Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Oddly Bearable Heat of Hercules Glades Wilderness

A foggy sunrise over the balds and ridges of Hercules Glades Wilderness in southwestern Missouri has been my companion for most mornings the past two weeks.

Temperatures have been starting in the low 70’s at sunrise and accelerating from there to the mid and upper 90’s by noon. The high humidity and lack of anything resembling a breeze has forced me to wake at 4am and have my quadrat buried deep in the dewy glade grasses by first light. By noon, I haul myself, an ever present load of ticks, and my near empty gallon jug of water a good mile to the nearest refugium where I reestablish a safe body temperature and stifle the heat induced randomness of my thoughts; thoughts that make one believe in the hallucinations induced by such spiritual paraphernalia as the Native American sweat lodge.

Such thoughts were in my head yesterday morning when I glanced up from my vegetation sampling to see a 200 pound black bear walking broadside, watching me from no more than 60 feet away. I have always half expected to see a wild hog or a crazed meth-head in the places my field work takes me. And every now and then I hear of a bear that roams into an Ozark town where upon it is chased into a tree, photographed and politely removed from “civilized” society. But I, up until this point, had never seen nor thought I would ever see a bear face to face.

I walked quickly to my cruising vest, a lucky ten feet away, for two items; my camera and my pistol. The bear was calm and obviously as interested in me as I him. Heart racing, hands shaking, I focused my finger on the small power button of my camera. Thinking that I was stupid for not trying to scare the brut away before he got any ideas, I snapped off some quick photos with the point and shoot. Then I decided that I would prefer he go somewhere else. So, like a poodle barking at a rottweiler, I clapped my hands and yelped “Hey!” and “Git”. The response was predictable; he could not care less. Why should he care more? I was on his turf and besides, he had not completed his observations of me.

I drew my pistol, chambered a round and fired it into the dissipating fog above my head. As the shot rang through the hills of the wilderness the bear, my strangely misunderstood and somehow mystical bear, bucked, wheeled and ran, with a sort of sad desperation, into the tangled distance of tree trunks, branches and woodland grasses.

It took a while for my hands to stop shaking and for my heart to leave my throat and return soundly to my chest. In the meantime, I stood shaking my head and laughing in disbelief. I couldn’t stop saying aloud to myself “a f&#king bear!”. I laughed more when I played back the photos I had taken. The low light and my case of the shakes resulted in about the best Sasquatch or Nessy photo you’ve ever seen, but still recognizable as a bear.

As I ran the next transect I came across a rotten log about 25 feet long and 20 inches in diameter that had recently been turned over and torn apart. I concluded that the bear had been here feasting on grubs and ants when I walked up and began installing the plot.

I finished sampling the plot but with both eyes scanning far ahead in case my furry new friend was to return (or have friends of his own). This was difficult because I have trained myself to look for venomous snakes underfoot and not bears in the distance. The compromise was understandably unnerving.

Tomorrow I need to sample a plot in the same area. I’m quite sure that another close encounter will not occur. Part of me wouldn’t mind. Or is that the heat talking?