One of the modest pleasures of my middle-age dad-life is an annual solo backpacking trip that, despite all other responsibilities and interests, I’ve been able to keep sacrosanct. In a good year, I can pull off a five-nighter without the fam. Usually, it’s enough if I can scratch out a three-night, four-day trip. It’s the essential annual ritual to, as Conrad Anker says, “clean out the pipes.”

Not that I’m up to anything close to an Anker-like expeditions. I keep it chill and relaxed. I sleep in and spend the mornings reading in some spot stream-side or grove-enclosed. (On this year’s trip, it was John Fowles’ slim volume, The Tree, which I can’t recommend enough). Mostly I stay on-trail. I do 10 to 12 miles a day, tops.

But the next day, hiking out of the mountains, I felt glad about the whole thing. It seemed like a small work of karma, to have saved a bear’s life with a spliff.

A couple of weeks ago, I took my alone-time in the North Cascades, and I came home with what you might call the non-bear bear story.

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It was a beautiful autumn weekend on the east slope of the Stephen Mather Wilderness. The larch were threatening to flip yellow, and the days were clear and warm. In the passes and the ridge tops, the last blueberries were still holding on—at the edge of dry, bursting with flavor. The place was busy with weekend backpackers, trail runners out of Stehekin, and the tail end of the PCT thru-hikers. (I had dawdled on the way in, and performed a bit of trail magic by handing out fresh-baked cookies to the thru-hikers finishing their final trail miles before the end of their long walk. I was bequeathed a new trail name: “Cookie Monster.”)

Among the backpackers, there was plenty of trail rumor of bear. There was lots of sign, too: a perfect pile of scat on the trail in one drainage, some clawed up young saplings in another. The Park Service was a bit on edge. New bear signage had been posted at most of the camps, and I had been denied a permit at one site due to bear activity there. One night, I shared a camp with a pair of guys who had been trekking cross-country, and they mentioned crossing paths with a hunter who was stalking bear.

On my third night I had a permit for a stock camp at an out-of-the-way alpine meadow in the national recreation area. It was an epic spot: a sweep of grass rising upslope to the rock heights that looked over the peak-scape. As I was setting up camp, a pair of ladies I had been leapfrogging for days came by. They were bummed that, for some reason, they had been denied a permit for the site. I told them they were welcome to stay, but they had already set up camp a mile below, and eventually they split.

That’s one hell of a meadow. Photo: Jason Mark

I climbed up the meadow to the heights. The sun was taking its own sweet time as it headed peakward. The view was the proverbial mountains beyond mountains: Sentinel Peak, Mount Formidable, Gunsight Peak. The North Cascades are called “the American Alps” for good reason. They are like a child’s drawing of a mountaintop: crude and rough triangles stabbing the sky.

I had kept an eye on the meadow. No other campers had shown up. Somehow, I had this place completely to myself.

I stayed on the heights for an hour or so. The shadows started to get long and the temps started to dip. I headed down to camp to layer-up and make a hot beverage.

My campsite turned out to be buggy, and so, once the hot chocolate was made, I decided to head across the meadow. It seemed a bit higher over there, and a big, beautiful larch stood guard before the woods beneath the cliff face. After crossing the meadow, I found that the larch happened to have a log at its base, and I situated myself perfectly.

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I had it all: a view of the sunset, my hot chocolate, and a spliff I had rolled earlier in the afternoon.

There I was chillaxing, taking in the immensity, when I heard from the woods behind me the unmistakable sound of a large mammal—a sort of cough-grunt.

I know the etiquette: Introduce yourself. I turned around the trunk, and in a voice equal parts firm and gentle said, “Hello, bear. Are you in there somewhere? Bear?” There was no answer. I held my breath. Nothing.

I turned back to the sunset. I decided it would be prudent to make some noise.

And so I started to sing. The first thing that came to mind was the lullaby we sang to our daughter almost every night for her first 3 years of life. It’s a rendition of Pete Singer’s folk tune, “Inch by Inch,” a lilting pastoral tune. I know every word, and the verses and choruses flowed out of me.

There all alone, I sang the song passionately, knee keeping the rhythm, trying to gauge melody from the vibration in my chest. I made it a little jazzy. “Pullin’ weeds and pluckin’ stones/ We are made of dreams and bones / Need a place to call my home / For the time is close at hand.”

But I didn’t belt it out. As I said, I know the etiquette, and I didn’t want to be that guy—the asshole-human making all the ruckus in the woods and annoying the other creatures. As I sang, I watched the light fall across the yellow meadow and turn it gold, and I thought, The birds have their song, and I might as well as add mine. I sang my heart out. (Did I mention there was also a nip of bourbon in the hot chocolate?)

I hit the last notes. Quiet came back over the world. A meadow bird zipped over the grasses with a chirp-chirp-chirp. I took it as a compliment. “Appreciate that. Thanks for coming.”

I snuffed out the spliff. I buried the roach in the duff, and like a good hippy thanked the grand larch for making the space.

Once back at my camp, I started some water for supper. Dusk was falling. Then, in the grey light, I saw a man coming across the meadow toward me. What the fuck?

The guy was dressed in all in gray and green and tan. As he got closer, I could see the rifle across his shoulders.

“What are you gunning for?” I asked when he got close.

“Bear,” he said

I should pause here and make clear that I have no problem with lawful hunting. I’ve been hunting; I’ve carved up an animal in the woods. Some years, I get tags—though I rarely do more than spend the summer and fall romping around scouting and putting up trail cams. In short, I’m cool with it.

The hunter said his name was M—, from near Seattle. He told me he had seen a bear in the timber earlier in the day. But he couldn’t get a clear shot, so he had spent the afternoon and early evening waiting for it to come back.

Where?

“Right there, between that big tree and the outcropping there.” He pointed.

“You mean the big larch?”

Yeah.

“So you heard me singing?”

Oh, yeah, he had heard the whole thing.

No doubt so had any bear that was in the vicinity. If my singing hadn’t scared it away, then certainly my malodorous smoke plume of half tobacco and half cannabis would have. And even if the smoke hadn’t frightened it, then probably me just walking across the meadow and settling down at the base of the tree would have. I mean, I basically walked right into the guy’s scope-view.

I told M— that I was sorry I had fucked it up for him. He took it very well, and was super-chill about it. (Though he didn’t seem as impressed by my singing as I imagined the song birds had been.) He didn’t strike me as one of those high-strung hunter dudes who’s gunning for the trophy. “I just like being out here,” he told me.

It was totally true that I felt bad that I had likely screwed it up. In a way, I wish he had gotten the bear. I had no desire to spoil his trip, especially as he had been so kind and gracious to not spoil mine.

But the next day, hiking out of the mountains, I felt glad about the whole thing. It seemed like a small work of karma, to have saved a bear’s life with a spliff.

Jason Mark is the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. He lives in Bellingham, Washington. Top photo: Geoff Brooks/Unsplash

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