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DBNF Volunteering part 1

Saturday: October 14, 2017

One of the first things I did when I found out my contract at the university wasn’t being extended was reach out to a former “boss” of mine. Matt co-ran my graduate field school at Hardin Village and I was curious what he was up to. He is now the Cumberland District archaeologist down at the Daniel Boone National Forest (DBNF) in Kentucky so I volunteered myself to help him out and he took me up on the offer! And because he’s awesome, he made sure I’d be paid through their volunteer program which does allow some travel and (what they say is “not”) per-diem rates.

[So, just to be clear here in regards to the previous post: I do not think it is ironic that I would rather work without being paid in another state than work as an adjunct in the next city over. I think, rather, that my choice underscores the seriousness of the flaws in academia. I will have more opportunity and future promise through volunteering – for free even! – than working as an adjunct. (And can I also just say how grateful I am to Boy that I can make that “choice”?!)]

Coincidentally, Matt had another person reach out to him about working over the summer. Rachel is an undergraduate, and her family has a historic cabin in the Red River Gorge section of the forest. She had plans to work two months with him already and agreed that I could stay with her for the few weeks I could spend down there. Matt set me up as her supervisor so I could score some more hours in that role as I work toward the Principal Investigator status for archaeological work. I think we may have both been initially a wee bit nervous to be living and working together 24/7 for a few weeks with an unmet stranger, but we befriended each other easily enough!

With my first venture to DBNF, I spent a couple of weeks down there through June and July (yes, during the heat wave!). Our main purpose was to monitor rockshelters. Matt took us out to show us the whats and hows about that process, and we were able to go out with a backcountry ranger and some DBNF interns from other departments to get to some more remote sections. Then Rachel and I were turned loose.

Our first day was disappointing: we spent hours arguing with the GPS who assured us we were in the right spot, but the paperwork begged to differ. We came home without having monitored anything which was very frustrating and I felt quite guilty. The hike was gorgeous and wonderful (and a lot of work!), though. The second day, we tried a different shelter and found it straight away after about an hour’s hike. (These hikes were almost always 100% uphill through dense forest off-trail with only a GPS, compass, and old paperwork to guide us.)

While we sat on a boulder at the dripline catching our breath, I reflected on how rockshelter monitoring is a dream. No shoveling means we weren’t carrying shovels and screens with us (uphill and through the woods, mind you – on top of our packs which already weigh in at nearly 25 pounds), nor were we spending energy digging shovel test probes with poor results (both of these things happened during my Floyd County archaeological survey). The task set upon us was to find a particular shelter among the hundreds scattered around, check for vandalism, search for new information (petroglyphs or disturbed artifacts), and record better data (notes on how best to find it, photos with newer-than-40-year-old-photography, laser measurements, and the like). Seriously, our task was to hike around in the woods and take photos! :D

So, there we were, chillaxing as they say these days, when we heard some very disturbing noises not far off – about 30 feet we estimate. Just on the other side of a plant that is no longer my friend: rhododendron. Lots of brush was being moved around between some THUMP THUMP THUMP noises of something big and unhappy. My first instinct was “oh gosh, it’s a bear!” because let’s be real about this – when I found out there were bears at DBNF, I almost called off the whole thing. Matt assured me that in the three years he has been there, he and anyone he asked had never actually seen a bear (bear signs, yes, absolutely) so we wouldn’t have an issue. Thus, I signed up, but that first day was tense. Every noise as we hiked through had me looking around like a scared rabbit. My imagination can certainly get the best of me in wild ways. But then I realized that was not a sustainable mentality and I put the whole bear business behind me.

We had been going back and forth between her “hush, I want to listen” to my “BUT IF IT IS A BEAR WE ARE SUPPOSE TO BE LOUD” retorts. Rachel, a Montanan more familiar with bears, assured me it was not a bear. But as the sounds grew more agitated, I assured her I no longer cared what it was; I was getting the hell out of there.

I told her I would be walking away from the noise, following the shelter wall, rather than going down where we came up, because I wanted to be far from that thing, whatever it was. I took off, barely able to walk due to wobbly legs. I was legitly scared, folks. I do not give up tasks easily. My senses were very on edge and my only thought was to book it. Rachel lagged behind, probably laughing at me. So I bended a curve and then heard her run at me….with a louder running thumping noise behind her. I hopped behind a tree and turned around just in time to catch her wrist and tell her calmly, “Don’t run,” as I had read that is the very last thing you should try if it is a bear. She said afterward that my eyes were as big as saucers – well, so were hers! While she caught her breath, I heard a distinct vocalization of what I had thought was some scared forest dwelling creature spooked by this giant bear (because in my mind it was giant, of course), and that sound clearly ran down the hill and away. But was the bear that scared it still out there?

