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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Stumbling upon hibernating bears

Today's hike came within a hair of being a story of a long wander in the woods, perusing tracks and enjoying complete silence. However, within the last quarter of the hike, K and I stumbled upon something extraordinary. But first, I need to tell you how we ended up on an isolated north-facing slope, still deeply covered in snow, with a band of boulders above us - perfect bear denning territory.

We started by following bobcat signs, found another scent post, and then lost his trail. His trail had led us along a path toward a ravine-pocked area that I've wanted to explore. Almost immediately, I found turkey tracks, which I examined closely with K covering my back. I've come to believe, given how many lion signs we see in our forest, that K is truly guarding me when she behaves this way. She sits directly behind me and vigilantly scans the forest while I become absorbed in a track.
Then, we moved along, and I promptly lost my bearings. A glimpse of the faraway mountains helped slightly.
After trekking through snow and over fallen trees, I caught another peek at the mountains and reoriented myself again. The mountains float below K's snout in the photo below.
Then, an obvious gulch became our guide. I knew that it led to the bottom of the canyon that we've recently explored. I figured that if we followed it, we'd end up on the bench trail that contours along the wall of the canyon.K, who was off-leash at this point, definitely favored following the gulch downward.
Some gargantuan tracks led us into the gulch. The sun had destroyed every detail of these craters so I had no idea who had left them except that the stride and straddle indicated a big animal, like an elk or lion. The lack of foot dragging made me lean toward a lion but the tracks were very old so I didn't expect to run into their owner. But, to be safe, I leashed K.
We let gravity pull us down the gulch. I knew that it was inevitable that we'd intersect the bench trail so I felt confident in our navigation. However, before we descended all the way to the bench trail, I spotted an animal trail that paralleled the bench trail but contoured higher on the canyon wall.
It looked like a fun adventure to follow it so we did. The tracks were all indistinct. An occasional pile of deer scat told us that mule deer sometimes follow it. I started thinking that it might be a sneaky way for a prey animal to avoid ambush by a mountain lion down on the bench trail. The bench trail is well known for lion activity.

We wandered along, seeing very few signs of animal life except an occasional red squirrel or Stellar's Jay. When we're simply wandering, K usually walks next to me (if the snow isn't too soft) or directly behind me. All of a sudden, she surged ahead, nose quivering in the wind. She led the way for the next ten minutes, pulling lightly on the leash - a rare event for her.
Then, just as quickly, she faded behind me. I couldn't see her (I can't twist my neck due to my surgery) so I didn't note her body language. We reached a point where the animal tracks all diverged in different directions. We had two choices. We could go straight up the hill and try to clamber over the band of boulders. The band of boulders sits at the top of the ridge in the photo below.
Or, we could angle up the hill through what looked like deep powder that probably hid hazardous fallen trees.
I chose an intermediate route, hoping to find an easy spot to get over the boulders. Just then, some violently chewed trees caught my attention. It almost looked like the work of beavers but this definitely was not beaver territory. The debarked trees are obvious in the photo below, and actually block the route to a cave entrance.
The savagely gnawed trees drew me in. I headed toward them to figure out what animal had done the damage. Once I climbed another 10 ft upward, a cave entrance became obvious. K sniffed and hung back.
Never one to pass up a curiosity, I peered into the cave entrance and saw deep dark blackness. But, the darkness had a texture to it... so I looked harder.
My next peek revealed something that looked like black fur and the hint of an open eye.
Then, something stirred in the black hole, and I saw the beautiful face of a yearling cub.
The cub started to back up behind his mom who was still lying close to the den entrance.
Then, the cub snuggled into his mom, and they looked like a glossy and sleepy pile of fur.
In the midst of the five minutes that we spent gawking, I recorded some video when the bears mewed and grumbled in their sleepy stupor. Sorry about the poor visual quality. I was a little bit scared, even though I know from physiology books that hibernating bears are not physically capable of moving much at all when they first awaken.

I feel guilty that I woke up the bears, who were holed up in a remote cave like good bears. If I'd known that I was next to a bear den, I would have been far quieter and less intrusive. I hope that I didn't scare them too much or do anything to mess up their hibernation.

As I looked at the den entrance, I was overwhelmed by bear scent. I'm certain that K's alert demeanor in the minutes before we stumbled on the den was triggered by the bear scent. However, I kept wondering why a mountain lion doesn't make a meal of the pair. He'd fit in the den entrance, and I know that he frequents that hillside. Perhaps other meals, like mule deer, are tastier to a lion. Alternatively, perhaps a bear can wake up fast enough when faced with an obvious threat like a lion to defend herself. In any case, I do feel certain that the den entrance will be completely covered if we get a decent snow storm. That covering will help insulate the bears and hide their den more completely.

After our short time at the den, K and I scrambled further up the slope and soon emerged in the sunlight. Believe it or not, this vista was remarkably close to the den as the crow flies. What a day!


  1. Oh my goodness, KB! You had my adrenaline going. What an amazing adventure you and K had. I'm so glad that K stands guard for you out there, and that you're so good at reading her signs that something's around.
    Thanks for taking me along, too!

