I’ve got a whistle. I bought it just before we left on this trip, planning to use it, if necessary, to scare away bears. Actually, I bought two. They’re like referee whistles, stainless steel, on a black string. I bought two just before we left, one for me and one for Tizi. It was foolish. I knew Tizi would not wear a whistle on a string around her neck, not in a million years. But I’ve got mine on this morning, at the trailhead for Apgar’s Landing. A sign next to the trail map says, in so many words, you are entering Grizzly country. Bear spray recommended. Don’t leave home without it.
“What do you think?” I ask Tizi.
“Grizzlies.” A couple hikers walk past us, taking the trail first, both with canisters of spray in holsters worn conspicuously around their waists, visible to a bear. Just the sight of one of those canisters might scare a bear away. The sight of it scares me. I pull the couple over to discuss the threat, tell them I’ve got a whistle. Will that be good enough? They say they don’t know. What about two whistles?
They take off. We do too, trying not to stay too close. If they hear a whistle, I hope they come running. Would they? Would I?
On our hikes we’ve been noticing droppings on the trail. In Theodore Roosevelt National Park we saw buffalo, horse, and goat poop. I remarked to Tizi about the nomenclature we use to describe it–pies, apples or muffins, and berries. I guess it makes sense to describe poop with food terminology.
The hikers ahead of us–now we see them, we now don’t. It occurs to me that a piercing whistle noise might just piss a Grizzly off, might increase its motivation to eat a hiker for lunch.
What do bear droppings look like?
In Tremplealeau, Wisconsin, at the base of the Brady’s Bluff trail, we met a guy who had been everywhere and knew everything. He was our age, thin and wiry, with an impressive mustache and an even more impressive hat. He was enthusiastic, and loquacious. When we told him and his wife we were going to California, he began telling us all the trails he had hiked.
“Bryce? Zion? Arches…?” And five or ten more.
We said: “We’re going to California to pick apples for our son and his wife.”
“Black Canyon in Gunnison? Canyon Lands? Mesa Verde…?” And five or ten more. Each ending with the interrogatory rise in intonation. Had we been there?
We said: “Our kids make hard cider.”
“Yosemite? Sequoia? Pinnacles…?” and five or ten more.
He was having a wonderful time sharing. He could have been a character on Saturday Night Live, Trail Guy, the affable authority you meet on the trail who never shuts up.
Below us, the Mississippi was wide and blue. We said: “Have you hiked a lower trail here? Down by the water?”
His wife said the trail down there was kind of squishy.
He said: “Lots of poison ivy.”
We took the high trail that afternoon, to see the river from Brady’s Bluff (it was awesome) and to avoid poison ivy. I’m embarrassed to say I do not know what poison Ivy looks like. Three leaves, yes. But along the trail, there are so many leafy green plants growing, I’m just never sure. I wish I’d grabbed Trail Guy and had him show me. Right there, my friend, he would say, pointing. And my troubles would have been over.
Along the trail in Grizzly country, I’m acutely aware of droppings on the trail. No pies. A lot of apples and muffins. If Trail Guy were here, he could tell me what Grizzly droppings look like. And our troubles might be just beginning.
I tell myself the apples and muffins along the trail are probably good. A Grizzly might not like the smell. Horse poop might be a repellent. Trail guy would know. Just pick up one of these muffins and keep it in your pack. You’ll be fine. I just might do that. Just hold one in your hand. Not sure about that.
The couple hiking ahead of us slows down and stops. We pass them. Somehow that feels not as safe. I hope they don’t rest too long.
Everyone we meet coming down, we pause and have a convivial chat. And I end up saying we don’t have spray we only have a whistle was that dumb or what. Near the top of the trail, a couple coming down says there’s a big pile of bear poop on the trail just ahead.
It’s a big pile. It’s black. It’s full of berries. It’s black, menacing. It looks fresh.
I say to Tizi, “That looks fresh.”
“I wonder if it’s fresh.” It looks warm. I wonder if there’s a special thermometer, like a meat thermometer, a hiker could use to check the temp of a Grizzly dropping, to assess risk.
At the end of the trail, I exhale a sigh of relief, though the risk is the same up there. There’s an observation deck. I’m sure a bear wouldn’t blink an eye about climbing stairs to get us.
Five years ago, in Zion National Park (yes, Trail Guy, been there, done that), our friends Luigi and Adele showed us how to run down the trail, to minimize stress to our knees. You bend your knees and trot. The strain and concussion is transferred from your knees, at least partially, to your thighs. That bit of trail savvy–I’m sure Trail Guy does the same thing–comes in handy today. Going down, we take off running. Past the big black pile, past more black leavings I did not notice on the way up, which means I was either inattentive or they’re new.
Who in the right mind would plunge a thermometer into Grizzly droppings? Just run, man. Run for your car, go to the store, and buy some bear spray.