My backpacking journal for day 2 of our Caribou Lakes hike begins differently than usual. I’m a very chronologically oriented person and find peace and contentment in ordering things by number, by size, by day and time. But this entry begins late that evening.
“Brown’s Meadow. Huddled in our tents a little after 9 pm. We saw our first bears while finishing our dinner in the meadow. …We made our plans and reassured each other the best we could…”
But let’s back up to that morning. We’d had some discussions about our schedule. Because Loreleigh had a time schedule to keep, we needed to arrive back at the trailhead at noon. Our driver was to meet us for pick-up at that time. When we considered how long it took us to get to the lakes, basically all day long, we knew it would be difficult and no fun to dash down the trail at break of day and skip lunch! Another factor was the snowed-in condition of the trails. Originally, we had intended to take day hikes in the area on day 2, but we saw now that we were limited in that.
Our new plan was to take a leisurely breakfast and look around these lakes, hike a little bit, come back to camp and break it down, and then pack out around noon. Our goal for the night was now to camp at Brown’s Meadow, almost halfway. I had been looking forward to not having to pitch camp more than once, but it wasn’t that big a deal with my wonderful REI Half-Dome 2 person tent. It almost feels like you just have to throw the parts down on the ground and snap your fingers and…ZOOP! It’s all ready to go.
It had showered during the night, and our tents were wet (but not inside!), but we counted on the morning sun to dry them off.
Our bear bags and the canister were unmolested, and I felt like a pro by now, pulling it down and getting breakfast out.
I had decided that I did not want to wash any pans or utensils, so my meals were freeze-dried-add-water types.
Today was eggs with bacon and a cup of Starbucks Via Christmas blend, left over from the holidays.
Snowslide Lake is really a lovely little lake, a carved little rock bowl, a cirque with one practically vertical rock face side. We guessed that is why it is named that, because the snow and ice must slide down to float on the lake.
There were several rafts of snowy ice out on the lake, whereas Lower Caribou had none. Melt runoff was trickling and gushing down in half a dozen or more rivulets in the lake water.
Further down the end of the lake, on our morning walk, we saw the outlet, a little stream pouring through a gash in the land bridge dividing the two small lakes. It looked like a giant back yard fountain, the way you put several bowls above and below each other, one pouring into the other as the water flows over the rims.
Because of the snow covering sections of the path, we had a hard time knowing just where we were really going, even though the land was not totally tree covered. We thought we might be going across the land bridge to see Lower Caribou, but finally we had to admit that the trail was headed up to the big Caribou Lake, and it was impossibly snowed in, and steep.
So we meandered back and found another trail that involved some boulder hopping and sheets of granite.
Even with all the snow, the rain during the night and the unsettled sky, it wasn't too cold.
There came a point where we were pretty unsure of just where we were. No real danger, since the area was limited in size where we could be. We scrambled up a snow bank and found ourselves right in our own camp.
And just about time to pack up, too.
I had known that all that downhill descending to the lakes the previous day meant that it would be uphill ascending the next day, and sure enough, that’s the way it worked out. When I wasn’t huffing and puffing, I pondered on whether there were cool backpacking trips that involved long level walks…
We paused at the top of the lake trail, which was the intersection of the old and new trails. Melinda still had a crazy idea that we should try the old trail, but it didn’t look or sound like what I intended to do.
Melinda: “So, what about trying the Old Trail for a ways, seeing if it’s less snow covered than the New Trail?”
Me: “That’s right. I’m not doing the Old Trail.”
Melinda: “Oh. OK.”
I think she accepted it because I’m usually pretty easy going for what people want to do, and I was adamant about this one.
We looked closer at the trail marker.
“Old Caribou Trail” (underneath someone’s carving, “IF YOUR A GOAT”)
We looked at it in silence for awhile.
Okaay! Let’s get going! And we struck off on the New Trail.
I know we were all dreading that snowfield that we would have to portage around and would have found a different way if we could. But perhaps the groups of hikers who had gone after us and before us this morning would have somehow tromped it and marked it better. We talked about whether we should take off our packs and drag them across the snow with our bear bag ropes.
We stopped for lunch on the rocky trail, taking our packs off and sitting and leaning on the granite boulders.
I mixed up the rest of my Mountain House Chicken Salad with water. It’s nice because it only requires cold water and rehydrates almost instantly. It has a good flavor, though it looks pretty icky.
