the starting pistol for the 100 yard dash at the 1936 Olympics, (meaning if I lose I would lose to Hitler), I picked up my camera and tripod and tore off through the woods at top speed. I ran frantically towards the direction of the barking dogs. I fucking RAN! By the time I arrived at the fence to the back yard I was out of breath, shaking, and mildly delirious. I quickly hopped over the fence where it had been bent down... and stopped cold.

I gawked at the damaged fence. Somehow, in the dark, I had crossed paths with a bear without knowing it. Perhaps twice. I used my last amount of energy to fumble for the key they had given me to their house, unlock the door, and settle down into what I considered a bear-proof fortress.

Finally, I had calmed down enough to remember the main reason I was in the bear infested forest in the first place, the picture. I was expecting a mind blowing photographic masterpiece that condensed the trees of the Colorado landscape with the majesty of the Milky Way so perfectly that it forced everyone who looks upon it to instantly contemplate their own humanity and uncontrollably weep. This was not the case. In my hurry to get everything set up I had set the Aperture to 22 instead of 1.4. In layman's terms this means that instead of letting the maximum amount of light in, I had instead allowed the least amount. I ended up with a mostly dark picture and a white blur where the moon was. See that white spot. No, its not dust on your monitor, that's the moon. (Enlarge for full view)

$8,000 dollar camera, $2,000 dollar lens = best picture of the moon ever.

Emotionally exhausted and disappointed I... Unconscious.

Of course, the next day my ordeal seemed much less epic. My feeble attempts to retell it could not really do justice as to how terrifying it felt. In fact, every time I rationalized what had happened it sounded more and more lame:

"Yeah I almost was face to face with a bear, or maybe not, actually probably not. So there were no bears, but maybe there were... At any rate I was in the forest at night. Also it was dark and cold. Flashlight?"

Not the best story, especially since all the locals had MUCH better bear stories, some even had scars!

Thinking now, I'm sure that bear didn't give two shits about who I was or what I was doing. Having just gorged himself on garbage and Pomeranians he was heading back to his cave for a nap and thinking something like this:

The End.

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