We heard no further noises, and my mind was circling around “What do you do when you see that bear charging around the corner? Think dammit!” After a while, I said we will keep walking away, fast but calm. The vegetation was growing so dense, we could barely push through. And then I came to the realization that we were being penned in on a cliff top and had to turn back – we had to turn back to go toward the sound, heaven help us! I regrouped my nerves, restated we should talk loudly so we awkwardly talked about how she had been planning a bridal shower for her friend. Once we reached an area with a little less vegetation (to where we could actually stand side by side), I told her we should probably radio it in just to be on the safe side. My hands were shaking so badly I could barely unzip her backpack to pull out the radio we had been issued. I understood how to use it, but I had no idea the protocols of what people say on there so I simply started with “Hello?”

No one answered and after another failed hello, while I was imagining this giant beast running up from behind me at any moment, I laid into it with our names, what we were doing, and the possibility that there was a bear nearby. That got someone’s attention, though it did not at all sound like he believed me. We were advised to go back to our vehicle calmly and return to the station. How we made our legs continue to move at first is a miracle. Rachel and I tried to talk loudly but our brains weren’t working well. She had a brilliant plan to blast music on her phone and we tried to sing along. We got to the truck just when it started to rain. We radioed back to let the guy know we made it safe. Great! When we get back to the station, we will just play it off like we quit because of the weather. No one need know our crazy experience.

Except that gossip goes fast, especially when everyone is using the same radio frequency, duh! “So, you may have seen a bear, huh?” was the first question anyone asked us. So much for hiding our fears! We showed them on the map where we were and detailed what we experienced. A couple people thought it might have been a buck, but honestly I had been around a very scary large buck in rut in the woods, alone, when I was younger and this was definitely not that. I felt like no one truly believed us, but that isn’t my problem.

As soon as my phone had service, I googled bear noises. I knew I would never find that noise I heard (which I had by then determined was the actual creature who had been making the agitated thump noises) because there is no way I was that close to a bear. Right? And yet, here it is, found rather instantaneously, for you to experience: https://www.bear.org/website/bear-pages/black-bear/communication/29-vocalizations-a-body-language.html Click on the first noise, under High Emotion, that reads:

This is a distress sound made by a fearful cub. This sound is commonly made when a cub is separated from its mother. This recording was made while a researcher examined a cub out in the field. The cub was soon released back to the mother.

Identical in almost every single way. I sighed with relief! A silly bear cub. And here we were so afraid of it. I had met a bear cub before (at a bear sanctuary), and it was adorable!

But, when we reported at a different office later that day, we were told we had to report it to the forest biologist, Sandra. She let us know that if it was a bear cub (and she didn’t have a reason to believe it wasn’t, except for the even more remote possibility that it was a wild hog – but I disagree with that option based on what I experienced), we were actually in a very, very dangerous scenario. This is because bear cubs are born in the first two months of the year, and are still with mama bear mid-summer. And this actually jives with the other noises we heard – my wild imagination hadn’t dreamed up the nightmare that there could be more than one scary creature, but now I can picture the noises being made by more than a single animal. So what we all eventually determined to have happened was this:

Rachel and I usually chat a lot but this particular shelter was just above a particularly steep section of a hill so we stopped chatting and going was quite slow since we were tired by this point. When we got to the shelter itself, we barely talked until we drank some water and caught our breath. Then we started chatting and laughing and our voices probably got distorted in the rockshelter, which would have spooked nearby animals. You know, like a mama bear and her cubs. Once we began talking loudly on purpose, I think this further frightened the bears, so at the same time I was telling Rachel that I was getting the hell out of there, Mama Bear was doing the same with her cubs. Rachel and I did not know that the only way down was directly below us (hence we walked around the shelter’s edge), but Mama Bear did and that is why she ran towards us – not to chase Rachel, but just to escape. Little Cub Bear got scared and screamed while chasing Mama downhill. Had we not moved away due to my fear, we would have been squarely in scared Mama Bear’s path of escape, which would likely have been quite devastating for me and Rachel. Thank you, weak stomach, for getting us outta there! Though, I do wonder if my imagination is so powerful that I actually conjured this ordeal up myself! Hmmm…

Matt put us on other work for most of the rest of the time we were there, but we were sent out once more, alone, to see if we could bear it (get it?;). More on all that in another post!

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