By Patti Johnson
The first time I left the comfort of my coastal home for a solo overnight excursion in the wilds was because I wanted to “play hokey”, I needed to throw my To-Do list into the wind, to experience the thrill of the unknown and taste the elixir of the explorer. Deep down I also knew some serious immersion in nature would do my body some good. But the backroads and tangled forests of the Klamath Mountains were strange and scary to me. I had lived nearly surrounded by them for 15 years, traveled through them but never ventured into them. Nonetheless, I did wander into those mountains nestled in the far reaches of northwestern California. I found them steep, crumpled and carved by beautiful rivers. I was awed by the collision of climate and soil type creating a unique botanical wonderland. Mash ups of plants defy norms and some areas are so densely forested it is no wonder Bigfoot is thought to live there.
That first night turned to three. Two weeks later I tagged a different location and set out again and then again, my admiration and affection for these uniquely beautiful mountains blossoming each time. It has been three summers now of playing hokey and immersing myself in nature. Looking back over my journal entries of those outings what has surprised me the most are the insights that were presented to me. Nature does provide a special kind of medicine.
Journal Entry – 29
Be Brave the sticker read, the words white and bright against a dark forest silhouette. A gift from a dear friend, she said my bravery needed celebrating, solo camping in the wilds and all. Daring maybe, but courageous I’m not too sure. Of course, I was flattered, even if, at first, I didn’t want to agree. So, I’ve placed the sticker where I read it like a mantra every day. I guess I’ve settled into the idea, being brave. But then that was before Thursday.
On Thursday, I wandered into a pure stand of conifer trees; most stately, some imposing, a few huge. Pillars of trees rooted strong and stout, with woven branches above, a conifer cathedral of sorts. The aromas subtly seductive, dry earth and tree aerosols. There were no other campers here. I chose the one campsite set off from all the rest (of course I did). A large flat on the edge of Trail Creek, soft underfoot, worn-in, the creek rushing by. A tidy little pile of stacked camp firewood waiting for me.
Feeling relaxed & reflective I decide to take a walk to “feel out the Campground”. Rider off-leash, being a real good dog, close but not too close, enjoying a little freedom. A sign about a Giant Sugar Pine stops me in my tracks: 200’ tall, 86” in diameter. Wow! I let my eyes drift down its sturdy dense trunk, admire its purple-ish bark, wonder its age. At the base of the tree something catches my eye. A BEAR. Beautiful and black, all soft and rounded. She was frozen mid-stride, a paw suspended in the air. For the slightest moment we hold each other’s gaze. Both of us holding our motionless unsure what to do next. This is so exciting, I think, so exhilarating. Then immediately I think- get the dog. I glance at Rider who is busy sniffing and pawing a stump, Rider who is about 50’ from the BEAR yet completely unaware. So ever so casually I call him, “Rider here”. The moment I make a sound the BEAR spins 180 and takes off running. Rider sees the flash of running fur then on impulse takes off after it. I scream so loud for the dog, “Rider No, leave it, wait, noooooo”, I nearly wet my pants. I see the BEAR disappear over a rise and I see Rider follow her. Panic starts creeping in. Well crap! I’m still yelling, as Rider comes bounding back to me. Shaken but relieved, the whole incident lasting no more than five minutes.
The dog and I spend all afternoon into the evening calming down. We both scanned and scrutinized the horizon. It’s amazing what a couple minutes of adrenaline will do the body. Not to mention the fact that we now know there’s a BEAR nearby. It would be a stretch to say that either of us were even remotely relaxed. Earthly aromas and Tree aerosols be damned, every dark stump or rounded forest shadow a BEAR doppelgänger. I pitched my tent none-the-less. I brought out a minimal amount of camp gear from the car and stowed it away again immediately once done with it. I didn’t want the BEAR to have even the slightest hint that there may be something tasty over here. I contemplated a campfire for the longest while, ended up having a small one, ode to forest campers. Gazing into the embers I imagined the life of a BEAR. I am in awe to think that she can survive on carpenter ants and barely ripe salmon berries. I imagine she must always have a rumbly tummy.
