Kathleen Clary Miller has written 300+ columns and stories for periodicals both local and national, and has authored three books (www.amazon.com/author/millerkathleenclary). She lives in the woods of the Ninemile Valley, thirty miles west of Missoula.
The season has changed here in Western Montana. Everybody’s heard that joke about waiting ten minutes if you don’t like the weather. But we’ve waited plenty of time for the snow to melt, the rain to slow its torrent, and the sun at last to shine. Rivers are flooding. I do feel for those whose homes are threatened, but selfishly, I love waking up to the rush of my very own creek that runs through our property, high up in the woods. All that extra water has engendered greenery upon greenery, which in turn welcomes even more wildlife right up to our back patio.
I unintentionally spook a family of deer lounging on the grass as I slide open the door to engage in my daily constitutional. If walking can be considered a sport, I will earn a gold medal one of these days, since at fifty-nine I forge a 15-minute mile for five miles, nearly every day. This particular morning, I grip a canister of bear repellent. It’s that time of year when you never know who or what you might bump into popping out of the woods.
Last year, I met a teenage black bear with one foot in its mouth, working on a pedicure—right smack dab in the middle of the dirt road just as I’d rounded the corner. Fortunately, since I was weaponless, we were equally shocked and appalled at our unexpected encounter. When I raised my arms straight into the air then waved them wildly and yelled, (I always forget, does one “get big” with a bear or is that with a mountain lion?) Boo Boo bolted. This year I’m prepared. With the spring and early summer’s plentiful water supply, I imagine ursine food supply goes hand in hand.
I worship while walking. I prefer practicing religion outdoors in the wild to holding up in an airless church building on a spectacular sunny Sunday. Lord knows I whisper a prayer of thanksgiving for His glorious creation every time I head down Spotted Fawn Road and round the bend to feel the soft breeze. Even if I’ve been to formal church service, this forested communion is my pastoral punctuation, the arboreal Amen.
Lupines are in record-breaking bloom. A riotous offshoot of all our rain is that a profusion of purple blossoms blanket the open spaces beneath protective Ponderosa pines. Their fragrance hits me, as pungent as when I pass through a store’s cosmetic department—but not as nauseating. I reel, and actually sway, as I inhale nature’s intoxicating aromatic blending of honey and roses, unrivaled by man’s pathetic attempt at commercial perfumery. Like November’s first inkling of White Christmas in July, the astonishing blue sky is peppered with flurries of small white butterflies that flutter like snowflakes among the towering treetops and drift down to dance around my ankles. The longer I look, the more of them I see.
After I swoon and gather my wits again, I look down at the Grizzly Counter Assault spray in my hand and it occurs to me: Considering all of the occasions I’ve toted this mini-tank of touted sure-fire defense, I’ve never once tested it. I wonder: Were a bear to surprise and we find ourselves in close proximity, would I deftly pull the tab on top and shoot like Wyatt Earp? What if I fumbled and squinted and ducked and screeched like a ten-year-old girl who has just seen a spider? I should practice to exude the proper confidence and ensure success, especially if bears are among those animals that take advantage of fear they can smell a mile away. Time for some role-playing, although the part of the bear will be played by thin air, thank God.
Except for the small breeze I felt earlier, the air has been as still as a stone. I pretend a menacing bear has leapt from alongside the trail and I react like a sheriff ready for the ambush. As I draw, I swiftly slip the white safety latch from the trigger. So far sooo smooth. I swing up from the shin and aim at arm’s length. I will my eyes to remain wide open, my posture to rise erect rather than hunched and visibly vulnerable. I depress the black lever ––pssssssssssssst. An astonishing burst of yellow (who expected yellow?) spews over a wide area and way the heck out there in front of me— easy, breezy! Except for the breezy part—just as a gust of wind rushes at my face through the trees.
I am felled. I double over from agony to the eyeballs (Am I blind?). I claw at my neck to relieve seizure of the throat (Am I dumb? Don’t answer that). It stings. It burns. I choke. I gag. I hawk and spit and sputter. I cover my eyelids and press while emitting a sound that may attract a cow elk.
Once I regain the capacity to inhale I take a seat on a nearby boulder until I can pry open my eyes and allow for the lachrymal flood that follows. Whew. Wow. This is good stuff. On the label is printed the directive: “Not for use on humans.” My first husband, the serial adulterer, pops to mind, but he passed away a couple of years ago in the nick of time, before I knew about this handy dandy potion.
I survive my counter counter-assault, but am left with one weensy question: What is the likelihood that an average day in the mountains of Western Montana won’t be breezy? Maybe I need to practice shooting from the hip with my back turned, while holding my breath. I could wear one of those cowboy triangular dust bandanas! For now, I am content to have recovered sufficiently to resume walking a straight line.
As I trek along Whitetail Ridge, the “cotton bugs,” as I call the puffs that emanate from the cottonwood trees, fly overhead and swirl around me. Crickets tell their never-ending story. The tickle of dirt-road dust in my nose signals summer. From a cloud of it billowing up ahead a vehicle approaches—it’s the Henrys, in their rig.
“We have a black bear between us!” Jim leans over the shotgun seat and calls out as his wife, Sue, rapidly rolls down her window. They live behind us, back through the trees where we know they are but cannot see them for the forest. “It’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen and he’s not at all bothered by our dog!” Typically, black bears can be treed by a Chihuahua. The Henrys have one to prove it, along with a Rottweiler and a Pit Bull, but it’s Molly the Chihuahua that invariably intimidates adult bears. Mary points to my trusty canister and turns to her husband to say something that I cannot hear over the truck’s idling engine. He grins.
“This guy’s so huge…maybe you’d better just shoot yourself in the face with that so you don’t see him coming at you,” he teases. Little does he know.
“Oh, I’m very good at that,” I say. After they turn the corner, I do a 180 and walk backwards up the long, steep hill home. What would have been behind me is now before me again—a sweeping vista of my favorite valley here in the Ninemile. I like to look back to where I came from.
With the canister at my side and nozzle-end face forest, one-handedly I flip the safety and feel for the trigger. I cock my wrist to ensure the spray heads high enough to strike a very tall bear. I know! I’ll point behind me and press while simultaneously running forward! Brilliant!
My teeth clench. I inhale breath like an opera singer and get ready to hold it like Houdini. I shut my eyes tighter than if I’m forced to watch a scene from Saw.
Ready, aim…well, next time. Better yet, I’ll offer to take Molly when I walk.