Monday, July 20, 2009

Facing my own Bear

If you have been following my adventures, you know that I recently faced a bear in the wild while hiking the Appalachian Trail. Last weekend, I had to face my own internal bear. We all have them hidden away. Even Luke from Star Wars had to face his during his training as a Jedi Knight. Now that I have your attention, let's get started at the beginning where all trails should start.

Our adventures this week took us to Starved Rock State Park in the North-Central part of Illinois. The park is known by the high rock formation where an Indian Tribe was starved out by another tribe. The easily defended location made attack futile but the same isolation that protected them also imprisoned them. They starved on the rock. For many, this group of rock formations were the extent of the park. This extended 4 day weekend, showed me a part of the park that I had never explored before. We spent the time hiking the many canyons along this section of the Illinois River. The weather with recent and consistent rains had kept the many springs flowing unlike most summer seasons. Every canyon had some type of waterfall at the beginning. All were flowing. It was an awesome sight. Above, this picture looks down the river toward the namesake.

We arrived at the campground Thursday around noon and set up camp. We took some time in the car to reorient ourselves to the area. We explored the nearby town of Ottawa and were captivated by the "home town" feel of the business district. Murals could be found on many of the old historic buildings. A central square advertised the location of a Lincoln-Douglas debate with statues and a surrounding fountain. I posted the video on my Face Book page with the caption that this was the location of the debate. Readers were quick to ask if the debate took place in the fountain! I suspect the fountains were an afterthought!

A relaxing campfire and large grilled hamburgers gave way to a beautiful sunset and my version of s'mores. I like one marshmallow and a Hershey square between two Lorna Dunes - yum. What a way to end the day.

Friday morning started with an outside breakfast of eggs and potatoes all mixed up. This "mixed up" turned out to be a precursor of the day to follow. We headed out first thing to the closest mall for a phone charger to replace the one left sitting on my desk at home. Then we headed to Matthiessen State Park just down the road from Starved Rock. Our thought was that these trails would be a bit easier on Pat's knees. We took a wrong turn at the first "Y"and ended up on the interior "challenging" trail. We got to a water crossing featuring un-level, overturned stepping stones. This led to a quick retreat back up the stairs to the more level bluff trail. Another poorly marked trail divide took us back to the lower canyon trail. While this was not our intention, it was negotiable so we went on to the falls area. Pat stayed back as Kira and I made our way up the water covered trail to the base of the falls. Leaning stairs showed what the long delayed maintenance was doing to the park system. We stepped over the broken steps and made it to the top where we could look down on the low falls and back up the stream to our original destination. The water level made this trail impassible without serious wading. While Kira would love the adventure, I was not comfortable with a $3,700 camera around my neck. Again, we retreated.

Here, I have to tell you a bit about myself. I have always been very self-sufficient. I flourish in challenges but as my body ages, I have begun to feel the unusual-to-me feeling of frustration at not being able to do something. I have always been at home in the woods. I never got lost and a challenging trail was one more thing to conquer. Now, I find myself having doubts. What if I slip? What if I can't pull myself up? What if I can't find my way back? So, as I stood at the base of the moss covered wet rock, I chose not to go on.

Our hike back out of the canyon was complimented by the presence of another older couple (probably our age) who had also come down the wrong way. They chose not to go back in the canyon but turned back up the stairs with us. A few hundred yards up the trail, the poorly marked trail that we had missed was off to the right. I decided to take it up above the falls to the lake while Pat would head back with the other couple. Kira and I went up to the lake , took some shots and headed back down to catch up with Pat. As we passed a couple with a dog, all my attention was on Kira who is not always friendly with other dogs and I missed the trail turnoff and we went back down the trail we had just come up. When we got to the stairs, I knew I had missed the turnoff and we turned around to go back up the trail to the missed turn. The anxiety of missing numerous trails and retracing my path numerous times was surpassed by the feeling of good health. I even began to jog up the trail to make up time. This is something I have not done in years even on level ground. I was feeling good and we made up the time and met Pat at the bridge where she was patiently waiting for us.

