It had to happen sooner or later. Particularly in a land that has far more large wild mammals than humans. It’s only more ironic that as the author of four regional editions of Things that Bite, something other than invertebrates like mosquitoes and black flies should finally nail me.

But before I give you the sordid details, let me lay out the events leading up to the attack.

It was my birthday. . . 62 years old.  With the day opening with a flawless blue sky, Nancy inquired what I would like to do. Smiling at my first request, she wondered what else I would I like to do. I said, “How about hiking that unnamed peak a couple peaks south of Red Ridge by Annie Lake?” We had never climbed this peak and I was curious about it and wanted to get up to alpine to collect some flowers.

After a short drive, we parked the truck, donned our packs, adjusted our hiking poles and headed up. With no trails to follow we started up through the bush. The base of the peak rose up quickly through lodgepole pine, aspen and some clumps of hefty willow with lots of thigh-high soapberry bushes and dwarf birch in the understory.  Dwarf birch is commonly referred to as “buck brush” up here and no one likes hiking through it.

The volume and volubility of our chatter accelerated as we eased through the thicker cover. There is no need to ever surprise a bear. Let them know you are coming and they usually will vanish before you are near them. And a bear around here could be either a black or a grizz.

Our route was not direct. There were plenty of zigs and zags as we slowly slalom-trudged uphill. After half an hour of climbing we encountered our first patches of exposed bedrock.  Here and there were small clumps of sub-alpine fir and always some clumps of willow. But now most of the willow was shorter than the plants we encountered at the lower elevations.

Willow is everywhere up here. There are approximately 30 species of this woody plant in the Yukon. It can found in the lowlands, along rivers, on mountainsides and even a stunted version high in the alpine.

The grade became steeper and even with hiking poles, we found small willows and aspens as handy anchor points to pull ourselves up. About a third of the way up we found an open patch of grass and crowberry to sit down on and enjoy some water and snacks. Enjoying the view, we turned and looked up and realized that we still had some gnarly climbing ahead of us.

We resumed the ascent and soon found ourselves scrambling in more exposed areas of rock. The rock was scrabbly in spots so we proceeded cautiously, never directly below one another so as to avoid any dislodged rocks from hitting the other person. Now we were more frequently encountering pitches that required us to use our hands to grab secure rocks to help us along. Hiking was morphing into rock climbing and this is not what we really wanted.

About two thirds of the way up, we did a check with each other. “Are we bending the map?” I asked. “Bending the map” is a phrase coined by Lawrence Gonzales in his fine book, Deep Survival. In the book he explores who lives, who dies and why when confronted with an accident, catastrophe or being lost.

When one “bends the map” they are attempting to make a trail or route conform to them. In other words I was wondering if we were trying to minimize the difficulty of our route to the top. Nancy and I often check each other with that “bending the map” question when we are out on big hikes or paddles.

This time we both agreed that perhaps we were biting off too much. And besides, with a birthday supper of halibut enchiladas and rhubarb pie for dessert, we didn’t want find ourselves in a sketchy situation with the coming of evening. So we began to traverse to the north looking for an easier route down.

We had only gone about 200 hundred yards or so when we found the grizzly bear den.

The opening was large enough to easily let me walk in if I bent over at the waist. I didn’t. This was likely a den where a grizzly spends the winter. If it was a female’s den she might have birthed a pair of cubs here. Or a lone male could have claimed it. Once the warmer spring weather starts to melt the snow up this high, the bear(s) would leave the den and head downhill looking for some greening produce to eat.

We moved past the den and were celebrating the fact that we found a less steep descent but it also was a thicker garden of undergrowth. We could take bigger steps downhill and the gravity helped our momentum.

Suddenly the attack came.

As I passed through a moose-high clump of willow, one of the supple limbs I was pushing ahead of me snapped back and had its way with the orbit of my eye. I grumbled a curse and in stoic, male-stubborn fashion, I forced my way through.  No blood; just a good smack on the head.

We ultimately made it down and back in time for a wonderful birthday supper with some friends and Nancy’s sister, Jane. (Jane had wisely stayed back at the Outpost while we hiked.)

It was the next day that I discovered my tattooed left eyelid. The funny thing is the bruised eye socket didn’t hurt. In fact I had to pause to recollect how I hurt it.

Some folks up this way call willow “moose candy” because it is the most preferred moose food around. Funny how this plant, the same one that is the origin of the ubiquitous pain reliever, aspirin, got a “sweet” lick at me.


Willow Attack

Filed under: Uncategorized