Friday, September 23, 2011
Getting Close to Nature - Eleanor Shepherd
A common belief among vacationers is that physical and emotional renewal is found by getting in touch with nature again. From recent experience, I am not so sure that is true.
A few weeks ago, we rented a chalet, hidden away in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee as part of our vacation this year, thinking it an ideal spot to commune with nature. The week before we left home, we had invitations for barbeques at their homes of two different families. The couples had both recently returned from their vacations. Like us, they have been engaged in fighting the battle of middle age spread. Both couples spoke of taking a few days on vacations to go hiking. Our chalet, near a National Park, offered access to lots of hiking trails, so we decided to follow their good example.
We started the first day with a gentle walk on a paved path that took us gradually up the slopes of a mountain until we arrived a place with the pavement merged into the rock forming the contours of a sparkling waterfall. We joined the crowd on the rocky outcroppings taking photos of one another, before we headed back down over the same route. The entire trail, from where the car was parked to the waterfall and back down again was about one mile. While our feet were ready for a good soaking, we suffered no ill effects from the effort and learned much about the forest from the signposts along the route.
The next day we found a trail that was not paved and followed along the banks of a river, sometimes close enough to hear the water gurgling as it flowed over the rocks. At other times, we rose high above the water and would only catch a glimpse of it as we ventured over tree roots and brushes clinging to the steep banks. The slopes were more gentle that those on the hike of the day before, but the route was longer, about two miles this time. We met several other hikers on the trail and the only wildlife we encountered were the dogs out romping in the woods with their owners.
The third day, we felt we were becoming quite experienced as hikers so we decided to try a five-mile hike. Instead of hiking to a destination and returning on the same route as we had done the first two days, we decided to take a path that connected with another one that would bring us back to near where we started. The whole hike would be a little over five miles, but we knew we were up for it. This time, we saw fewer fellow hikers. When we did encounter them along the route, they always asked the same question. Had we seen any bears? We peered into the woods on alternate sides as we kept walking along the middle of the first broad path. One man, we met coming toward us told us that he had just seen a bear up ahead of where we were going on the path, so we should keep an eye out.
Just for security, we both made sure that we had a sturdy walking stick that we could use to stave off a bear, we hoped, if one got too close. We were not terribly nervous, just a little apprehensive.
The first part of the hike was fairly level and the path was wide enough in most places that we felt reasonably secure. At the end of it, we met the two other couples who had been ahead of us on the path. They had encountered a small bear and got some great photos. They were returning over the same route.
After a pause for a cool drink and a snack, we ventured on; taking the second path that would circle around and bring us back to our destination. We discovered this was a more demanding trail. It consisted largely of intertwined tree roots and circled around the mountain, spiraling up and down through woods that at times were quite thick. One of the signs on the shorter hike mentioned the laurel trees where the bears like to make their homes. We became a little uneasy as we discovered these laurels were plenteous on our route. We kept moving at as quick a pace as we could, given the uneven terrain under our feet. We were well along our way, when I realized I was tiring a little and having trouble keeping up with Glen’s pace. I strained to keep his back in sight.
Stumbling along over the rough roots, I turned my head to the right, thinking I heard twigs crunching. There she was! I had not seen such a large bear. She was no more than ten or twelve feet from me and appeared to be heading in roughly the same direction. I decided I must not panic, at any cost or for sure, I would fall and then I would be completely vulnerable.
I tried to keep my voice calm as I called out to Glen. “There is a bear on my right. Just keep walking.” Desperately keeping fear in check, I forced myself to march along the path, trying to recall what I read in the National Parks brochure about how to deal with bears when you encounter them on a hike.
The advice was not to advance to within more than fifty feet of the bear. I wished someone had told the bear. We were trying to make that a reality by continuing on our route, hoping she would choose another way.
The pamphlet advised a take-charge attitude so that the bear would not know she intimidated you. We took charge of ourselves all right by advancing as far along the path away from her as we could. I was so grateful I remembered to put the rise krispie square wrappers in my backpack in sealed plastic bags, after our snack. I hoped the scent of them would not escape and entice her.
We did not stop to look back to see which way she was going. We gladly forfeited the photo op. She and I had briefly exchanged glances and in that look, we agreed that I would remove myself from her territory as quickly as possible.
That afternoon I decided that henceforth we might want to limit our hiking to urban routes. The wildlife we encounter there knows how to comfortably share city life with me.
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