Below us was a substantial waterfall calling to me. The older couple had gone down that direction and I decided to follow, leaving Pat on the bridge to wait for our return. We headed off to the right side of the bridge and up the trial along the ridge of the canyon. About a mile down the trail, there was a set of steps. I heard someone say there were 130 steps. I didn't count. At the base of the steps, there was a foot bridge across the canyon and then another set of steps going round and round like a high-rise stairwell. At the base, was the often muddy canyon floor. We headed up the canyon to the base of the falls and took our pictures. It was worth the walk. High above, Pat stood waving from the bridge above. (click on picture to see larger version) I soaked in the energy of the falling water. It is the closest thing to ocean waves. There is such power. The trip back up the canyon was a little easier as I knew where to go and how to avoid some of the mud. We reached the stairs. Round and round we went up the 8 - 10 flights of stairs. As we exited the stairwell, I saw the familiar wood steps that would take us the rest of the way out of the canyon. At the top, I glanced over at the map to my left but knew I had to turn right to head back to the bridge. Off we went down the trail. The woodsy trails all look the same so there were no discerning markings but it seemed like a lot further back than it was getting there. We walked on and on thinking the bridge and Pat were right around the bend or behind the trees. They were not. Then I saw a metal gate ahead. I didn't remember it but it was probably by the turnoff to the bridge. I was wrong again. A sign indicated we were leaving this section of the park. Fortunately, there was a map there. We had gone the wrong way after leaving the canyon. It was a couple miles back to the stairs and then about a mile more to the bridge. AS I tried to quicken my step to hurry our journey, I had to face the fact that perhaps I no longer could trust myself in the woods. Had I not had a map to guide me back the way I came, I would have been lost. I told myself that I couldn't go into the woods without a GPS unit because I lost track of direction. Was this the beginnings of Alzheimer's? Would I get lost on the way to the grocery store? While you read this, you might chuckle but I assure you I was not laughing. My Mom has Dementia and the prospect of ending up there is terrifying. There was a lot of soul searching as I walked back toward the stairs and eventually the bridge where Pat waited, frightened by our delayed return.

"You made the loop around, I see" she said questioning. Then I realized I had come back on the left side of the bridge. It wasn't until that point that I realized what I had done. I had come up on the opposite side of the canyon so my trail back required a left turn not a right turn. Then the pieces started to fall into place. I didn't remember crossing the foot bridge on the way back. The circular stairwell steps had disoriented me and I was too hyped up on endorphins and adrenalin to properly be aware of my surroundings and where I had come and where I was going.

So, was this a premonition? A warning? or an early symptom? I don't know. Should I invest in a handheld GPS? Probably. Did my concern and attention directed toward Kira throw my senses off? I don't know.

I forced myself back on the trail alone that afternoon for some needed self confidence and I didn't get lost. Another hike Sunday morning also resulted in success but I was fortunate enough to have another couple to guide me over an unmarked trail after we ventured to the upper falls above Illinois canyon. Had they not been ahead of me on the trail, I probably would have stopped and retraced my path back to the familiar canyon floor. I lost something that day. It was the self confidence I always have had in the woods. If you see me wandering aimlessly at the reunion, just point me back to the food table.

I'll be researching a hand held GPS very soon. After a quick search, I ordered a new handheld GPS unit. I'm not taking any chances. Perhaps this unit will have the meat section at the grocery store as a way point.

Next post, we will be finishing up our adventures in Shenandoah National Park where we hike to one of the many waterfalls. See you then. Assuming I can find my way back to this computer.

You can find more Starved Rock pictures on my FaceBook page.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

July 4th tribute

For this weeks post we are going to jump back to Springfield Illinois, my home town. Springfield is the center of the Land of Lincoln. I love my home town and try to depict some of the great sights in my photography tour. To view this tour, go to click on the Springfield and Lincoln sights album. Then just click on the tour and sit back and enjoy the places relating to Springfield.