  2. Its all beautiful, girl, but just take me where the see-ment grows!

    Jo and Stella

  3. How cool is that! Hibernating Bears - We would have been scared too!

    Pugs & Kisses,

    Yoda & Brutus

  4. Dang!

    More fun!

    You saw bears and our only wildlife was Butterscotch The Cat!

    Great pics and commentary!

    BTW, don't forget only you can prevent forest fires!

  5. Wowee! That's amazing - though I definitely would not have been brave enough to stick around so close to those bears, no matter what the books say. Yikes!

  6. Holy Heart Attack! You had me on the edge of my seat! We're just happy if we see the neighbor's puppy on our walk and don't get attacked by the feral cats in town. I hope you and K stay away from there until you're at least able to run without your neck brace on through the woods! What a cool adventure!

  7. Holy cow that is both crazy, and scary and super cool all at one time! The only thing I ever come across sleeping around here is maybe one of my co-workers. Not too much interesting wildlife here in the burbs.

  8. You know KB, if his keeps up Mutual of Omaha is gonna want to sponsor you...I can see it now...."as Kb squeezes into the hibernating bear cave, K has her back stay tuned while we break for a word from Mutual of Omaha"
    First you are brave and talented, second you are so strong to be recovering so quickly, third you are so totally blessed to find and see what you do and to have the most trusted sidekick by you all the time. I have no doubt that K would take good care of you. Tis was a very exciting post! WOW! Thanks!!

  9. I don't know if my heart can take much more of your adventures! YIKES!

  10. You are either the bravest or most insane person!! Wow, I would have peed myself if I came across a bear den and they were awake!!!

    Be careful out there!


  11. You crazy girl! But I totally get the thrill and curiosity. I was right there with you, waiting to see what would happen next. You are sure getting around. That makes me happy, as it probably does you too.

  12. Kia ora KB,
    What a catch up to come read and view this adventure! How cool and what an amazing experience. In the times I used to spend in the Boundary Waters we used to frequently encounter black bears, and after a time knew exactly what that pungent aroma meant.
    I hope those neck muscles are going better, and judging by your continued output into Nature they must be. Thanks for the continued inspiration and joy my friend. Kia kaha.

  13. Very cool to run across the bears. Always interesting to run into them when they are so sleepy, though I have never done so in their cave - but have just outside of their caves. Beautiful creatures.

  14. Gulch - a word you never ever hear in Europe. Combine gulch and bears in the same sentence and you're definitely not in Europe. I think there maybe a a small number of bears left in the very high Pyrennees but that's it.

  15. holy crap! talk about up close and personal!!! way too cool!!! how exciting and frightening to come upon a bear den!!!!
    beautiful pictures and great story (as always :)

  16. O!M!G!
    Yet another amazing adventure!

  17. OMBEARS!!! You must be one of the most courageous people on the planet! Some Alaskan oldtimers we met last May told us tales of youth going through puberty: the teens would have to trudge through deep, deep snow, find a hibernating bear and get it out of its den midwinter - a horrible thing to do out of distant past times. I love reading about your adventures, because your preparatory knowledge is so vast. Still... be careful out there! Spellbinding!
    Hugs xo
    Sammie and mom

  18. Holy Bear Tracks! You had my adrenaline racing, too! I've been wanting to capture bears on film for forever, but I can only catch fleeting glimpses of their fleeing behinds as they beat feet to escape my lens! You are so lucky to live where you live and see what you see. Thanks for sharing!

  19. Oh, what Holly and Khady siad!!! I hear what you are saying about them being slow movers upon awakening, but I would have been so scared. Yikes!!!

  20. Hi KB - You've done it again - be still my heart! I can just see you there, balancing on the side of the hill, wearing your neck brace, holding onto K's leash, and simultaneously videoing the bears! Better stay clear of that spot in the spring when they emerge REALLY hungry! Your snow seems sparse - we sure need some good storms in Summit County, too, or this summer there wil be high fire danger. BE CAREFUL!

  21. KB! Thank you for the comment!!! I thought you were taking time to recover and wasn't surprised when I didn't see any new posts. What a silly thought. I should have know it was my fault. I thought I was following but on a hunch, when I got your comment I clicked your link and...shoot! Now I get to enjoy catching up though. Can't wait to find out how you are all doing. My momma too is particularly interested, because she's been putting off back surgery for 27 years now.
    Hope you're all doing well!

  22. We're on the edge of our seats reading this post.... Have had a few momma & youngin' bear close encounters, and definitely left our adrenaline going. Goodness! Wouldn't think that a mountain lion would attempt to go after the bears!! Wouldn't there be enough easier catches in the area? However, those rock outcroppings...good hideouts for all sorts of dwellers, no?

    Hugs and snaggle-tooth kisses,
    Sierra Rose and mom

  23. "I was a little bit scared..." um, holy cow, I'd be messing my pants!

    your dog is very wise. both of my dogs are very dumb when it comes to wild life. my sibe once tried to run after a wild boar. Her "prong" collar broke at the time. luckily i had it double hooked up to her flat collar, which wasn't exactly tight on her neck.

    K is very very wise!


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