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Saturday, July 31, 2010

A glitch, I hope

This morning, K and I were having a glorious ride through the damp but sunny forest. The scent of wet pine needles drying in the sun mixed with the sweet nectar of wildflowers and berries was heavenly.

We were in sync, both of us feeling happy to out on the trails together.
At one point, I stopped in the forest to adjust my bike, and looked behind me to see K 'covering my back'. I'm so lucky to have K's love.
A little later, we were still both flying high. We were on a little-known trail where I haven't seen anyone else on an early morning ride in at least four years... and then another mountain biker appeared directly in front of us on the ledge-like sinuous path.

Fortunately, I was riding cautiously and so was the other rider. Only for that reason, we avoided a head-on collision on the blind curve. K erupted in fear as brakes screeched, sprinting toward us with the same furious nervousness that she exudes when bears visit our clearing at home. As she approached, she yelped and stopped, holding one front leg off the ground. She continued crying piteously and not weighting the limb.

The biker, a stranger to me, was a wonderful person. He was off his bike with me, both of us trying to help and comfort K. At first, it looked like she wouldn't even be able to walk home but as we petted her and palpated the limb, trying fruitlessly to pinpoint the problem, she miraculously recovered. After about 10 minutes, she stood and walked normally. Eventually, I said good-bye and thanks to the other biker. I began walking toward home with K, thinking that she couldn't run. But, when she accelerated into a gallop ahead of me, I realized that she was, at least for the moment, truly okay so I started pedaling again. She still seems fine now. I'm mystified.

You have no idea how much fear that little episode struck into my heart. Riding with K is a highlight of each day for me. I know that a day will inevitably come when she'll be too old to go on my rides anymore but it shouldn't be yet. And, thank goodness, it seems as if we'll be on the trails together tomorrow. I know that it was a tiny event compared to what many of you have faced or are currently facing in life. But, it scared me.

Here was K running toward me after her 'injury'. Her gait looked normal to me, and she seemed upbeat and happy.
Let's hope that it was a glitch that I'll completely forget in no time at all.

Later in my ride, I had the ironic twist of having some acquaintances tell me all about my blog and that I ought to check it out. They had no idea that it was my blog. I was very flattered and 'fessed up...

Because I was feeling a bit unsettled after my ride with K, I focused on visiting some gorgeous wildflower spots. On a ridge, a Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum) had blossomed with some delicate flowers pointing skyward and others nodding.
Next to a creekbed, cone flowers, taller than me, were holding a party.
As I climbed up a steep slope out of the creekbed, I spotted a bush covered with unknown berries that looked like ripening blackberries. Based on my research, I think that it was a Boulder Raspberry bush, and my books say that the fruits are "decidedly not delicious". At least it's pretty...

Friday, July 30, 2010

My closest bear encounter and courage refound

During yesterday's tumultuous train of thunderstorms, the Duo and I finally found a window to head out for a hike. My yen for wandering hit hard, and we ended up exploring a section of the forest that's new to me. A huge ravine cuts off the most obvious route to access this remote section of forest but the Duo and I found a heavily worn animal trail that crosses the ravine up high where it isn't so extreme.

It was obvious that we'd entered a zone where people rarely set foot and the animals roam without worries. Both dogs alerted numerous times telling me that an animal was nearby or its scent was strong. When we explore animal havens, I leash both dogs so their "alerts" consist of very excited body language.
We were heading for a spot that looks ideal, on a topo map, for bear dens. As I visualized the topo map in my head to guide our route, I almost tripped over a geological marker that a worker had installed years ago while surveying the land on foot. His/her data was probably used to help make the map that I was visualizing. So no one else knows where to look for a bear den, I deleted the location information from the photo but it was there.
Unfortunately, when we hit the cusp of the rocky spine that I wanted to explore, the thunder started booming and the rain started splattering so we turned back. The sky over the Continental Divide looked threatening, to say the least.
One gift of my neck fusion surgery in January was that I learned how much I love exploring the wilderness on foot like the Duo and I did yesterday evening. It's amazing how being forced to change my routine, even by something as onerous as surgery, almost always means that I discover new things that I love to do.