Last weekend, we started our 4th of July celebration with a trip to Oak Ridge Cemetery here in Springfield. The Cemetery is noted for the Lincoln's tomb. But we dedicated this visit to the three war memorials that stand proudly at the cemetery entrance.

The angular tribute to the men and women who fought in the Vietnam War is often the first to catch your eye. The black stone walls etched with names of killed or missing Illinois soldiers, displays a poignant message to those who stand before it.

To the west of the Vietnam Memorial, stands a more traditional memorial. This statue depicts the service branches serving in the Korean War.

World War II is memorialized in the last memorial. It's plain black walls reminiscent of the Vietnam memorial in Washington DC converge on a world globe which signifies the broader scope of this war.

click on any of the pictures above for a larger picture for easier viewing. All photos are copyright by me,

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Bears - Up Close and Personal

The State Journal Register featured an article of my bear encounter in today's edition. That story was based on an interview with me and on the following recount of my experience. I want to thank Chris Young for his article. It was excellent as usual. If you are a nature enthusiasts but not local, I encourage you to follow him on the web . One correction I might make for those in the Springfield area, I am semi-retired, but I no longer do home inspections. I am the House Doctor and specialize in home repairs and remodeling. That's what pays for the camera equipment! Am I a professional photographer? That depends on your definition of professional. Do I take and sell pictures? Yes. Do I make enough to cover expenses? No. If you are interested in seeing more of my work, go to . Now let's get on with the story.

It was about 4 PM local time. My wife and I were camped in Big Meadows Campground in Shenandoah National Park. The weather was clear that day and I had spent the morning hiking down the trail to Dark Hollows Falls. We had experienced lots of fog and rain during our stay in the park so I wanted to make the most of a rare, rain free day. I topped my monopod walking stick with a simple digital Canon Powershot A590. The camera backpack was lightened up so I could travel quickly and return before dark. Inside the bag was my Canon 5D Mark II with a 28-135 mm zoom lens. The heavy telephoto zoom was left behind.

I started out on a section of the Appalachian Trail behind the campground (at right) and quickly turned onto the Lewis Falls Trail to descend about 800 feet down to the observation point at the falls level. Alone on the trail, it was easy for the mind to visit many places as the feet seemed to negotiate the rocky trail on their own.

At right, Kira and I are on another portion of the Appalachian Trail the day before.

While thoughts come and go, I think every hiker in bear habitat area has to come to terms with the thought that some day they will encounter a bear on the trail. Just the day before, my wife and I talked about the possibility and we decided our best option was to display as large an intruder as possible. I say intruder because that is what we are; we're intruders in the bears land. We thought we would stand side-by-side with arms outstretched making loud noises. Once you come to grips with the possibility, it is time to move on to other more pleasant thoughts. On this trail, I knew I was venturing into the active time of the bears as dusk would be approaching soon. I also knew I was alone, possibility not the best idea but my only option at this time because my wife's knees would no longer support her on a long hike particularly where a climb is included.

Each step resonated though my body as my feet hit the large sharp rocks making up most of the decent. Clomp, clomp, clomp down the trail I went. “A noisy hiker is not likely to startle a bear”, I kept thinking to my self. At times I considered whistling or singing but I knew I was overreacting, over thinking this whole bear thing. About half way down the trail, there in the center of my path was a large pile of Bear Dung! It wasn't still steaming but it did look fresh! It doesn't take an Indian guide to recognize bear dung. IT IS BIG! Was this a warning or an omen? My wondering mind was quickly brought back to the here and now. I reasoned that I would be just as likely to encounter a bear if I turned back as I would if I went on to the falls. I stepped over and headed on down the trail. I did take extra precautions to be more aware of my surroundings and possible trail mates, the hairy variety!

