50 Birds on a High Tension Wire

February 20, 1999

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We try and walk sometime during the day, my assistant and I, a circular route around the near by office buildings. If the sun is shining and the wind chill is not below 30, we go out to catch some "lumens." We enjoy the fact that no one can call either of us and we can discuss projects and the various issues of the day. The other day we walked for the first time in two months.

As we approached the last corner before the home stretch I looked up and said, "Let's cut through the parking lot." She looked puzzled, for this was out of character. The route is well traveled and does not include shortcuts on sunny days. In response to her look I said, "Look up above the sidewalk on the top power line."

There were 50 or so large birds gathered there. She smiled and said, "OK, you got something about birds?"

The short answer is yes.

As we cut through the parking lot I began to tell her about an adventure with my friend Bill.

One day Bill and I decided to ride a bike path built along an area freeway, just because it was there. We are not prolific riders, but we figured we could handle a 45-mile ride. We started out early on a Saturday morning, dropped one car at the end of the trail and parked the other at the trail head. After we had ridden for hours the asphalt trail took a turn through a marshy area.

Off to my right a loon took off and paralleled the trail. 

 I admired the deep blue wings as it gracefully turned to the left. The bird banked even more and my eyes were riveted on its wingspan. Suddenly it dove right for me releasing an entire load of smart bombs. I of course, with upturned face, was blessed with more than a dusting of this bird's refuse. From the edges of my socks, up my bare legs to my biking shorts, across my white T-shirt, face and sunglasses, it rested, this Manna from heaven.

Thank you bird.

After the assistant stopped laughing hysterically, I told her how Mother Nature got even the next year.

Bill always wanted to do a "climb" with me, so we arranged a little trek up to the summit of Mt. Whitney in California. The highest peak in the lower 48 states, it is situated on the eastern edge of California and is 14,496.3 feet high. The trek up the Whitney trail is not a climb of rope and piton, but more like a high altitude hike. The way I figure it though, anything over 12,000 feet for a flat-lander is getting up there.

October is climbing season for those who don't arrange hiking permits ahead of time. It was cold; Bill was not really in shape. The first part of our trek to the 12,000 feet camp site took all day. We were both tired but I could see that the next day would bring trouble for Bill. 

From our base camp near nine thousand feet (3,000meters) we looked up at the summit ridge and saw that an early winter storm had blanketed the slopes with snow up to 5 feet deep.

As we climbed we continued to ask people on their way down just how bad the snow pack was at the summit.

Each group had nothing but bad news for us, and absent any climbing gear I feared we would never have a shot at the summit. To our surprise, one pair of climbers offered to sell us their low tech crampons (spikes attached to boots to climb on ice) and we gladly forked over forty dollars for the two pair.

Lesson: always carry cash. Climbers probably won't take American Express.

Finally at the end of a very long day we stumbled into the camp zone just above 12,000 feet or 4,000 meters. We pitched our tent in the shelter of a large rock, made dinner and went to bed in the dark. We had hiked in the sun wearing shorts and t-shirts, but now we were wrapped in down and wool and woke the next morning quite cold.

The temperature had fallen during the night to well below zero. The snow on the upper slopes had frozen, but it would get soft again in the afternoon sun. 

That morning our ascent was slowed by having to use crampons and we reached saddle at 13,600 feet much too late to make a summit attempt. Not only were we out of time, we also needed more gear. 

Without ice axes and ropes, the backside of the mountain was too dangerous. We turned and slid down the slopes we had labored up all morning.

Camp was reached about 4:00pm. I suggested that we had two alternatives. Spend the night and walk out at dawn, or pack up the remaining gear and walk out in the dark. We had about 8 miles to walk and I figured we could do it by midnight at the latest.

Besides, each step down would take us closer to thicker air and warm showers.

Bill agreed - let's walk out.

Camp was broken and I led the march down the mountain since I had a halogen headlamp. Hours passed and we were both very fatigued. The mountain is barren above 11,000 feet and strewn only with boulders, with an occasional patch of moss and low shrubs. About 10,500 feet, scattered trees finally appeared and the trail began to change from rock to dirt mixed with pine needles. We rested often.

Just above the 10,000-foot level we had to make our way across a large stream on a series of flat rocks. I went first and then turned around to illuminate the rocks for Bill. Leaning up against a ledge I rested my backpack and took a deep breath. I breathed in the most delicious pine scented night air. I said, "isn't this the most wonderful smell, isn't this just great?"

Bill's response took me by surprise since he totally ignored my "sensating."His head was down; he was holding his flashlight while the tried to balance on the rocks in the middle of the stream. Once his crossing was assured, I started to turn and proceed down the trail.  

Note, he finally decided to answer me as I am turning to my left.  

Bill - "Yea, but there are BEARS out here!"

As I completed the turn I spotted on the rock ledge to the left, the most magnificent long black hairs I had ever seen. I was reminded of a fur coat, but this was on some creature that was about 3 to 6 feet away. I remember those hairs, frozen in the beam of my headlamp, each individual one about 2 inches in length, black as night with an occasional white one thrown in for good measure.

I also remember my thought most clearly, for it was with the eyes of a child that I beheld this creature..

"Cool, I thought, Wildlife."

This thought is imprinted on my mind forever.

I replied to Bill, "There's one!"

"Yea, right, THAT'S NOT FUNNY NSR."

Since I had stopped dead in my tracks Bill ran into my backpack. I stepped aside and lifted my head so the light would illuminate the black object. I said, "LOOK, right there where my light is, THERE'S A BEAR." 

I remember the bear's eyes being about the size of silver dollars and they reflected silver back into the night. I remember the moist black nose and those individual strands of long fur. He was parallel to the trail, facing downhill and his head was turned backwards over his right shoulder. 

Ok… so I had the bird, but now Bill had the bear.

Granted, at this second in time I was too stupid to be frightened at the thought of a black bear, but Bill went apoplectic. I also remember in that millisecond thinking that if the bear charged, I could take my walking stick (adjustable ski pole with a ice point and no plastic) and try and ram it down the bear's throat.

I also distinctly remember Bill ducking behind my backpack and screaming, "YELL SOMETHING MAKE SOME NOISE!!!!"

Quite loudly, but not really yelling, I said to the bear, "BEAR GET OUT OF HERE."

I guess my mind had already registered the fact that he was turning and leaving. The bear's leaving was the green light to the "bad boy" in me to not scream. I figured I could have some fun in this moment of panic. 

Bill's reaction was priceless. "BEAR GET OUT OF HERE" he screams? 


I said to Bill, "Quick, shine your light on him and maybe he will keep going."

The way I figure, the lights were intimidating. But I am also sure that we smelled rancid after 3 days on the mountain.
The bear turned for a last glance and gave us the silver dollar reflection before it disappeared in the night. By now, my emotional state had been transformed from "Cool, Wildlife," to mild panic. I guess abject panic is "catching."

"RUN" Bill yelled, "RUN AND MAKE NOISE." So we ran, downhill and to the right along the trail, while the bear I am sure,ran up the hill and to the left.

We ran until the lack of oxygen and heavy packs made us stumble to a stop, our chests heaving in the cold night air. As soon as possible we continued as fast as our legs would carry us, beating our walking sticks on the rocks.

After about half an hour, my personal panic subsided and for the rest of the night I was just plain bad.

I confess, there were moments I was startled by the shadows, but in general I was just bad. Over the next two hours I "saw" bears all over the place. Just about every shadow was a bear, and on a mountain there are lots of rocks and shadows in the night.

Yep, the bird bombed me.

But Bill, I think the bear helped Bill bomb Bill.