Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Grizzly in the Garden; Bear Spray in the Cabin

Yesterday afternoon, I had an Alaskan experience that was 1/3 scary, 1/3 ridiculous, and 1/3 painful!

After the noisy, hot, sweaty work of weed whacking back by our power tower for more than an hour, I took a break with a big glass of ice tea and a book on the front porch, to cool down in the breeze wafting over the lake and enjoy the silence.  

In the woods to my right, a loud “crack” in the trees attracted my attention, so I looked into the upper reaches, thinking that perhaps a porcupine, which we have seen there before, had crawled out onto a weak branch.  Seeing no movement, I returned to my book.  

A minute later, I glanced right, riveted by the sight of a big, adult brown bear (grizzly) sniffing in my garden, 20 feet from the porch!  We have seen small black bears in the yard before (200 lbs), but the larger and more aggressive brown bears tend to “own” the nearby creeks, filled with salmon, grayling, and trout.  They cede the more limited appeals of our property – until now. Whether the bear was a boar or a sow, I don't know, but at close proximity, I could see that each of “his” padded feet was the size of a dinner plate, and the round head was as wide as a basketball hoop. He looked hale, hearty and big, more than twice as large as any black bear I had seen up close before.  What astonished me, given the size, was his stealthy silence. Had I not heard him break a branch in transit, and sensed movement in my peripheral vision, I would not have noticed his nearby presence at all.

Although the porch is elevated above ground level, I sat really still, acutely aware that I was directly within his visual field as he sniffed and pawed at the soil. I knew that sight is not their strongest sense – but just look at the size of the nose and ears facing me, too! The ducks were squawking in alarm near the lake shore, about fifty feet in front of me. Their noise may have attracted his attention because he started to move in my direction. When he swayed his big head and shoulders toward the ducks and the lake, I took the brief opportunity to bolt for the door and hurry inside, from where I watched him through the windows, meanwhile worrying about my husband, who was working in the field behind the cabin, unarmed.

By the time I looked outside, the bear had arrived at the porch and was sniffing upward toward where I had just been sitting.  He didn't chase after the ducks or the chickens, (which were silently hiding somewhere, perhaps under the cabin). However, when he lumbered past the front of the cabin in the general direction of the ducks, they quickly dove in the water and swam away from shore.  He sped up, trotted past the shower house and then turned east, through the alder thicket (which is a transit way for black bears, too) and in the direction of my husband who was working in the back of the property, some 400 feet away over the lip of a hill where I could not see him. 

I yelled "bear" out the back door and fortunately, he heard me.

Because I forgot that he kept a shotgun and bear spray at the power shed, I worried about his safety. At first I grabbed his vest by the door with his .44 magnum in the holster but I realized that I was too nervous and ill practiced with that heavy, high caliber weapon to fire off an effective shot. So I grabbed a can of bear spray that we also keep by the door, figuring that I could step out onto the back porch in order to protect his return to the cabin. 

 Note to self: multi-tasking may not be a great idea when one is nervous. 

With my left hand pushing down the door latch and the right hand pulling back the safety catch on the canister, I pressed down on the weapon's valve, too, emitting a stream of pepper spray at the door about 6 inches in front of me, and thus enveloping my head in the noxious, oily fumes.

Suddenly, I was blinded, could not breathe, and my skin started to burn, like I had just drenched my face in habanero oil, which is essentially what I had done. It felt like an excruciating sunburn or stove burn. I fumbled my way to the kitchen sink and commenced to drench my face and guzzle water. The latter helped me breathe and the former somewhat assuaged the pain, but the dripping water also spread the burn to my neck and the backs of my hands.  
Bryan arrived safely, but as soon as he opened the door, he, too, was overcome by the effects of the pepper spray. He quickly withdrew but, since I couldn't see, and he couldn't speak, I didn't understand why my “rescuer” had suddenly disappeared. So, in addition to being scared and in a great deal of pain and disorientation, I started getting mad, too, and started yelling at him, once my vocal chords were functioning.

I proceeded to bark orders at him in a lame effort to exert some control. In retrospect, I recognized these reactions. I had not felt this much pain, lack of control, and nervousness since labor delivering my first child. Anybody who has gone through basic military training has to submit to a tear gas ordeal, so they can relate. In my case, these emotions were compounded by the realization that I had brought this upon myself. Add “feeling ridiculous” to pain, fear, and anger. Quite a combo.

Our ignorant efforts to deal with this experience were akin to an episode of “Dumb and Dumber Deal with a Bear Spray Accident.” My husband braved the tainted atmosphere of the cabin, his face and mouth protected by a sweat shirt previously hanging outside. With his vision dimmed and mine non-existent he ineptly threaded me through the interior furniture. I felt like a ball in a bumper pool game, which didn't improve my mood. Once he plunked me down into a deck chair, he ventured within to throw open the windows for aeration and returned with a huge bowl of water and a pile of rags. Meanwhile, of course, I was nervous, sitting outside, blind, in the vicinity of a bear (that was probably long gone). Bryan looked up antidotes on the Internet, which, given our slow, rural Internet speed, took an inordinate length of time.

One solution is any fatty dairy product. We don't have ice cream and only dry, non-fat milk, so he brought me a stick of butter which offered no relief at all. A second solution made more sense. Since pepper spray is an oil based product, he mixed dish washing liquid and water into a large basin. The sopafaction agents could cut the oil on my face. By trading out batches of rags and soapy water, this was indeed effective. Within ten minutes of splashing soapy water on my face and neck, I could see, and though my face still burned, I could leave the sink long enough to remove my shirt, which was contaminated by the spray, and exuded a sickly sweet smell. Gun in hand, my husband walked me to the shower house where I decided I should take a shower to clean my  hair (and he could assess the the bear's trajectory). As soon as the water released the vapors in my hair, my eyes squeezed tight against the fumes and pain and I struggled to complete my ablutions, fearing that I would add yet another stupid mistake, like slipping on a piece of soap and breaking a bone, to the ridiculous and painful incidents of the day.

When I emerged, Bryan asked, calmly, “How about a drink and a kayak across the lake?” Both sounded perfect. Out on the pretty lake, my burned hands trailing in the cool water, the discomfort subsided once and for all. I was able to relax and to apologize for being what my husband terms, “hysterical” but which I prefer to consider “loudly in pain and afraid.”


We did our annual honey harvest yesterday so please stay tuned for my next article about raising bees.  Fresh honey is finger licking good!

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  1. Oh my, I think you handled that encounter as most folks would have so don't beat yourself up! Can't wait to hear about your honey harvest. I'm very jealous because I just can't seem to keep a hive alive around here. When you go into your hive be on the lookout for small beetles, smaller than lady bugs, but that shape. They have been the bane of my hives, along with wax moths once the hive gets weak. Will be so good to visit with you when you come to Houston!

  2. OMG!!! What a terrible situation for you! Sounds dreadful -- and perfectly logical to be screaming, angry, anxious, and all the other emotions whirling around as you worried about the bear's proximity. Your article also gave me a glimpse into the gardening challenges you now face -- much bigger critters invading your garden than folks are used to here!

    Glad the kayak & soothing water helped.

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  4. Bryan referred me to your blog and I am now a subscriber, and forwarded your post about the brown bear cubs to Facebook. As a true cream puff, I am amazed and awed. Thanks for the very useful recycling information, and all the stories about life in the wilderness and survival of the fittest.

  5. Just read your story in the Houston Chronicle. What an adventure!