This morning, K and I headed out for a romp, with me on my mountain bike and K on her paws. We headed for our "berry cam" and a "fresh-out-of-the-oven" bear scat lay directly in our path. It consisted entirely of Buffalo Berry seeds - and NO human or bird food. I think that the bear had been present just moments before and either climbed a tree or fled as we approached.
Based on that near encounter, I decided that we've entered the full-blown bear berry season, and K and I will stay off that slope for the next month or so. My main reason is that I don't want to deter the bears from eating the abundant berry crop by leaving our scent all over the slope. I am honestly not afraid of seeing a Black Bear because they've behaved so timidly almost every time I've encountered them. When I see one in the forest, it almost always disappears at a full gallop in the blink of an eye.

Several of you have asked what I think about the tragic bear attack in Montana and whether it affects my feelings about wandering in bear territory. First, I should point out that the bears in my forest are Black Bears, which are presumably less prone to aggression than Grizzly Bears. My reaction to the news reports is that, just like some humans are literally insane, I think that a few animals in each species can behave insanely. However, the few crazy ones don't mean that all humans are dangerous or that all bears are itching for a fight. If the news reported every single time a person encountered a bear who ran away, there would be no time for any other type of news story in the summertime. There are probably at least a hundred of these benign encounters in North America on a typical summer day.

I've encountered bears many times when hiking or biking in the forest near my house. I follow a few basic rules like (1) stop in my tracks and don't approach, (2) act confident and predictably, (3) observe the animal closely and change my tactics if the usual ones aren't having the usual effects. I also carry a large can of pepper spray designed for defense against Grizzly Bears just in case something really weird happens with a bear or mountain lion. But, in every case except one, the bear fled as soon as he/she saw me. In that one case, a mother bear waited for her yearling to get a 1 minute head start before she fled.

My closest bear encounter happened in my yard around 7 or 8 years ago - it didn't fit the usual rules because the bear approached me rather than me surprising a bear on a trail. I was sitting in the yard having breakfast with my dog, Acadia, lying in the grass next to me. Acadia's recent spinal surgery meant that she couldn't walk on her own. As I read the newspaper, Acadia emitted a low rumbling growl. I snapped down the paper and looked straight into the face of a smallish black bear sow who stood stationary 15 yards away. I was scared... especially because Acadia couldn't walk. So, I arose from my chair slowly while maintaining eye contact with the bear and talking in a calming voice. I helped Acadia to her feet using her harness and dragged her inside the front door while keeping my eyes on the sow's eyes. I don't know what led me to feel that eye contact was very important that day - but it felt right.

With Acadia safe, I peered out the door, and the sow still stood like a statue in the same place with my half-eaten breakfast in front of her. For some reason, it felt very important to me that the sow NOT get rewarded with my breakfast so I slowly but confidently walked out the door again. In retrospect, I can't fathom why I didn't try to scare the sow away from inside the house. As I moved toward my breakfast, I kept eye contact with the bear while talking to her, probably saying inane things, picked up my breakfast, and again retreated into the house.

Again, I peered out the door, and the sow still stood rooted in place. So, I emerged once more to scare her away. But, for some reason, I paused and looked at her first (with one hand on the door knob of the slightly open front door) while she examined me. We both seemed equally curious about each other - and she hadn't made a single aggressive move or sound. Then, I said, not loudly and not angrily, but with authority, "It's time for you to leave". Believe it or not, she spun and loped out of our clearing. By the end of the encounter, I felt that I'd had a special, rather than scary, experience.

I'm not sure that I'd repeat my actions of that day now that I know more about bears. I'd probably take the safer strategy of getting Acadia into the house and then scaring the bear from indoors. However, the story demonstrates that not all bears are itching for a fight or an attack. In fact, I haven't yet met a bear who preferred aggression over flight. However, I know that those individuals exist so I'm more cautious now than I was then.

Since finding the den with a sow and two yearling cubs, I've often wondered if the sow was the same one who I met in my yard that day. Now, that would be serendipity.

