Grizzly Encounter - August 21, 2012
Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe
Mountain Encounter, Washington
Swimming with Whales, Hudson Bay, Manitoba
Noatak River Story by Linda Besse
Grizzly Encounter - August 21st, 2012
Camp was situated on a sandy
island spit of land dotted with willows. Separated from the main
Noatak River bank by a small 30 foot water course, it seemed a
safe environment to spend our day waiting for the wind to lessen
so we could continue our trip tomorrow.
Rob Mullen, our expedition leader, was painting on the far side of the island from our tents but a mere 30 second walk away. After checking on his progress, I headed back to my tent.
Before ducking inside, I
decided to walk the length of the spit along the water course.
There was a slight bank along the water edge and with the wind
strongly at my back, I headed toward the upstream edge of the
Splash! A loud splash from the water course to my right and slightly behind me. Maybe a musk ox? Caribou? As I turn to look, I see a grizzly bear running across the water toward me. My first thought, oh, a grizzly! That's neat! Then it very quickly dawns on me that I am out of earshot of camp, have no bear spray, no whistle, no air horn, no gun. I am also downwind of the bear. Hmmm.
This is not the time to panic. Whether animals can sense fear has been debated, but I was not planning on taking any chances. Stay calm. I had the good fortune to spend 6 hours with a very experienced polar bear expert Ian Thorliefson last year. There were just three of us on the ground in the company of 2 polar bears the entire time. A couple things I remember he said. Stay upwind. Look big, preferably in a large group. Wear bright clothing so you don't look like food. Stand your ground.
I was downwind. Nothing I could do about that without moving. I was alone and presumably out of earshot of camp with the strong wind. I was in camouflage. What I could do was look big, stand my ground, and not act like prey. I put my hands up in the air and said in a loud voice,"I'm really big, I'm a human, you are not interested in me!" "I'm really big, I'm human....." I kept repeating those phrases while I watched the bear.
This was about a 2 year old grizzly. Probably the first year fully on his own. Bears this age can be unpredictable. He came across the water course angling slightly away from me, thankfully downwind. The situation was improving. Unfortunately, he then decided to come up the sand bank and started walking toward me. This was not good.
Now I started thinking that if the bear mauls me, Rob Mullen, our leader would be pretty mad. I might have to get medical attention and this would certainly delay the trip. I might not be able to continue paddling. Also, I should have had my whistle on me but that was in my other coat. The bear continues toward me until he is maybe only 25 feet away. This is bad. My hands are still in the air and I am still repeating, "I'm really big...." At this point the grizzly stands on his hind legs. Suddenly I felt quite small.
Whether he was giving me a once over, was curious, or just getting a good whiff of me now that he was positioned perfectly downwind, I don't know. I was acutely aware however how big he was. How long a moment lasts depends on your perspective. For a moment, we looked at each other, then he came down on all fours, turned around and ran downwind away from me down the bank, across the small channel and into the willows on the far side.
That was close! I started walking slowly back toward camp constantly looking over my shoulder in case he came out of the bushes and saw a moving target. As I neared camp, I saw Rob and the rest of our group coming from near the cook tent. When I told them what happened, Rob grabbed his gun and we went back along the bank and looked at the bear's prints.
What I didn't know while I was having my encounter was that Rob could hear me. It is common to give a shout out to the bushes before entering them so as not to surprise an animal. It is not common to keep talking in a loud voice. Rob thought I was acting strangely and had come to investigate. He did mention that even though I didn't think camp could hear me with the strong wind, the bear probably did not understand English. I could have said loudly, "There is a bear in camp. There is a bear." I guess in this situation since I thought only the bear could hear me, I should talk to him.
After this, we were all a bit more careful before heading into the bushes. I had bear spray on me all the time (thanks to the loan from Sandy Scott) and often the whistle was around my neck, not just in my pocket. How one reacts in a stressful and dangerous situation is a culmination of one's life experiences. It can also be a result of what state of mind you are in at the time. Without any defensive instruments (my fault), I handled the situation the best I knew how by standing my ground, not acting like prey and being calm. In the future however, I will remember that remote grizzlies above the Arctic Circle may not completely understand English.
It was just before sunset in Zimbabwe and we had just stopped at a waterhole. The light had taken on the beautiful orange African glow. Five wildlife artists and an armed guide. As soon as the engine stopped we hear a low throaty roar. (Now, this is the time when you wonder why you are in an open very low vehicle when it is getting dark and start looking at your colleagues. Just a pleasant look - trying to determine if there is at least one who might run slower than you do.) We quietly leave the vehicle and head for a well-placed blind fashioned as a termite mound. As we begin to enter, the guard spots the 3 year old male lion and we decide to track him on foot. With great ease, the lion disappears from sight as we enter taller grass. (It is at this point that I think it might be a good idea to get closer to the armed guard - for a friendly chat, of course.) I ask him, rather casually of course, if he is a good shot. He says, "pretty good." Reassured, I ask him if he ever had to shoot any animals. "Oh, no," he replied. "I dont shoot animals. Just people." Nice to know that if I get mauled hes there to put me out of my misery! We track for about 20 minutes before we decide not to pursue the rather healthy lion into heavy brush. As we walk back to the blind and vehicle, the sky is a brilliant orange and reflected in the small pool of water at the waterhole. Maybe a perfect setting for the next painting?