Dark comes to a forest like this fast and hard. Light from the moon and stars bleeds weak and diluted through the canopy. Still feeling spooked, the fire couldn’t burn out fast enough as the night was settling in around the camp site. A hush had fallen over the forest by the time I climbed into my tent. I read a couple chapters of fiction, breathed deeply, clicked off my headlamp. The night now dead dark. “I am safe, I am confident, I am capable” I say to no one in particular and then I add “I am brave”, as if saying the words would convince me it was true. Despite my worried mind, my body so tried, I give it over to sleep.
Within the hour I’m torn from my slumber by the sound of wood being ripped and shredded. I sit up with a jolt, my heart pounding in my chest. The BEAR. It sounded close, too close for my comfort. Then I remember the stump. I had seen the stump earlier, noted it torn apart by a bear and yet I still pitched my tent 50’ away! It didn’t seem like there was anything left to eat in that stump, but apparently what do I know about eating carpenter ants. Then I snapped into action, adrenaline surging through me, stomping my shoes, clapping my hands. I didn’t want the BEAR to be startled by us and feel the need to investigate. Rider who is usually oblivious to night noises was ready to burst through the tent zipper. I anxiously snapped on his leash, held him tight. Still the ripping of wood, so I clapped some more and blew a few quick toots on my whistle. The thrashing stopped. Once again, the forest was dead quiet. Whew, she heard us, move on good BEAR I thought. Rider settled back down, so I settled back down. “I am brave” I whisper as I slip back to sleep. Ten minutes in my drowsy brain hears the telltale, “huff, huff, huff”, directed at our tent, of a curious concerned BEAR. Alone, in a pitch-black forest, I’m not going to sugar coat this, the mantra was not working…I was freaked! So again, I clapped, I stomped my shoes, I think I even told her to go forage somewhere else. Again, the forest fell dead quiet. I’m uncertain how long this drama played out; her thrashing and foraging me clapping and making noise, her huffing and puffing, then the forest falling silent and me attempting to fall back asleep. At one point her huffing and puffing felt so threatening that I couldn’t stand it any longer. My body practically vibrating with fear, I slip on my headlamp and shoes, grab my car keys and the dog and bolt for the car. We have to pass the picnic table to get to the car parked about 100’ away. In my sprint, I don’t take the time to look around at all. Rider and I dive into the cab of the truck. Immediately I hear a loud pop, pop, I’m convinced she is investigating the water jug, the only item I left on the table. Despite being ensconced by steel and tempered glass I’m was on hyper-alert, jumping each time the dog took a deep breath.
The dog sleeps decently as he is used to being in the extra cab. I catch some sleep between cramped legs and imagining a roaring bear popping up in the window; Marty Stouffers Wild America- images from my youth. The sky a dark, dark grey when I wake with a gut-wrenching stomach ache. Two weeks earlier I started taking antibiotics for a tick bite, diarrhoea the one major side effect and it’s hitting me hard. That’s when I discover I’m not only about to lose it in the britches I also started my period. Oh, brother! I hadn’t had a period in months, in fact I thought I was over that. I had to get out of the truck and get to the bathroom quick. Two-tenths a mile or so from the toilet and water spigot, only a couple of city blocks, seemed a tolerable distance when I was pounding in the tent stakes, now in the semi-darkness with images of a BEAR rolling around in my mind it feels unfathomable. I trot the whole way dragging the dog by his leash exclaiming, “crap, crap, crap” thinking some noise better than none. After cleaning up, the dog and I hang out in the toilet for a while. Poor Rider I can’t imagine what he was thinking! I finally get the courage to walk back to the campsite. I’m imagining all sorts of scenarios; the water jug ripped open, the tent thrashed.
Under the gently lighting sky, I find the camp completely untouched. The water jug on the table, the tent door wide open daypack sitting right inside, exactly as I left it. What a good BEAR, I think, just living like bears do, trying to satisfy her rumbly tummy. I grab the stowed camp gear and that’s when I see the sticker. In that moment I realize it’s a long path to walk.