Boating, Blondes and Bear Spray


“Do you think they’ll have bear spray in Craig? I’m pretty sure they’d have bear spray there.”
“I dunno, it’s kind of a small town, and we’ll just sort of hit the western edge of it…”

I was stalling, desperately trying to avoid yet another stop on the way to Lodore Canyon. All I wanted was to be away from the world as soon as possible, for my one, perfect, backcountry trip of the summer. But this simple dream had already been postponed by gas station, grocery store, bank, and liquor store. Now, miles to the north of Rifle, Colorado, I thought, mistakenly, that we had finally evaded the clutches of civilization.

“Are you kidding?” came the scathing reply from the driver’s seat. “It’s Craig, of course they’ll have bear spray.”

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The Colorado landscape with the Gates of Lodore in the distance. Photo: Jennifer Cummins-Zuber

I sighed and resigned myself to the inevitable. This was my fault, after all. Just to pass the time on the six-hour drive to the Shangri La of Western rafting, I had naively mentioned to Jennifer that the Dinosaur National Monument Rangers recently had the unfortunate job of putting down a black bear when it had become too friendly with local rafters and hikers. Then I had shared such fascinating details as, “It was nosing people who were sleeping out on the beach at the put-in,” and, “It wasn’t scared away when the campers banged pots and pans together.”

At the time, I was blissfully ignorant of the effect my fun factoid would have on the next few days (and years) and was scanning the surrounding area for pronghorn antelope, good climbing sites, and maybe a spectacular mullet or two.

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Photo: Eileen Wysocki

But Jennifer, at the wheel of her navy blue H1 Hummer, had been digesting this information while studiously cutting off semis, Audis and farm trucks on Highway 13.

Finally, she broke the silence. “Did you bring your gun?
“No. Why in God’s name would I bring a gun on a rafting trip?”
Um, for the bears?”
“We don’t need a gun for bears, Jen. We’ll keep a clean camp and we’ll be fine. Besides, they already got rid of the bear.”

Eyebrows of pure scorn. Over the many years of our friendship, I had learned only one way to deal with that look. I kept my mouth shut.

There was a long pause, and I thought that was the end of it until, tapping her well manicured fingers on the wheel, she casually mentioned the town of Craig again and after some debate, we decided to stop there only if we saw a store that looked like it might have bear spray.

Jennifer is a beautiful woman. Just over six feet tall with long blonde hair, a lovely face and saucy, gray eyes. She casually wears the perfect blend of couture and country western with a dash of dirtbag thrown in sometimes (I think mostly to placate me). Born and raised in central Illinois, she’s loud, smart, organized, hardworking, demanding, and the most determined-loyal-pigheaded-kind-hearted person I’ve ever met.

Me and Jen_web
The author and Jen, circa 2005. Photo: Jennifer Cummins-Zuber

I’d been living the seasonal life of a camp counselor/dirtbag snowboarder for two years when we met working at Anderson Camps, a kid’s overnight camp in western Colorado. I spent our first backpacking trip together teasing her mercilessly about the wet wipes she carried with her and produced at every stop on the trail. One for each hand, one for the neck area, and one for her face. At. Every. Stop. Apparently, however, my frontal assault on this and her many other fastidious idiosyncrasies seemed to go over well because we ended the summer as best friends.

Through river trips, job opportunities and fails, college, poverty, marriage, personal tragedy and loss, in the interim six years, we’ve been there for each other no matter the physical distance between. In the past year, Jen had spent nearly every waking hour helping her mother fight off Cholangiocarcinoma, arguing with doctors and specialists in Illinois and Texas on her behalf, while simultaneously helping her husband with his business and finishing her degree in Biology.

So this trip was really for Jennifer. It was the one thing I could give her when there was so little else I could do to help. I knew she needed the river, the deep, red canyons, the clear skies, and apparently, bear spray.

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Photo: Jennifer Cummins-Zuber

Craig’s feed store was the best hope for bear spray. We pulled in and quickly caught the attention of a cute and helpful employee with ginger hair who, upon discovering what we were after, carefully and with the perfect amount of twang, relayed to my blonde friend exactly how many times, he, personally, had been hit with pepper spray while working for a sheriff’s office somewhere, not here. (Because that seemed relevant.) He’d never heard of Lodore Canyon, or the fate of a pesky bear.