My husband and I arrived at the Mayan ruins of Tikal after crossing the border into Guatemala from Belize. (A border crossing with machine guns trained on us, but then that is a whole other story!) Tikal is an amazing site. So little of the ruins are excavated which leaves one exploring the ancient site knowing there are more dramas to unfold. Fortunately at that time, the guides provided at the site had to go through a year's training and were extremely well versed in all aspects of the culture and times as well as the physical evidence remaining. Our guide was no exception. Exploring the temples and grounds and underground chambers meant climbing and searching through the ruins - a truly hands on experience. The 3 of us covered a lot of ground. I would see a small hill and realize from my geology background that, no, it wasn't a hill, but a temple so overgrown with jungle that any trace of human construction was lost. It waited to be "discovered."
When our day was almost over, our guide asked if we'd like to climb Temple IV. Temple IV at 212 feet is the highest standing aboriginal New World structure.) Ever game, we followed up the steep incline of the "face" and stepped around the back side. The back side consisted of a near vertical face with a 1.5 foot deep ledge up about 120 - 150 feet from the jungle floor. It was this the guide casually stepped onto and motioned us to follow. It seems the Mayans were not familiar with OSHA. No handrails, footholds, no little warning sign to watch your step. Just 18 inches between you and that life insurance policy you meant to get. I stepped onto the ledge. As we walked along (actually maybe slither is a better word as I did a side step with my back crushed against the back wall), the view was incredible. Our guide could now show us the tips of other Mayan sites peeking through the tops of the jungle. Spider monkeys were virtually flying through the trees below and the occasional "howl" from a howler monkey drifted to us on the breeze. So enamored of Tikal, we climbed the smaller but rarely visited Temple V and watched a thunderstorm approach. Our day ended with a Mayan meal and our driver searching through Flores, the nearby town, to find enough gasoline to get us back to Belize. The last three gasoline trucks had been blown up by terrorists. With that thought, we went to sleep thinking of the return border crossing. And yes, that is another story.
Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe
If you were going on a 70 km canoe trip in the heart of Africa through hippo and crocodile infested water, you would probably have logged a little time in a canoe first, right? Well, I did have experience. When I was nine, I was in a canoe for at least 20 minutes (before it tipped over.) That last detail I failed to inform my canoe partner (who had never been in a canoe) until we were walking down the ramp and getting into our canoe. Of course, since our plane arrived late and our bags missed the transport truck to that night's camp, we were forced to carry all our gear with us for the 11 km trip to camp. That fact and my under whelming canoe expertise did not allay my partner's fears as we started off.
Many do not know that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal. For years I have pictured them in the cute ballet costumes of Disney's Fantasia. Hardly. It was getting late and the sun is very low on the horizon. Just then, our guide says, "quick, back-paddle," in this loud whisper. Hippo, dead ahead! At this point, we were still trying to figure out how to front paddle! He then instructed us to quickly canoe to the other bank staying clear of our evening visitor. After crashing into the far bank, (what we lacked in skill we made up for with enthusiasm), we managed to steer around the hippo.
The sun set and we still had a ways to go. Fortunately, there was a full moon that night. It rose a magnificent orange ball and cast beautiful shadows on the water. Funny, it was then that each shadow started to take on the shape of a hippo. Just then, a loud snort, and a hippo emerged from the water just behind us. Close call. We finally made it to camp and a fire was waiting for us as well as dinner. We went to sleep with the sound of lions roaring close by and the thought of tomorrow's adventure on the water. What a day! The end of this day inspired this painting.
Mountain Encounter, Washington
Since I have a fear of heights, I thought learning to rock climb would be "fun." For my first climb, my two friends put me on a 60 foot face called Main Crack. I find that 60 feet looks a whole lot different on the ground than on a sheer granite face. Funny, isn't it? Having successfully climbed up and then down by repelling, I looked forward to my next time climbing. Little did I know that it would happen sooner than I had planned.
