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Outdoors/Adventure

Surviving the pain, anguish of bear spray in the face

  • Author: Shane Castle
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 2, 2015

I recently bear sprayed myself in the face.

There's no good way to sugarcoat it. Believe me, I've tried. But the fact remains: I was about 8 miles into a hike when I accidentally blasted myself square in the face with pepper spray made to deter a charging 1,000-pound grizzly.

As embarrassing as the story is, I think there is actually a lesson in it for others. So here's what happened.

My friend Joe and I were making the roughly 11-mile trek between Anchorage's Rabbit Creek trail head and the McHugh Creek trail head on the Seward Highway. We'd done our research and knew it was a fairly easy hike if you're in good shape: just 4.4 miles and 1,200 vertical feet southeast to Rabbit Lake and a dogleg past McHugh Lake to the west before descending 2,900 feet over 6.4 miles to finish at the Turnagain Arm parking lot.

Bears nearby

We started the day with complete cloud cover and a light, cold rain. Low-hanging clouds concealed the tops of the mountains on the north side of the trail: Peaks 2 and 3, Flaketop, Ptarmigan.

About half a mile in, we passed bear scat in a puddle. The bear had been eating a lot of crowberries. Its black scat leeched into the water like squid ink.

Half a mile later, we looked across the valley. Two juvenile brown bears were milling about on the far hillside. The bears were several hundred yards away, but they were perfect reminders about why you have to be vigilant almost anywhere in Alaska. After all, we had a long way to go and the McHugh valley is where people tend to see the most bears. After watching for about 10 minutes, Joe and I continued on our way.

Joe is a 22-year-old introverted philosopher from Montana. He's adventurous, but not particularly cautious or loud when hiking, a combination that has already netted him some exciting experiences — like wielding a rock and a stick to defend himself in a standoff with a mountain goat — and some experiences that cast doubt on whether he will live to see 23 — like wielding a rock and a stick to defend himself in a standoff with a mountain goat.

I'm a bit more careful than Joe, and louder. But we both agreed that if we came nose-to-nose with a brown bear trying to put on fat for the winter, rocks and sticks were less than ideal. Hence the bear spray.

Mindlessly fidgeting

After we ate a snack at Rabbit Lake and took in the sight of the North Suicide Peak reflecting in its crystal clear waters, we started down the slope through the tall grass above McHugh Creek. The clouds began to break up. We could see Turnagain Arm below, sunlight glimmering on far-off seawater. We left the open alpine tundra and made our way down the trail among alders, waist-high grass and gnarled mountain hemlocks -- perfect bear cover.

Rather than shouting, "Hey bear," as we walked, I shouted back to Joe. I asked what he planned to do after he left Alaska. He quietly shared a very Joe-like plan to go to Minnesota and sail down a big river with a friend who didn't know how to sail.

"Sounds like a great idea, Joe!" I shouted.

The shouting served two purposes: 1) to suggest the sailing idea wasn't great and 2) to remind Joe to speak up because bears usually aren't happy when amateur sailors sneak up on them.

In hindsight, it's ironic that I was being so condescending to Joe. After all, he wasn't the one who was about to bear spray himself in the face.

We passed more than a dozen Dall sheep on the talus slopes of McHugh and Rainbow peaks. Ewes. A few lambs. A young ram on a boulder looking down and tracking our movements.

With 3 miles to go, I was out front, taking in my surroundings: the trees, the creek, the eagle, more sheep on the mountain, all the places in the grass where bears might be hunkered down for a mid-afternoon nap. The little sheath that came with my bear spray had worn out and I hadn't made a new one, so I was holding it in my hand and mindlessly fidgeting with it. Slipping the safety clip on and off with my thumb. Twirling the canister around my finger, Wild West style.

That's when it happened.

My left foot slipped in the mud. I landed on my right elbow. It wasn't a particularly hard fall. I didn't twist an ankle or hurt my elbow. But there was something weird about the fall. Something had flown up into my eyes, my nose, my mouth. A bee? Several bees? A hundred bees?

My brain was very slow on the uptake. Obviously, the spray hadn't looked anything like bees. It looked more like a red-orange spray. A spray that sprayed straight up. Out of the spray canister in my hand. The canister of bear spray.

That's right: I had full-on bear sprayed myself in the face.

I closed my eyes tight and sat still as the heat came on.

