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.