I headed a week later to do some geology reconnaissance for a job I had while getting my geology Master's degree. Our project for the day was to climb this mountain and look around and then down again. Not a very big mountain, but one to get our heart rate up and it had some interesting rocks. About half way up my geology partner and I decided to take slightly different routes and I would head toward the exposed bowl. As I neared, I could see that if I just stepped around and down this little ..... By the time I realized my error, it was too late. I was now on a cliff edge with my back to the 500 foot deep bowl and no cute safety rope like that day of rock climbing. With about 30 pounds of rock samples on my back there was no way to swing around back up to my left to try to go the direction I had come from. My partner was out of earshot. I guess there were more stupid things I could have done, but I couldn't think of any right then. While pondering my dilemma, I started to realize that my handhold was weakening and I should probably make a decision soon, or the decision would be made for me. My one chance would be to grab the handhold to my right but that would mean a little jump up, and with the extra weight on my back. A few deep breaths and heart pounding, I took the jump. Obviously I made it.
Meeting up with my partner at the top was a great relief. After exploring the ridge, we headed down together and came across a patch of snow. Hidden from their view, we saw a herd of 8 mountain goats playing in the snow. Three of them were babies and having a ball. They would leap straight up in the air coming down in the same spot - only to do it all over again. What a sight! The only thing that could tear us away was the lateness of the hour and the fact that we needed to be down before dark.
What a day. Oh, yes, I did go back and learn more about rock climbing ... and hopefully more wisdom.
As wildlife artists, we sometimes get unique wildlife encounters. A group of us visited a place in Zimbabwe which raises game to release into the wild, and helps injured or orphaned animals. Lions, leopards, elephants, cheetah, etc. Of particular interest to me was their leopard. She was 18 months old and gorgeous. The first afternoon we got to take her for a "walk." Actually it was 14 artists following her as she investigated her territory. No chain, and her handler there was watching her for signs that she would be ready to release into the wild. We got some great reference photos and were eager for the next morning's encounter.
She was a different cat the next day. Frisky, alert, scrappy. If you have ever had a cat as a pet, you know what I mean. This day she was all cat. Running, climbing trees, jumping down, not minding her handler. We had to run to keep up with her. At one point, she climbed a tree and stopped. Everyone started taking pictures at a pretty good distance to give her breathing room and I realized that at our position, we were shooting into the sun. So, I thought to just slip around to the other side of the tree so I would have the sun at my back. Much better lighting. As soon as I got into position and started snapping photos, she decided to leap down from the tree and began moving in my direction. I thought she would slip past me on my left and I could reach out to touch her like we had done the previous day. Gentle, never interfering with her normal behavior. She had other ideas. As she got closer, she decide to leap on me, her paws around my neck, her head by my right ear and we did a little dance with her on her hind two legs. Before I knew it, she was gone. Her handler came running over to me and said "Did she use her claws?" The first words out of my mouth were a surprised, "strong cat!" She hadn't used her claws but that got me thinking. If he was that worried.......
This painting came from that encounter.
Whales, Hudson Bay, Manitoba
From Seal River Lodge, we headed out in two zodiacs to look for polar bears and beluga whales. Ice had left the Bay only 2 weeks earlier and the water was far from balmy. Ian, our guide, spotted the white of a beluga and asked, "Who first?" Having no clue what really was going to happen, I volunteered. The first step was to put me into a dry suit. A large black rubber unit, zippered along the back at the shoulders and tight around the wrists and neck. I opted against gloves and a head covering which could restrict movement. Armed with a mask and snorkel, I got out of the zodiac and entered the frigid water. If I had any thought that this would be like snorkeling in the waters of Belize, that idea was frozen right out of my mind. With the extra air in my dry suit, I looked like a small humpback whale. Ian worked to release the extra air so my size shrunk to a large sea lion. (At which point, I started wondering if the rare orca in the bay or a wandering polar bear might find me a tad too interesting.) A very long looped rope was attached to my foot and the zodiac started moving away from me at a leisurely pace. The idea was to drag me backwards behind the boat. What happened next was unbelievable. Belugas from everywhere swam to me. They swam under me, beside me, one rolled on her belly below me and revealed her calf. At times I would be surrounded by a dozen whales. (Ian later joked I was the most popular girl in the ocean.) Groups of 5 - 7 kept pace with me, would stay for a little while and then swim away to be replaced by more which swam in to join me. I would catch white out of the corner of my eye, and before I knew it, there was a whale swimming right beside me. One swam right up to me, less than 18 inches from my face and looked at me. I nodded my head, it nodded its head. I moved my head side to side, it moved its head side to side. What a magical moment.
After more than 30 minutes, I was hauled out of the water (my hands were like rubber.) Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to have such a thrilling encounter. The belugas sought me out. Wild animals curious about the black rubbery creature which had entered their realm. I had a couple more chances to spend time with the whales, but that first encounter, when there were so many belugas, was the most special.
If you are interested in your own beluga encounter, see www.churchillwild.com/birds-bears-belugas.html