After finding bear scat this morning, K and I had a carefree romp in the forest. K zipped around like a puppy.
We hugged on Hug Hill after she trotted up from its far side.
As I rode, I discovered that a modicum of courage that had mysteriously disappeared during my surgery had miraculously returned. There are a couple of very tough spots for a mountain bike on our trails. In past years, I've always negotiated them without dismounting. This year, I've been timid, hopping off the bike to climb over them on foot. Without even thinking today, I pedaled over each of them, easily surmounting what had become Mt. Everest-like barriers in my head. I think that I'm finally as strong as I was before surgery. Woo hoo!And, just so we don't get too serious about life or courage, we have our resident imp, R, to keep us laughing... He won another round.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A lion among the deer

We've had two nights in a row of no bear alarm frenzies from the Duo. Breakfast on the deck is peaceful again. K sleeps in the soft morning sun while the flycatcher family of two parents and four young call to each other from the forest edge. They've stayed nearby for about 10 days since the young ones learned to fly. What a joy to have their calls rising from the treetops!
Almost every outing, including my morning bike rides with K, starts with a visit to the meadow where the wildflowers are still singing.
A jungle of Horsemint and Mariposa Lilies blooms.
In the deeper pine forests, Pinedrops have begun to blossom. They're an odd plant that lives symbiotically with subterranean fungi rather than using photosynthesis to generate energy. The "blossoms", hanging like lanterns from the stalk, are tiny but a close look shows their beauty.
We've fallen into a predictable summer storm pattern with clouds building over the mountains all morning and exploding into wild storms in the afternoon. In a Front Range mountain community, more than 8" of hail fell yesterday afternoon. Snowplows cleared the streets (in July!).

Behind K, you can see the clouds already building in the morning. It makes running cooler for her so I don't think that she minds!
Today, after K and I took a mountain bike ride together, I headed east on my mountain bike. When I looked over my shoulder, I realized that more big storms would surely strike this afternoon as the Divide looked ominous even at that early hour.
I spotted a nearby deer with a huge velvet rack. When the sun's rays glanced off his antlers, the velvet fuzz assumed a golden glow.
Later in the ride, I rode along a very isolated trail where I haven't seen another soul in years and followed the obvious path of a black bear who had foraged there since my last visit two days ago. The bear had dug up ant hills, flipped rocks so huge that I couldn't nudge them with all my weight, left scat in the middle of the trail, and eaten berries.
I didn't eat the ones shown above because I wasn't sure what they were. But, I did forage in the wild raspberry patches at the base of a cliff. The cliff towers behind the bee on the Cone Flower shown below.
I must have spent 30 minutes eating raspberries below the cliff. These raspberries are completely wild and not escapees from gardens. Each berry is about half the size of a domesticated raspberry so 30 minutes of foraging might yield a few calories of energy but not much more. Bears must be much more efficient foragers than I am. Otherwise, they'd burn more calories picking berries than they gained by eating them!
After enjoying foraging for berries and some hard riding, I beat the storms home. They hit later in the afternoon when I could relax indoors while the rumbles of thunder shook the house.
During this wonderful summertime life, my remote wildlife cameras have been working hard. They haven't recorded any bears on Black Bear Trail in weeks. However, they caught the image of a mountain lion walking the trail the other night. While I was on the trail checking the cameras' memory cards, I noticed what I thought was a mountain lion "scrape", an area where the lion kicked dirt backward with his hind paws to mark the territory as his own. In the photo below, there are obviously the tracks of two paws, and they scraped from my toe toward my heel. I didn't know until I looked at the memory cards at home that a lion had actually been here! I'm glad that I got verification that I'm actually reading the signs in the forest correctly.
This is the second video clip of a mountain lion on this trail, and I think that it's the same hulking male as we saw previously. He has no radio collar and moves with the swagger of the king of the forest. The "Tom Cats" patrol huge territories so it is indeed possible that he's been absent from our neck of the woods for the past 7 weeks, only reappearing this week. In his previous appearance, he seemed to be limping. This time, he isn't obviously favoring one hind leg. That's good news. Just one more note - I believe that this lion is the same one as I got extensive footage of eating a mule deer last January.