When I reached the falls overlook, I caught up with my first fellow hiker. Some how, this gave me a feeling of security. We exchanged pictures and headed down the trail to the observation point below. I lingered at the falls and again found myself alone. Another group then joined me and we headed back up the trail together. They were younger, so I was falling further and further behind and about half way up, our trails split as they headed up the easier fire road and I cut back onto the Appalachian Trail to head back to the campsite. I had figured 1 hour down, one hour at the falls and 1 hour back. This would put me back at 7 PM local time; prime bear time. I was ahead of schedule as I headed, again alone, back toward the campground. This part of the trail was not as rocky as I had completed most of the climb. The monotony of the trail now started releasing the leash on my thoughts and they began to wonder. I was breathing in the fresh air, and absorbing the pure vibrations of nature. The endorphins were flowing and I was on a nature high.

As I approached a bend in the trail, the endorphins were replaced by adrenalin. There less than 20 feet away was a full grown female bear in all her splendor. At age 63, this was my first up close and personal encounter on a trail. I had played the scenario many times in my mind but this was the real thing. I was there and so was the bear. I stood still as she looked me over. I was doing the same thing to her. All that advice about not making eye contact, I didn't care what the experts said; I was watching every move she made to judge her next move. I figured if necessary, I would use the walking stick and attached camera as my weapon of choice but hopefully it would not be needed. As I calmed down and started to reason out my next action, I knew that my first action might be the most important decision affecting the rest of my life, short as it might be. I placed my hand around the top of my only weapon and tensed up as I carefully gripped the hand-hold and snapped off a picture! If this was going to be my last picture, it better be a good one! She started in my direction at about a 30 degree angle from a straight line to me. I countered with an advancement along the trail. As I proceeded, I turned to constantly face her as we passed within feet. Sure wish I would have fired off a few more shots but at the time, I was more interested in survival and having the option to see my shots on the big monitor. About 30 yards down the trail, I stopped and took the good camera out of the backpack. It was at this time, I realized there were two cubs playing in the meadow. Momma was more interested in going to them than going after me. Where is that telephoto lens when you need it? I felt too vulnerable to get close enough for any really award winning shots but I sure had a story to tell.

The following picture, while taken the day before with a 400mm lens, exemplifies what I saw when she came out of the brush and crossed the trail ahead of me. By the time I fired off that first shot, she was walking away.

With shadows ever lengthening, I headed up the trail knowing I had passed the bear test. I had cell service on this side of the ridge so I took the opportunity to call my daughters and let them know that dear OLD Dad had passed the bear test. I kept looking back to be certain Momma bear had not decided to follow me home for dinner; hers! I remember laughing over the phone saying that she had probably told her brother and his friends about the encounter and they would be waiting for me in the parking lot at the end of the trail. I could see them standing around in a semi-circle with chains and clubs and wearing leather vests with gang symbols on them. We laughed, Kim and I, not the bears, as I walked back to the camper to tell my story to anyone who would listen.

We all have our bears to face in life. I prefer to face mine with a smile on my face and a hardy laugh to let the bears know I am coming.

© 2009 Dulany F Sriner

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail extends for about 2,175 miles, starting from Springer Mountain in Georgia and going to Katahdin Maine. There is an International A.T. that extends up into Canada to the end of the mountain range where it enters the North Atlantic ocean. Now at the semi-advanced age of 63, I can say I hiked the Appalachian Trail. I didn't start exactly at the beginning in Georgia although I encountered several along the trail that had. And I must further admit, I did not make it all the way to the North Atlantic. In fact, I didn't even make it through Maine. It is hard to say how many miles I did go because I made two different attempts at different times. Both attempts started near the middle in Virginia and one headed north and the other south.

