It’s 3:00 am and I am suddenly awake. So, the question is – did something wake me? Or did my memory of very large and fresh piles of grizzly scat disturb my sleep?
I listen, but nothing is moving around out there. After making sure my pepper spray is right where I left it, I burrow deeper into the sleeping bag and try to nod-off again. It’s just another night on the Extreme Plein Air backpack trip sponsored by the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness.
For over ten years, artists, writers and photographers have taken part in this annual, multi-day adventure. The idea is to interpret this pristine, wild landscape artistically by immersing ourselves in it. As a landscape painter, I never struggle to find something amazing to paint here. Indeed, the challenge is to decide which amazing view to paint. Dynamic compositions lie in every direction. Sometimes we look at each other and shrug in defeat because the backcountry vistas cry to be painted, but have too much complexity to capture in the time we have.
This is my third trip and as usual, it lived up to the term “extreme.” So far, the expedition has included hearing howling wolves the first evening, weathering a wild thunderstorm on an exposed saddle the second night, and finding several piles of the aforementioned grizzly bear signs on the hike today – which will make sleeping for the next several nights more interesting.
It’s 3:15 am now and sleep is still elusive. I can’t help but feel a little exposed. I’m lying on the ground in a sleeping bag, and I am in someone else’s world. Bear awareness is not an abstract concept here. I ran into grizzlies two weeks ago on a hike three miles from where I am laying. And then, there were those piles of steaming, black, hairy scat we’d seen earlier today. The chances of mayhem are low. I have worked and played in the Rockies for over 40 years and don’t have a claw mark on me. Still… it’s 3:15 am, so I find myself dwelling on unlikely mayhem.
As I lay there, I contemplate if it is worth it – dealing with the whole “bear thing.” I come to paint, and mostly to be in this outrageous, craggy, wild place for a few days. I am always painfully aware that I am just a visitor, especially in the high country where the hospitable season is oh-so-short. It’s a magical world and I savor my time here.
But at 3:15 am I am experiencing just a touch of primal fear. We humans are used to being the biggest, baddest thing around. We always get our way. We dominate. But not here.
And maybe that is exactly the reason to come. Maybe experiencing the humbling feeling that you could, just maybe, be eaten changes a person in some way. It’s the price of admission to this spectacular place. It is part of what makes this place wilderness.