Ablaze

If you've ever eaten a raw habanero or rubbed your eyes after handling one, you know the basic feeling — just not the degree. Capsaicin is the chemical that makes hot peppers hot and bear spray is made from concentrated capsaicin. So where a habanero might top out around 300,000 Scoville heat units — a measurement for spiciness — bear spray is more like 2 million.

On the skin, it feels like terrible sunburn. My cheeks, chin and neck starting to sting.

But on the more delicate flesh -- anything associated with mucous membranes -- it feels like you're being singed with fire. Eyes. Nostrils. Sinuses. Lips. Tongue. Soft palate. Tonsils. All were suddenly ablaze.

My mistake hurt. It hurt a lot. However, I am proud to say that I maintained as much dignity as a person who just bear sprayed himself in the face could maintain.

I just sat there on the trail, my eyes closed tight, and continued collecting my thoughts.

An old memory came rushing back. All I will say about that memory is this: It involved two or three bar bouncers pepper spraying me in the face for something one of my friends did.

I was instantly transported back to that night. I recalled the initial confusion and the increasing pain. I remembered flushing my eyes with cold water -- splash, relief, searing pain, splash, relief, worse searing pain -- until realizing that I had flushed all the pepper spray I could possibly flush. I recalled that I eventually had to stop, take the pain, and let the chemicals slowly break down.

On the trail, I didn't panic. I didn't rub my eyes with my hands. Because of my past experience, I knew it would only get on my hands and spread if I did. What did I do instead? I got rid of as much of the bear spray as possible. I blew my nose. I spat and spat and spat.

The only thing that really concerned me was the spray in my eyes. I needed my eyes to see the trail and prevent the disgraceful scene in which a young man too quiet to yell, "Hey bear," leads an older man who just blinded himself with bear spray down the hill into the broad side of a bear.

I got logical fast. I knew my eyes had probably snapped shut reflexively. Much of the spray was probably concentrated on my eyelashes. So I kept those eyes closed. I reached back into my back pocket, grabbed my bandana.

I asked Joe to get my water bottle from my pack and pour some on the bandana. The cold water felt good, but I resisted the temptation to rub. I just dabbed to remove any spray that hadn't soaked in. Joe poured more water on the bandana. I dabbed my cheeks, my lips, my nose. I tilted my head back and had Joe pour some water in my eyes to flush them. We repeated. I dabbed away the excess. I dabbed some more.

Then I just sat there. Eyes closed. Feeling the burn. Breathing. Thinking.

We still had 3 miles to go. It wasn't that far but we couldn't just sit and wait for it to get dark. The sun would be setting in a couple hours. The trail was uneven, hilly. And there was still the possibility of running into wildlife. It's not like the animals disappeared when I hurt myself.

There was also the little matter of catching a ride. Joe and I had been planning to hitchhike back to town. Even before this whole bear-spray-in-the-face situation, we knew it was going to be tough. Two guys. Both over 6'2". Both with shaggy hair. But if I showed up at the trail head with swollen, puffy eyes and a bright red face, there was a roughly 0 percent chance anyone would pick us up.

Moose meet-up

It would have been easy to panic. To flail around and lose some gear. Trip and fall down the hill into the alders. Waste our entire water supply trying to give myself momentary relief. Start walking too soon. Risk running into a bear or moose when only one of us could see.

But I continued to sit there and let the worst of it pass. As it turned out, it only took a few minutes before I could open my eyes enough to squint. So we started down the trail.

I'd been leading Joe most of the way but now I followed. We went slowly. The air was cool, crisp, relieving.

Within half a mile, I could open my eyes all the way. The green blurs became slightly less green blurs. Hazy trees became two big brown animals right in front of us on the trail.

We stopped. Not 50 feet away stood two adult moose, a cow and a bull.

It's not like we'd been quiet. I'd been talking loudly about how stupid I felt. So those moose probably heard us coming. They just didn't care. It was rutting season. The bull turned to face us.

Both of us were already pointing our cans of bear spray. Not at our own faces this time. At the moose.

Neither of us wanted the animal to charge. Neither of us wanted to spray or even risk it. So we backtracked, watched the moose watch us. We climbed the hill and went around. Way around.

By the time we finally reached the trail head, my vision wasn't even blurred. My face had stopped burning. Joe said I looked like any other person who'd just done a long hike on a chilly day. A little glassy-eyed. A bit red-cheeked. Not at all like that reckless idiot up the hill who had bear sprayed himself in the face.

We finished walking down to the road, put our thumbs out and tried to look normal.

Shane Castle is a freelance writer who lives in Palmer.

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