“Well, we do have bear spray right here, but why’n’t ya just bring a gun?”
Jennifer gestured emphatically, “That’s what I told her!
Two sets of judging eyes looked my way. Apparently, my honor had been forfeited the moment I failed to consider pulling the .357 from the ammo can under our bed.

Fifty bucks and a rousing story about the founder of this particular brand of bear spray (who incidentally was eaten by bears) later, we were out the door.

With her giant cataraft frame strapped to the roof of the Hummer like a stunted metal bird, our car was easy to locate, and soon we were once again headed west on Highway 40.

After a turn north in Where-the-Hell-is Maybell, Colorado and an hour and a half of Reckless Kelly, we were awed by the Gates themselves leaping up from the low country around the Green River.

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The Gates of Lodore Canyon. Photo: Eileen Wysocki

The cliffs were burgundy in the late evening light, shaming the gently rolling hills that surrounded them, and hinting at some great mystery beyond. Regardless of whether a person is a greenhorn or a seasoned Big Ditch vet, from the moment they see the Gates, to the final take-out at Split Mountain, they find themselves constantly wondering what greater glory might be found just a little farther in. Incredible slot canyons, side hikes and secret stashes abound if one just knows where to look.

When we set up tents that night at the put-in, Jennifer eased the can of bear spray from its plastic casing and slept with it next to her head. She told me this was the first river trip she had ever been on without having a man beside her. It just felt right.

There were four other people on the trip: the (mandatory) crotchety old river dog, who may have been named David, a middle-aged, middle school principal and his teenage son, and one other woman, Eileen, who also was running stag for the first time on a multi-night excursion.

Photo: Eileen Wysocki

Early the next morning, we rigged the boats, sucked up to the ranger, and launched to a remarkably chilly June breeze. There were no bears at the put-in. In fact, we would see no bears on our trip, but that did not stop Jennifer from taking precautions every night.

I discovered just how extensive those precautions were the first night at dinner. We were camping at Pot Creek 2, a beautiful sandy campsite with sufficient shade and an excellent kitchen spot. Jennifer had decided to ditch me and shack up with Eileen that night upon discovering that two Paco pads didn’t fit into either her or my tent. Eileen had a four-man tent, and apparently, was willing to help with any defensive action that Jennifer might need to take.

“Well,” Jennifer began confidently, “I’m pretty sure if a bear is coming into camp he’s going to come from that direction and go down to the boats.” She gestured toward the cliffs at our backs as we faced the river. We all nodded, of course that was the only logical trajectory for a bear. “So, I put Eileen on that side of the tent and my drybag in front of the door so that the bear will have to stumble over both, and give me a chance to get the bear spray out.”

There was not a hint of shame in Jennifer’s face. Eileen nodded sagely, totally ok with her role in this hypothetical situation. “Don’t worry! Geez, I told Eileen that I’ll give her time to cover her eyes before I spray it because I’ll wait two seconds after yelling, ‘Eileen, cover your eyes!’”
I nodded, “That’s very considerate.”
“Well, duh.”

We continued munching our pesto gnocchi, imagining the possible scenarios. The crotchety old river dog asked, “You gonna take that spray to the groover with you?”

Jen adjusted her black, strapless bikini top, sipped the PBR beside her and replied calmly, “Of course. You can borrow it if you want.”

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Upper Disaster Falls. Photo: Eileen Wysocki

After another bearless night, we scouted and ran the three larger, class IV rapids—Disaster Falls, Triplet, and Hell’s Half Mile—and had successful runs down each. All day we leapfrogged a NOLS trip, a group of Californian dads awkwardly taking their teenage daughters down the river, and a bachelor party run by a commercial company whose guides had happily assisted in strapping a blowup doll onto the front of a double ducky.

The dam was releasing about 1400 cfs during the day and, due to the drought of the last few weeks, the water was clearer and more pristine than I had ever seen it. Every moment on the water was incredible.

Hell's Half Mile Mara_web
Eileen paddling Hell’s Half Mile.

That evening, we set-up camp at a stunning site known as Limestone. The large beach afforded us a heated game of extreme bocce. The teams: the teenage son and me against the FOG. Apparently, after being raised from infancy on the rivers, the teenage son and his older brother had affectionately labeled the venerable boaters with which they were often forced to coexist the F-ing Old Guys, or FOG. We both talked a big game, while the FOG easily trounced us, 14-21. Because that is how you score extreme bocce.

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Photo: Eileen Wysocki

That night, under perfect, summer solstice skies, surrounded by leaping bighorn, Jennifer, once again, had her plan in place: drybag, tent, Mara, bear spray. Again, there was no incident.

Moderately hellish wind controlled the atmosphere of day three. Beer drinking was minimal as any hands off the oars meant being blown upstream. When we would come to a complete standstill between the balance of current, wind and rowing, Jennifer would drop in the ‘offboard motor’ by putting her feet in the water and kicking as hard as she could. It worked.

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Floating past Steamboat Rock using Jen’s ‘offboard motor’ talents. Photo: Eileen Wysocki

After Echo Park, when the wind died down and the sun began to cook, Jennifer styled the late afternoon with a fashionable wide brim, woven black visor, a clean white shirt and, of course, bikini. I stuck a pink bandana under the back of my red baseball cap, rolled down the sleeves of my garish sunshirt, zipped on the bottom part of my pants, and kept rowing.

Photo: Eileen Wysocki

That evening, the bear spray accompanied us on a hike to the Deluge Shelter pictographs from our camp at Jones Hole 4. By the time we returned from the hike, subdued by the heat and the reminder of just how many lives had seen this world before us, the sun was quietly echoing off the wide walls around us, and Jennifer made a big decision.

“I’m going to put my tent up next to yours, Lindsay.”
“Sleep by yourself? What if the bears come?”
“I saw the people at Jones Hole 3 on the way past. They are like, way trashier than us. Much more likely to attract bears.”

Me and Jen Lodore 2_web

Everyone was tired from the wind and sun and was well aware of the longer miles that awaited us the next morning, so we turned in early. Jennifer and I quietly heckled each other in the dark until I heard the familiar snap of the top of a container of moisturizing lotion. I sniffed hesitantly.

“Jen, is that cucumber melon lotion?”
“Um yeah, why? We always used cucumber melon lotion on the river. Ever since that first summer, remember? It’s a tradition.”
I sat in my tent, biting my lower lip. She quickly picked up on my silence.
“You know what that makes you smell like, say, to a bear, right?”
Silence from the other tent. Then, “Oh my god.”
I burst out laughing, realizing I might well be driving nails into the coffin of our friendship.
“Oh my god,” she repeated quietly, “I’ve been putting this on every night.”
Stifling my giggles with tremendous effort, “How trashy was that other camp?”

Before completely relaxing into sweet, Paco Pad supported unconsciousness, I had to make one more trip to the river to raise the cfs. About ten feet beyond our tents, I kicked something. In the dim, reverberating light, I reached down and picked up the mint green bottle of cucumber melon lotion, marooned on the open stretch of beach between tents and river. It had been launched to what was, no doubt, a carefully calculated distance, probably accounting for wind direction and general animal traffic. Grinning, I tossed it into the dry box.

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Photo: Eileen Wysocki

The final day, we rowed the slow water through Rainbow Park and the quick rapids of Split Mountain, battered at every turn by moral-shattering wind, blistering sun and the other beloved accouterments of desert river travel—black flies. There was no interest in lunch; the group just kept rowing. We arduously pulled around a corner and saw the rock formation that’s nothing if not a frog and an iguana sitting on the back of a giant alligator whose tail points to the take-out.

Then, with the sudden impertinence of a moment that one has both dreamed of and dreaded, the trip was over. We beached the boats, sucked up to this ranger, de-rigged efficiently while judging the efficiency of other ramp users, and drove home.

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The Lodore crew at take-out. Photo: Jennifer Cummins-Zuber

Jennifer and I left the river that day, blissfully unaware that our next trip together, three years (a lifetime) later, would be two nights of flat water centered around the myriad needs of our one-year-old progeny, as well as food poisoning and a mosquito overpopulation. Later I would also discover how that exact can of bear spray has found its way onto every subsequent trip to Colorado, family camping weekends in Wisconsin, and several other ‘potentially sketchy’ excursions including a bachelorette party in Kansas City.

The can has yet to be discharged, but one would hope that we’ll all receive a two second warning before it is.

Take out_web
Photo: Eileen Wysocki