Close encounter with bear (spray)

IMG_1648-croppedThe day I bear-sprayed myself started out fairly organized.

We were planning to leave early from Bog Springs Campground in Madera Canyon, a beautiful spot in the Coronado National Forest in Arizona. We wanted to get to the Titan Missile Museum on our way to a campground near Arivaca.

We were up early, stowing our bedding, making breakfast and packing up all our gear, camera, hiking boots, camp chairs, grill, computers, knitting, cat. I wasn’t even thinking about the bear spray.

The reason for bear spray is obvious to me. I have a mega-bear-phobia. As a teen-ager, I read and re-read long accounts of grizzly bear attacks, and I have never forgotten the stories.

Tent camping was a terror for me. I would think I had my phobia in check, crawl into my tent, slip into my sleeping bag and lie there wide-eyed, listening to what I was sure were bears snorting just outside the perilously thin, nylon tent. At about 2 a.m., when I could take it no longer, I would abandon my husband, Tom, in the tent and go sleep in the car.

So the idea of The Epic Van was brilliant. We would buy a fancy camper van and I wouldn’t worry about bears. We could travel the country, sleeping soundly.

Still, there was the issue of running into bears on the trail. So I purchased a bear bell, a little jingle bell that you hook onto a belt loop to announce to mama bear that you’re coming up the trail, and a can of bear spray.

The bear spray will shoot a stream of capsaicin-laced fluid 30 feet. It has a safety latch to keep it from going off inadvertently. More about that later.

Tom is pretty cavalier about the bear danger, and so, on our hike to Bog Springs, he only reluctantly agreed to carry the can of bear spray. He told me to wear the bell, which I happily did, feeling very jolly and Santalike all the way up the trail.

On the way down, we ran into a Forest Service employee who complimented the bear spray he saw poking out of the camera bag Tom was carrying. The man said he always asked people if they were carrying bear spray and where it was. Most, he said, told him it was in their backpack. He not-so-gently informs them that a bear attack usually lasts six seconds, and comes from the side or behind, rarely from the front. Trying to get the spray out of a backpack would, obviously, be futile.

I walked on in a self-righteous glow, until I realized the spray still had the yellow zip tie from the store on it, rendering it inoperable. “We’re lucky it was turned away from him,” Tom said, either slyly or mockingly. I wasn’t sure. I pondered the possibility of locating a knife or scissors to clip the zip tie in my last-ever six seconds.

When we got back to The Epic Van, we removed the tie.

The next day, Tom was solo hiking, heading on to Kent Springs, and I insisted he take the bear spray and wear the bell, citing the authority of the Forest Service employee. He jingled off, the spray tucked in the camera bag. He would tell me later that he took off the safety latch to see how quickly it could be done. But not soon enough.

As we were packing to leave, I grabbed the camera bag to have it nearby for quick shots, and heard the blast before I felt it. It was a glancing shot to my arm, a mere foot away, not 30, and it took me a second to realize what it was, before I was staggering away from the van, coughing and hacking, clawing off the sweater that was soaked with the spray near one elbow.

I yelled for Tom to help me. “I’ve been bear-sprayed,” I choked out. He appeared coming around the other side of The Epic Van, saying he had to bail out his door.

“Where’s the cat,” I cried. Luckily, Pippi, our intrepid traveling companion, was in her carry case, ready for travel, but she was still in the van. I ran back, grabbed her, and set her outside to air. She seemed completely non-plussed, and enjoyed watching the circus ensuing around her.

As I was soaking my sweater in water from the campground spigot, Tom and I had a brief conversation, which included references to genital mutilation, before the safety latch was replaced and I could laugh about being tear-gassed in The Epic Van.

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