Monday, July 06, 2009

Ode to a Black Bear

Driving out to the North Umpqua River brought me back home. The road looked as if it were a newly discovered route to Coloma through the rolling gold hills dotted with oak trees. It even smelled like I was approaching the valley. As I continued east it was if I ended up on some parallel universe’s idea of the North Fork of the American – a mellow version, lush and green. The Umpqua felt reassuringly familiar even though I had never been there before.

The river itself was not challenging. But that was ok. I was reveling in the beauty and the company of newly made friends. The sun was warm, the water clear and cool, but not cold. It felt so good to lazily cross the river from eddy to eddy, linking the currents and rocks, working harmoniously and easily with the rhythms of the water. It wasn’t the North Fork of the American, but the Umpqua I was on. It was a new river; a new process of gaining a new acquaintance had begun. It was an easy river to be present with, as was my new paddling partner, Stacia.

After the anomaly of a rapid, Pinball, a rapid full of beautiful big round boulders, we eddied out for lunch. Although we had been camping, lunch did not suffer. It was more aptly called a picnic. Fresh avocado, creamy goat cheese, white cheddar, crackers, fresh basil, cherry tomatoes, beets from the farmer’s market in Mount Shasta and apple was pulled from my boat and spread on the rocks. We pealed off our gear and stretched our bodies in the warm sun. This scenario, by the way, does not happen when paddling with men, an observation that both of us were somewhat smugly aware of.

Back on the water, we stretched out our time to delay the imminent end by making the easy remaining rapids as challenging as we could, playing with the river. We dropped into a long rapid, me following Stacia. Out of the corner of my eye, to my left, a large shadowed rock moved and rapidly revealed itself to be a large black bear in the middle of the rapid. My mind struggled to comprehend exactly what that meant. From my advantage, it looked as if Stacia was having the same struggles as I. She was frantically pointing, then paddling hard away from where she pointed, then pointing again, and paddling fast. It was hard to decide whether to keep an eye on the bear or on the fastest way away from the bear.

The bear was obviously also struggling with comprehending what it was seeing coming quickly toward it from upstream. It thrashed powerfully and erratically in the water. Much to my relief, it decided to flee to the opposite bank that we were trying to reach and leapt up the granite cliff face in a way that defied its impressive bulk and mass. It then took its bulk full speed downstream, keeping pace with us about ten feet above the water line, until it could find a path up to perceived safety. The bear disappeared into a dark hole in the rock wall. Clumsy grappling bent young trees back and forth as if they were experiences a very localized tornado. I fear that many small trees lost their lives to the escaping hulk of a beast.

Stacia and I sat together in the eddy, straining to watch the bear’s path as long as we could. It was like being in the presence of God. We wanted to hold it in our vision and presence as long as possible.

This is one of the many reason that paddling easy rivers is just as amazing as harder ones. We were relaxed and moving comfortably down the current with the ability to widen our awareness across the river to include a wide area. Direct focus wasn’t necessary. On a challenging stretch of river I may have shared the rapid with the bear and never have known it. On a challenging river my mind is focused and drops any extraneous and unnecessary information. If the bear was not in my direct path, it may have just been extraneous information – a funny thought to attach to a frantic hulking animal in such close proximity.

But instead, I was able to enjoy the bear’s presence in full awareness. Encountering it easily trumped the enjoyment of leisurely munching on fresh basil and goat cheese next to the beautiful clear river on a hot day. An easy stretch of river was transformed from a pleasant experience that would soon fuzz at the edges of memory, inevitably blending with countless others to becoming one that will hold crisp and clear definition in my mind for a lifetime.