My first attempt started at the Big Meadows campground near Shenandoah Virginia. My wife, Pat and dog Kira joined me on this particular adventure. We made camp at the campground and got up early in the morning to get an early start. The trail actually skirts a portion of the campground so it didn't take much time to get to the trail and head toward our first destination, Fishers Gap. The skies were cloudy and a bit cool. I started with a sweatshirt over my regular shirt and then wore my photographer's vest over that. It was comfortable in the early morning moist air. I was carrying my Canon 5D with two lenses and miscellaneous accessories in my vest. Pat was similarly dressed without the vest but with a jacket. When embarking on long cross country trails, it is important to dress in layers to be shed as the sun warms the trail. Kira, our new canine companion was secured with a long retractable leash so she could scout the trail ahead and bark if there were any bears along the way. Pat and I decided that if we did encounter a bear, we should stand side-by-side to look bigger and a more worthy adversary.

The trail was well marked with occasional concrete posts and numerous painted bars on trees along the way. The flashes were color coded to mark different trails as there are many shorter trails that criss-cross the A.T. The posts showed the AT symbol along with distance notations on the metal strap that went around the post. ( Like all pictures on this blog, the above picture can be enlarged to see the strap markings. Simply click on the picture.) Each side marked distance with direction arrows. This post (above) showed the first destination at a mile. It is much easier to go from destination to destination only a few miles apart than it is to look at the total distance you plan to go in a day, week, or month. We were a little out of shape so we didn't plan to go more than 20 miles the first day. But for now, it was just that next post we would be looking to see. You should be seeing a picture now of two hikers unprepared for 100's of miles of rugged trails.

Wildlife along the trail was plentiful; especially the deer. They seemed to enjoy posing for pictures. They were also fascinated by Kira who did not bark at them. They even walked up toward her when we were on walks in the campground.
The trail along this section was a easy downward grade and all but the steep sections were smooth. On the slopes, the soil is washed away to expose the grapefruit sized sharp rocks that make up the walking surface. As the sharp points pressed into my worn sneakers, it reminded me why we got steel shanked hiking boots for our trail hiking in the Rockies above Estes Park CO. I made a mental note to buy a new pair before I did much more mountain hiking. We were not traveling very fast because Pat has problems with her knees and the uneven pathways made hiking difficult and rapid travel painfully impossible. The only thing that might quicken her pace would be the sight of a bear. Did I mention this is bear country? And bear sightings are common on the trails? You are probably saying to yourself, "What are they thinking? They are not ready for even a week on the trail. "

The first thing we noticed on the trail was the saturated color all around us. Ferns covered most of the forest floor and it resonated the color green. It is said that green is a very soothing color and it was. My euphoria was interrupted by Pat's question, "How far do you think we have gone so far?"

My quick answer was, "About 1/2 mile."

"Are you sure that is all?" she replied in a hesitant voice.

The trail was beginning to descend more quickly now as we walked on. Have you ever ridden in an old car with worn out shocks? Old knees are a little like that. There is little bounce as your foot hits the hard rocks on each descending step. I looked back and knew Pat was in pain! Fishers Gap would have to wait for another try. It was time to turn back toward the comforts of the camper and an easy chair while we sipped a cold drink and planned the next trail to conquer.

As we headed back up the trail, the clouds began to thicken rather than clear. The fog was now rolling up the side of the mountain. The foggy tendrills were almost like the serpent tongues of a fire devouring everything in its path. The humidity felt wet on the skin and our layers of clothing were trapping the heat we generated as we climbed up the now ascending pathway. Sweat began to form but could not evaporate in the moist mountain air. Remember the layers of clothing? We had too many and began to shed them as a snake sheds it's skin.

There was a eerie beauty of the fog as it would ebb and flow. One minute it was difficult to see each other and other times it was as clear as a cloudless day. According the time stamps on the pictures, we had been hiking about an hour and a half. We had probably gone just less than two miles but remember it is climbing and descending. Did we really expect to go 20 miles in a day? Get real! WE knew from our hiking experience in the Rockies that a 6 mile round trip is a long trail! While our journey was short, we could now say we had hiked the AT. What a rewarding experience.

Now, where is our camper? I know we left it here?

Next post, A visit to a waterfall.