Back on with the packs and around the next corner… and there it was. Backpackers’ Bane, Melinda’s Fall-y, The Giant Slip ‘n Slide.
“I didn’t know it would be coming up so soon.” We all concurred. My plan had been to stop and have lunch in front of it, taking our time to look at it and make a good plan. But Loreleigh had called a lunch stop just a curve back, and we’d just got our packs back on and all adjusted.
Looking closer, we could see how maybe one other person had made it across the top, but the others had portaged around, even going around the tongue of snow we had crawled across the day before.
So we picked out our route and began, leaving room in between us so we could help but not get in the other’s way.
There was rotten snow, rotten branches, air pockets, fluffy slippy soil, downed tree with sheets of bark coming off and some scrambling that required the hiking pole to dangle from the wrist and both hands to pull up on tree limbs and bushes.
We were about two thirds across when another hiking couple arrived. They also pondered the situation briefly, then decided to portage. While we were carefully and laboriously managing the situation, poof! They were there right behind us. We crawled and pulled and helped each other up with our sticks, and then stood on the other side of the snowfield, happy and relieved it was not as bad as we’d dreaded. And, poof! The other hiking couple were there beside us. He handed me the lid from my insulated coffee cup. “Here, you lost this.” I made myself feel better by noticing how young they were and how long and lanky their legs were compared to our short little stubby legs. At least he had not taken Melinda’s advice, when I was stalled on the slope, to “push up on my butt.”
On the last significant snowfield on the trail, we were crossing, trying not to be cocky at our previous successes, since that will get you every time.
Loreleigh was picking her way across slowly, trying not to slip, when a large hairy animal came bounding up from behind us. A futile cry of “Leave it! Leave it!” was followed by, “He’ll push you off the trail!” Not a good place to hear that. I froze. She froze. The big hairy animal was a big friendly dog, who was a “leaner.” Loreleigh planted herself as the dog wagged his tail and leaned on her.
“Nice Doggy, Good Doggy,” she said as she delicately dropped her free hand down on his head, trying not to stimulate him to any robust antics. The hiker came striding up behind us, calling his dog. Once we had secure footing, we chatted for a bit. The dog was a very nice, good doggy, just a bit enthusiastic. The man was a day hiker, very familiar with the area, who sounded like he had just bounded over all the trails, his dog pulling him up when he needed her to calm down and get a little tired. He told us that the Old Caribou Trail was completely covered with snow at the higher elevations and it was almost impossible to follow the trail, it was so hidden. Eek. That would have been an unpleasant situation!
And then, there was Brown’s Meadow, and only 2:30 pm.
We picked a site as far back from the trail as we could, assuming that other campers would be coming in and setting up in the closer, more “camp-like” looking areas. After setting up camp, we strolled around and chatted, we set up our chairs and snacked, basking in the sunlight. I tore my Christianity Today magazine in half for Melinda. When she got tired of that, Loreleigh cut her trashy romance novel in half for her. We hung our bear bags.
On one side, Brown’s Meadow is bordered by a steep rock face that is very high. At the base rests jagged granite boulders that, over time, have fallen down.
Our camp was set up against some trees that had grown up in these boulders. I did have the uneasy thought that if we felt an earthquake, we should abandon our camp without a second to spare.
At dinner time, even though I’d snacked away my hunger, I decided to join the other two in eating. Having lots of calories is one way to keep warm, always my biggest concern, and I did have a half bag of Mountain House Chicken a la King to get used up. Once again I got my food ready and prepared to sit in front of the show and watch re-runs of the alcohol stove show. Afterwards we poured out the last of the Zinfandel and nibbled on Loreleigh’s brownies.
Melinda: “There’s some bears.”
I didn’t quite get it at first because the tone was so level. But Loreleigh did.
Loreleigh: “Sh*t. Oh sh*t, sh*t.”
I turned, and sure enough on the grassy hillside leading down to the meadow were 2 bears standing there looking at us.
Us all: “What should we do?”
Well, my first instinct was to chug the wine, stuff the brownie in my mouth, gather up every bit of cooking and seating and reading gear in my arms that took three trips to bring down, run to the bear bags and shove it in and then go cower in my tent.
Melinda: “Bang the pots and pans!”
