Monday, July 26, 2010

Bear, Bobcat, Rattlesnake and Paleolithic Man

Old Rag                                                                                               7/22/2010

                    A beautiful warm Thursday for a teach-the-kids expedition. With Richard senior, his son Richard, 14 (hereinafter referred to as Young Rich), his younger son John, 9, Young Rich's friends Alan and Zach, 16 and 13 respectively, and John's friend Alex, about 9 also.

  Where the trail breaks off from the fire road, and heads up...

                      As guide of the expedition, I made the obligatory speech for this situation, to the effect that this is a real and serious mountain, small though it may be; that not everyone returns uninjured or even alive from this mountain; that one can get lost, fall off deceptively sloping cliffs, be bitten by rattlesnakes, etc.; that they should keep their eyes peeled for black bear, bobcat and rattlesnake, all of which I have seen before in this region, the cat only once, but the others several times each. They seemed to be listening, and we set off in the pleasant shade of the towering tulip trees, maples and the occasional sycamore that inhabit the lower reaches of the mountain. As one might expect the older boys began pulling away, but we had not gone a half mile on the fire road before they stopped dead, looking ahead. When we got up to them they said they had seen a fox, they thought; asked if it was red or gray, they said it was brownish black. The mystery was solved in a few minutes as we all saw a young black bear, about the size of a large dog, up the slope to the left, foraging along as if he were unaware of us. We got photos and walked on, scanning the forest for a possible Mama bear. Less than a mile later the advance guard again saw a bear, larger this time, that walked off quickly as soon as it saw them. None of the boys, small or large, showed any fear. So already we had set the proper tone for this adventure: there are definitely potentially dangerous animals running around loose out here, but we are the masters of the land and need fear nothing if we are brave and capable.

 Ursus Americanus, half-grown but still pretty big.

...and a couple of huge yellow swallowtails lurched through, up and away...

We reached the summit in a decent time, with a few short rests. 

                 Everyone enjoyed the usual euphoria caused by the sudden expansion of the view in all directions, and the kids explored and clambered on the boulders. We went up to the very topmost boulder, to say we'd reached the summit. 

                   Had a nice leisurely lunch and watched a couple of guys setting up a Tyrolean traverse, a most unusual bit of rope tomfoolery running a hundred feet across a gap; they seemed to know what they were doing. 

                   I demonstrated a few basic climbing techniques, showed the difference between the tiny blueberries and the poisonous fruit of the mountain laurel growing right beside it, and we got ready to go. I then proposed to Richard that we take a detour through the woods on the way back, down to the Sunset area, across the giant rocks and down the Secret Climber Trail that joins the Berry Hollow at the second major staircase. I was a bit hesitant but I felt that it would be a real adventure for the kids, and not beyond their strengths. Richard agreed, just taking my word, and we set off. Leaving the Berry Hollow trail at the usual very vague exit on the right, we angled down slowly and cautiously...

...and a couple of huge yellow swallowtails lurched through, up and away...

...and quite soon we were buried, immersed in the totality of a secret green world; an empire of ferns.

                       A faint line of bent ferns led, occasionally, down the moderately steep northeastern edge of the complex and broken Sunset Ridge, as I waded, clambered and slithered through blackberries, laurel, fallen trees, creeper, striped maple, and boulders of all sizes buried in ages of moss and munge. Behind me Young Rich had assumed the role of lieutenant, watching where I went and how I solved each new problem without breaking my leg, and then teaching it to the other kids as needed. Richard brought up the rear to assist the youngest, and we all talked up and down the line continually, constantly feeding the information we needed to all members of the tribe. Soon the rocks on our left grew higher, as did the trees around us, and the ferns and moss were supremely luxurious. There was nothing whatever to indicate that we were not well and truly lost, but nobody seemed nervous. They were keying off my own mood, which was genuinely carefree, in that I knew exactly where I was. I saw that not too far down the slope there was a cliff that seemed familiar, and I thought that the Keyhole must be not much further on; but first we had to find the proper way around a very large boulder onto whose top surface, which was somewhat sloping and a little wet, I had just emerged, with Zach right behind me at this time. The drop off the edge was too far, and the right side was badly blocked by windfall. I looked to the left, but before I could see the solution little Alex, a few feet back, suddenly discovered a nest of small, nasty ground-dwelling yellow jackets, and a slightly dangerous pandemonium ensued, because no one could just give way to the normal human reaction, which would be to run screaming and slapping at random. Instead we all had to help each other move quickly and safely a few feet away while slapping what we could; I grabbed Alex and prevented him from walking down the slimy slope of the big boulder, and slapped a last bug off his leg. He had been stung on the head as well as a couple of other places, and was sure that they were still in his hair. In the end four of us shared some ten stings; Zach and I both escaped. I quickly found the exit on the right, and we squeezed through a gap in the boulders, slid down a short drop and continued in good order along the edge of the ridge. Soon I found a bolt on a climb I recognized, and we all spelunked through the Keyhole, which the kids enjoyed, crossed the slippery slopes below the Breasts of Sheba buttresses, took a hard left up the big ramp, examined the spot where I once saw a rattlesnake (after I had stepped right over it), and got ready to downclimb the short chimney at the upper end. I demonstrated the easiest method, which involves putting your butt against the far wall, and Young Rich and Alan took to it immediately; we then handed down John and Alex, neither of whom were all that happy about it, but did not cry or complain, and got Zach, who was too big to be handed down, to eventually figure out for himself an alternative method which was perhaps harder, but less scary.

...and a couple of huge yellow swallowtails lurched through, up and away...

Back down the fire road, the last long mile...

                    All that remained was to follow the Secret Climber Trail, down, down past the cairns left by climbers, past blackberries on various stages of ripeness, down rock slides, over large talus buried in vines, and across sloping boulders, finally to emerge on the Berry Hollow trail, with a feeling of victory in the air.

 The very popular rock right next to the parking lot.

                     It is very gratifying for me, in a deep and primitive way, to have survived to this age, to have matured along my own rocky, uneven and difficult trail, to get to the point of being honored by leading the hunting party out into the green and dangerous world; however trivial the actual hike, this was the psychological reality, as potent now as a half-million years ago. The young men trusted my confidence and went out into the unknown right behind me. I'll take that feeling with me as I go, along with a few other trinkets and memories.

 The bobcat we never saw, from another year; he's still out there somewhere...

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He clasps the crag with crooked hands; Close to the sun in lonely lands, Ring'd with the azure world, he stands. The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls; He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls.