A Couples' Story of Cancer, Hope, and

           Hiking Montana's Continental Divide

Chapter 1

One of his favorite remarks was
“If you know what a bear is going to do next,
you know more than the bear does.”

-—Frank Dufresne

Unlike most people, Kate and I can tell you the exact day we entered “middle age,” a day in December of 1992. Middle age, to me, has nothing to do with chronological age. Instead middle age describes the transition from a world of limitless opportunity to one suddenly fringed with boundaries. I left my youth behind just moments after Kate left hers, when I picked up the phone at work and she blurted out, “The doctor just called and said I have cancer.”

Kate’s voice at once sounded of fear, disbelief, and confusion. I reacted as you might expect, saying, “What? Cancer? You can’t possibly have cancer! You’re 30 years old. What did he say? Something must be wrong.”

Scott Bischke

Unfortunately, something was wrong. During a normal checkup, Kate’s gynecologist had discovered a three-centimeter mass on her cervical wall. A biopsy, just completed, had shown the mass to be malignant. Since Kate and I worked at the same company, we quickly met up and went home. The doctor agreed to see us in an hour to explain the results of the biopsy.

I recall little about that meeting when we first faced cancer besides being filled with disbelief. Two months earlier we had run the Victoria Marathon. Kate had always been a vigorous outdoorswoman, a near vegetarian, a health nut to the nth degree. Cancer? Kate? Moose poop!

Three things about that meeting I do recall, vividly. The first we did not understand, “papillary adenocarcinoma.” The second rang cold and clear: “This could be very serious,” the doctor said. “This could kill you.” The third was Kate and me departing the hospital feeling as though we’d just been kicked in the chest.

* * * * * * *

Skip forward one month into our hike across Montana, to July 1998.

Kneeling in the tent I heard Kate’s voice in the distance yelling, “Go away!” Must be a chipmunk, I thought, they always bedevil her. Our tent sat on a bench high above the West Fork of the Sun River, in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. While I was changing clothes after fishing, Kate had gone to our cook area to start dinner.

“Go away!” I heard again. This time it sounded more urgent. “Get out of here!”

I grabbed my pepper spray, somewhat melodramatically I recall thinking, and emerged from the tent. At that same moment Kate shouted, “Scott, there’s a bear over here!” From a hundred yards away I could see the bear sitting on its haunches, just ten steps from Kate, facing her. Though a fire smoked, our food still hung in the tree above and to the left of Kate. The bear looked like the same bear we’d seen on the trail hours earlier, the reason we’d turned around and quit early for the day.

Scott Bischke

“What do you want me to do?” I yelled. Kate paused in amazement, clearly contemplating how she had ended up marrying such an unchivalrous dolt. For its part, the ponderous beast looked my way and then stood on its hind legs, trying to scent or see this new intrusion. Kate and the bear now stood eye to eye, the bear between her and me. From my vantage point, it looked like two steps forward and they could easily do a do-si-do.

“Don’t worry,” Kate yelled over the bear’s shoulder. Her voice sounded surprisingly calm. “It’s a black bear, not a grizzly.”

“Are you sure?” I yelled back, dismally failing to reclaim any valor. Black bears, we both knew, tend to be less dangerous than grizzlies. Another thing we both knew—something that was painfully apparent—was that this bear was honey blonde, a common color for grizzlies.

“I’m sure.” Her tone had turned flat and somewhat defiant. For its part the bear continued to stand on its hind legs, face quizzical, glancing between Kate and me as if watching a tennis match.

“Don’t come up the trail,” Kate shouted finally. For a moment I thought she was insinuating that she would be better off battling the beast by herself, but then she added, “That would push him toward me. Come up the gully.”

I grabbed some rocks and jogged down into the gully. Our shouted conversation and my disappearance apparently convinced the bear to change plans. It dropped uncertainly back on all fours. After looking longingly at the empty pot near the fire, the bear waddled off. “He’s leaving,” Kate yelled, and then a moment later as I emerged from the gully, she called out, “No, no, he’s still here.”

By the time I reached Kate, the blonde bear stood 20 yards away in sparse forest. We both hollered at him and Kate banged our pot with a tree branch. The bear watched us, unimpressed. Together Kate and I threw rocks, and the bear moved two more steps up onto the hillside. And then, glancing back and throwing us a yawn, the bear lay down!

Kate and I exchanged stupefied looks. “Okay, great, now what are we supposed to do?”

We tossed more rocks and finally I nailed the bear hard on the rear end. That brought him to his feet, now facing us, ears laid back, shoulders low, snarling.

“That can’t be a good thing,” Kate whispered, wide-eyed.

Scott Bischke

“Maybe we ought to back out of here,” I proposed. But before we could move, the bear, snarling once more, pointed itself up the hill and moved stiffly away.

As the bear disappeared and reappeared among the trees, I said, “That could be a griz.”

“It’s a black bear!” Kate snapped back. “It stood right in front of me. It doesn’t have a shoulder hump. Besides, look how small it is.”

“Small?” The bear I saw looked big enough to play defensive end for Chicago.

Talking with a backcountry ranger the next morning, Kate, her face animated and unafraid, described the encounter: “I looked up from the fire to see the bear, sneaking up on its belly just like a dog would. It was sniffing, so I figured it wanted food. The bear seemed kind of scared, so at first I just sat there trying to decide what I should do. When it kept coming, I knew I had to grab my bear spray, stand up, and scare it away….”

As Kate talked on, I realized her story was not unlike our encounter with cancer.

...and more...

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