Friday, July 29, 2011

Day 59: Responsibility

Today, I was a bear guard, I was a bear monitor - I carried a firearm and scanned the horizon for bears while the rest of the group did science. And I took my job seriously

First, it was just about looking around for bears, but not the one in charge of the shotgun. Then I went out with Carley, a very experienced member of the science staff, who kept an eye out as I carried the firearm when we went out with two of the girls from my lab, so the responsibility increased, I was now the one with the gun. But at that point, though I was still looking around, I had no idea what to really do if there was a bear. Carley helped run through potential scenarios with me. What if the bear came out of that patch of trees over there between us and the car? At what point do I shoot and at what point do we return to the car without shooting a cracker shell? At what point do I shot with a slug instead of a cracker? In other words, at what point do I shoot to kill rather than to scare?

I started to be the one who would carry the shotgun during the weekly water sampling. I started to get used to the weight of a firearm, the process of loading and unloading, aiming and carrying. I learned to wear gloves that bugs can't bite through along with full bug netting because the last thing you want is to be swatting bugs when you're trying to focus on the bear that is stalking towards you! I've learned to always have a pair of binoculars around my neck to see if that white thing in the distance is a person or a bear. I have learned to wear pants with pockets so I can keep the cracker shells in the left hand pocket and slugs in the right and not have to think about it when I load one or the other. All of these things let me focus on the bear rather than comfort, or a firearm or anything else. All focus.

Bear guarding for the tourist group. (pic by Sarah Johnson)

My first group bear guarding, I went out with Carley with a tourist group. Carley and I had firearms and the tour guide was experienced with bears so it was relatively safe. We were hiking on the Ramsay Trail, with me at the end of the pack, to make sure no bears snuck up. I was mostly only nervous when we had to go through a patch of willows. But I had scouted the area by car before we went out and Carley was also leading so she had already scouted the area before the group went through by foot, so it was pretty safe.

The next major bear guarding event was meant to be a standard sampling day. I went out with LeeAnn and the two girls from my lab so we could collect Jessica's sediment cores from Larch. I was the one with the gun again, and designated bear monitor so I was on strict lookout. This is harder than it seems because often times, walking on the tundra with the moss hummocks and ice wedges, I always look down at my feet so I don't trip and fall. But when I have to guard, I have to force myself to look up and all around. So we were about to walk into a patch of willows. I have been warned many times that bears can just lie down in a willow patch and you won't see them until you are right on top of them. So I was really paying attention. Right before LeeAnn stepped into the patch, I shouted to hold up. I thought I saw a solid, whitish object behind some of the green leaves. It could be a rock or it could be a bear... So I stared at it some more. I think it was only a bunch of flowers that were really thick, but they were the right location and height to be convincing. Better be safe than sorry, right? This was the first time that I have actually loaded a shell into the chamber in the field, at LeeAnn's instructions. Whenever I leave the truck, I load three slugs and two cracker shells into the magazine, but I still have to pump it from the magazine (the storage space) into the chamber before I can pull the trigger and ignite the powder to fire the shell or slug. That reinforced why I had to be extra cautious.

Fore the benefit of non-gun crazed people.
So today, I bear guarded again, this time for 6 high school students who are part of the EarthWatch group studying wetlands with Ben Cash. Time went be so fast when I was constantly scanning the horizon for the slightest movement and having to wade through tall grass and willows - perfect hiding habitat for bears, to check the scene out before the students went through. It was definitely unnerving. Fortunately, I was again with experienced polar bear guards. But the responsibility for another person's safety is terrifying. What if I don't see the bear first? What if... what if...? The consequences are so terrible, yet these people are trusting me to keep them safe. So I watch and I watch and I practice aiming my gun and I run scenarios in my head. Without having that first experience with a bear in the field where I make a decision, I don't know what to expect, so I'm going to be extra cautious. I don't know if I will ever be comfortable with it, and maybe I should never be comfortable.

I also saw my first boreal chorus frog without even trying!

Another interview down! Thanks Hope!

I've also added a new page to this blog using google maps so you can actually see a map of the locations I'm talking about in my posts! There is a tab at the top that says "Where in Churchill" or click on the following link:

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