I banged my plastic spork against my little anodized pot, Tip! Tip! Tip! Melinda banged aluminum pot against her Fancy Feast stove. Crunch! Crunch! And Loreleigh banged her great big stainless steel pot and lid together. BLANG! BLANG! CLANG! And there was just a cloud of dust where the bears had been.
We agreed that they were probably juveniles and were already nervous about us, so were easily scared away. But the mood was over. We chugged our wine and brownies, scooped up our stuff and attended to our bear bags. Melinda decided hers was too low. I decided mine was too close to camp. Loreleigh scouted out a better place for the bear canister. As Melinda put it, “you don’t want it to roll right into camp if a bear starts messing with it!”
All this time our other hiking companion, the only one that came with sharp teeth and claws, had not noticed what all the commotion was about. OK, so the wind was blowing away from us, and OK, she’s a little deaf. But we needed to make sure she was on board about our safety here! So Melinda gave Tess a stern talking to about letting us know if a bear got close.
Melinda decided we needed a plan so that we would calmly know what to do if bears came close later that night.
We agreed that if we heard bears messing around by our bear bags that we would all get our pots that we planned on placing near our pillows and stick our heads out of the tent and bang them and yell. But Melinda wasn’t through.
Melinda: So what is the plan if they come on in to our camp?
Me: My plan is to curl up in my tent in a fetal position and shut my eyes.
Melinda: I do not plan on being a bear burrito. I think we need to run out of our tents to an agreed on meeting place, and I was thinking we could retreat over those rocks up against the mountainside.
I considered how that would work. First I would paw around for my glasses and try to get out of my mummy bag that I can hardly turn around in. Then I’d try to bend in the middle and sit up with my undershirt, shirt, down vest and polartech jacket all conspiring to keep me laid out straight. One hand would grab headlamp and multipurpose tool, the other would unzip the tent while I’m trying to shove my feet into my camp crocs. The other option was to dash out without doing all these things, and I couldn’t see how that would work.
Melinda: Hopefully, that’s not where their dens are.
We didn’t say anything more about dens.
As the evening wound down, I began to feel more confident. I’d seen bears, my big phobia, on a backpacking trip, and I wasn’t eaten! I wasn’t mauled or even traumatized! They do scare off easily! We were all reading at our tents in the fading light when I heard Melinda.
Melinda: “There’s a bear.”
Loreleigh: “Oh Sh*t. Sh*t.”
This bear was a different bear. This bear was a big glossy black hunk of a bear. He reminded me of a big gorilla knuckled down on his powerful hairy arms. And he was closer. We could see him bobbing his head as he watched us. (Ok, so he was still across the meadow, but bears can run fast!) When it started to look like he might be getting curious, we confidently banged our instruments. Tip! Tip! Crunch, Crunch! BLANG BLANG!
Uh oh. He nonchalantly leaned his head over, as if saying, What? Do I hear some pitiful little noises?
We ramped it up. Melinda was urging Tess to help us by barking ferociously. Tess finally got the picture.
Tess: “Oooooee, oooee, yodel ay ee oo!
Us: “Stop! You sound like a wounded animal!”
Since my pan wasn’t making a good contribution to the din, I decided to see what my emergency whistle would do.
Me with whistle: “weeee…eeee…”
Them: “Stop! You sound like a wounded animal!”
We tried to show Tess how a ferocious dog would bark. However, Melinda and Loreleigh have this thing where their voices get real high when they get excited.
They sounded like frantic little Chihuahuas yipping.
Me: “Stop! You sound like prey animals!”
We ended up just hopping around the tents banging pots, barking and howling, yelling and yodeling.
Finally he got tired of listening to us and sauntered away into the trees. But we didn’t want him to saunter. We wanted him to dash away in fear.
Melinda: “Ok, so, the plan. Are we still going to make noise if we hear bears messing around by our bear bags?”
Me: “No, we are going to hide in our tents, let them have it all and count it good.”
We ran around preparing our camp. We dug up every scrap of possible bear bait we had on us. Loreleigh the Bear Nazi waved her bear canister in our faces like a crazed deacon taking up the offering. She confiscated my flossers. She ferreted out a small bottle of hand sanitizer and a chapstick. We peed around the perimeter of our camp, and then we retreated inside our tents.
The longer I lay there without hearing any strange noises, the more relaxed I became, until, amazingly, I fell asleep. And shortly afterward, when I woke to the sound of steady rain on the tent fly, I felt happy. Surely no self-respecting bear would be out running around creating havoc in the rain!