On an eerie note, one male deer seems to be missing. We've seen a pair of bucks together in my recent wildlife footage, one with a bigger rack and a younger one with small prongs. Now, the younger one is traveling alone. It could mean that our lion made a meal of the older one... but I can't be sure.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bears all around us

I had this post all ready to publish yesterday early afternoon. Then, with no explanation, our internet went kaput. It's one of the tradeoffs of living in the mountains - the internet is not reliable. In any case, this post is a day late... but I hope that you enjoy it!

I'm settling into the late summer routine, enjoying my time with the Labraduo on the trails and reveling in the obvious presence of bears all around us. My remote wildlife camera on an animal trail in a berry patch yielded a black bear walking fast through the patch and toward our house.

The sow isn't huge but is definitely an adult. She probably has a fertilized egg that has divided 4 times floating in her uterus. If she's fat and healthy enough when she enters hibernation, the embryo will implant in her uterus wall and she'll become pregnant. Otherwise, she won't have cubs. I hope she does - I'd love to have tiny cubs around again next summer! Even better would be if she had her cubs in the same den as she used last winter!
For perspective on the bear's size, here is K walking in almost the same spot in a photo taken by the same wildlife camera. K looks worried, probably due to the bear scent from the night before.
As they walked through this spot, Buffalo Berry bushes surrounded the bear and K. The bear didn't slow despite the bright red berries weighing down the bushes. I think that this bear will be back for the Buffalo Berries.
Some raspberries have ripened nearby as well. I wonder if bears like those better than buffalo berries.
Although it's tough to see much detail in the bear photos, there's a good chance that this bear was the sow from the den that I monitored last winter. A sow with cubs frequented this berry patch late last summer, and thus, it makes sense that she would return to this field of delectable foods. I wonder what would happen if she ran into one of her yearlings (who starred in the bear den videos) here? Would she share the berry crop or drive the youngster off? I do know that a mother bear often gives up part of her territory to her daughters. Daughters usually inhabit their birth area for their lifetimes. However, my understanding is that the mother bear will not visit the parts of the territory that she's ceded to a daughter. Perhaps that means that this sow is keeping the berry patch as her own.

After she walked out of the berry patch, the bear continued toward our house. Her path was obvious from ripped apart stumps. This stump was about an 1/8 of a mile from our house and was ripped apart on the same night as the photos were taken by my remote wildlife camera.
Bears rip apart stumps to get to the juvenile form of ants called pupae, baby ants in white soft cases. Adult ants protect the next generation (i.e., pupae) by carefully hiding and protecting them. By the time I spotted this stump, it was 8 hours after the sow had torn it apart so the worker ants had already rescued and stowed the surviving pupae.
At about the time of that night when the bear was near our house, our dogs went ballistic. However, the bear never entered our clearing and so my home wildlife cameras didn't get a photo. I think that the sow knows that there's no food available here, and she probably prefers wild food. She came within 100 yards of our house to dig up another old stump and then headed away.
The next morning, K and I headed onto the deck for breakfast, and K charged toward the railing snarling. She doesn't like it when bears come close to our house, to say the least!
K and her brother have been breaking into frenzied barking several times a night for the past 4-5 nights - and all signs indicate that bears have been nearby each night. We humans are getting tired from lack of sleep! Of course, the dogs just sleep even more during the day to make up for their sleep deficit.

Through all of this, K and I have been enjoying our daily mountain bike rides together, although K is on edge, becoming electrified when we pass a spot where a bear recently stood. To avoid having K harass any bears, I've been insisting that she always stay right by my side. Here, I'd stopped for a moment, and K poked her nose up under my handlebars. What a cutie!
And, K stood tall in front of our mountains.
Today, I took time to treasure both dogs, as it is a tough anniversary that I wrote about last year.

Coming up tomorrow, at another wildlife camera site, I captured footage of a mountain lion, a doe with a spotted fawn, and a single buck, one of the pair shown in the last wildlife video. Just so you don't worry, I didn't capture any footage of the lion near the deer although one of the bucks who usually appears with a partner was solo...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bobcat hunts breakfast

First, one extra photo from our thin air hike that I wrote about yesterday. Yes, the sheer cliff behind K meant that I had a taut leash on her!
Yesterday, K was framed... Someone (we won't mention names) took one of my shoes and left it on the bed. Then, my sweet K who is too cautious to ever steal a shoe lay down next to it. My first reaction was astonishment when I saw the scene. Then, I realized what had probably happened...
On a different topic, after a hiatus, the coyotes are returning to their normal routine, with lots of singing and visits to our clearing after dark. I suspect that their pups have recently left the den, and the pack had a different routine while the young ones were den-bound. Last night's visitor looked so lanky and lean that I wondered how young he is. I don't think that he could be one of this year's pups because they're only a few months old. If they're like dog puppies, they're still rotund and wriggly.
I've discovered that the "main bear sow" in our area has started hitting the berry patches and has passed within 1/8 of a mile of our house on recent nights. I'll save the bear photos and bear signs for tomorrow.

Before compiling the bear information, I want to include a video from Black Bear Trail where a bobcat passed one cam with nothing in his mouth and then, 12 minutes later, s/he passed another camera with a just-killed squirrel. The bobcat is either heading to someplace safe to eat or is taking the squirrel to her young. It looks almost as if the squirrel is still moving but I think it's just the way the cat is carrying it.

Then, several does examined my camera, followed by two very nervous mule deer bucks passing both cameras. Notice how the bucks swivel their ears to listen for predators. The younger buck walking behind the buck with the big rack has his ears oriented backward. I wonder if they had an inkling of a mountain lion in the area based on their behavior.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

On a mountaintop

Yesterday, we climbed to the top of a Rocky Mountain, enjoying the pure air, astounding flowers, loud marmots, and views of peaks a hundred miles away.

On the lower slopes of our climb, the columbines still sang their summer song, covering entire hillsides in their pale blue and white hue.
Next to the boulder-strewn trail that led to our peak, flowers somehow eked out an existence, painting the landscape green, yellow, and white. Our peak loomed high above us.
Alpine Avens dotted the ground next to the trail at this elevation.
After more hard climbing the pyramidal peak looked almost impossible to scale and the trail appeared to drop off the other side of the saddle that we approached.
Once we reached that saddle, a view of the largest Colorado glacier met us with its lakes like turquoise jewels in the talus.
K looked happy and care-free.
R enjoyed the view and sampled the wind with his tongue.
As we lingered in that last flat spot prior to starting the hard part of the climb, we noticed a marmot gazing at the same view.
The climb challenged me. The footing was precarious with huge boulders and small rocks plus a sheer drop-off toward the glacier and its lakes on one side.
At about the point when dropoff got too close and the upward view looked like this, I tremulously said that the climb was getting too precarious for me.
The eager looks on the pups' faces were my motivation - I would climb this mountain!
Of course, R reached the peak first and propped himself to tower over us, well over 13,000'! Notice the "Devil's Gargoyles" jutting up from the knife-like ridge behind him.
The peak was calm and warm - a rare ambiance for such a rugged point. K balanced atop the world.
And gazed into the distance.
She posed with the compass pointing to other peaks, nearby and faraway, in Colorado. This plate was placed atop the mountain in 1928!
Even in the fierce environment on top of a Rocky Mountain, Alpine Spring Beauties flowered in the crevices.
On our way down, the big yellow faces of Old Men of the Mountain turned to the east, away from the late afternoon sun.
Marmots, huge rodents that weigh up to about 10 lbs, seemed to pop up from every boulder, whistling warning calls to their colonies. One colony's lookout guard appears in the middle of the photo below.
Our best sighting was when we spotted two adult marmots with a quartet of pups. Two of the pups briefly played while their guardians watched. One guardian was probably their mother, and the other might have been their father or another adult from the colony. These pups probably emerged from the den very recently and will stay with their colony until they're about 2 years old. Then, some of them will disperse to other colonies to breed. A colony usually consists of a male, several breeding females, yearlings, and young.
As we descended, a shimmering vision of the lake that the Duo swam in on our last alpine hike appeared - a truly magical sight.