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The Power of the Bear

There are lots of ‘Trail Creeks’ around Park County.  One of them travels through private lands from Cody to Pat O’Hara and into Dead Indian.  There are dozens of Tipi rings along the now faint trail through the valley.  This was the major route tribes used to StinkingWater river (now the Shoshone River) and its hot springs.

But in my valley there is a Trail Creek as well, also a major travel route from the north ends of the Park, through Sunlight Basin and down either towards Cody or the Clark’s Fork.  The Nez Perce came this way while fleeing the calvary.  An ancient route used for thousands of years, it’s quick access over the mountains north or south.

I love this area.  Most of it was devastated by the ’88 Yellowstone fires, but for some reason the south side of the pass adverted most of the flames and a small perennial creek (Trail Creek) feeds the narrow valley.

Near Trail Creek.  '88 Fire burn

Near Trail Creek. ’88 Fire burn

The route isn’t just favored by humans.  Nowadays wolves, bears, elk and deer use the access more than horses or people on foot.  In fact, if you take the trail, make sure to have bear spray handy.

I did a short run up the south side of the trail today (on the north side the trail name changes and is called ‘Lodgepole’.  Lodgepole creek trail was completely burned during the fires.  The trail is hot with standing dead trees…not so pleasant).  The access road has been closed most of the season due to flooding but is open now.  Go to the end of the dirt road, park, and then you have to pick your way through downed burnt trees to find the trail which turns sharply up a narrow access valley.

Looking west on Trail Creek

Looking west on Trail Creek

As you near the route to the pass, the trail leaves the forest, and enters open areas that have burnt and downed trees.  It was there I saw the young black bear.  He crossed from our side of the creek to the other, and fed continuously, oblivious to our presence.  Although it was true the wind was in my face, once he saw us, he could care less and just kept feeding.  It was then I realized that his hyperphagia (excessive eating to ready for hibernation) had begun.  I watched him for quite a while, trying to decipher what he was eating.  Bears love old burned areas.  For one, they can tear up decaying logs.  For another there are lots of fresh new plants and foliage to eat. And watching a bear move over those logs is a sight, as it is nothing for them.  At one point, my bear had all four paws sideways on the log, like you might see bears on a circus stump.

My photo below isn’t very good, because it wasn’t till he was farther away that I realized I’d brought my iPhone.  I’d seen a partial track down the trail in hard mud, but being incomplete I wasn’t sure if he was a two year old grizzly or a black bear. (3″x3.5″)

Sorry he looks so far away.  iPhone photo, but he is just across the creek looking back at me and Koda

Sorry he looks so far away. iPhone photo, but he is just across the creek looking back at me and Koda

Black bear track 3"x3.5"

His track

After about 1/2 hour and a snack on the trail, I left the bear to his eating.  He never was bothered by Koda and I watching him.  But I decided to revisit his track and spend time looking for bear rubs on the way back.

Fall is definitely in the air.  The berries are beginning and by mid-September a great crop of rose hips will ripen.  It’s been a quick summer because we had a long winter and compressed late spring.  The bears are definitely feeling it as evidenced by this little bear.

Thimbleberry not quite ripe.  Yummy

Thimbleberry not quite ripe. Yummy

Buffalo Berries

I love these, but you have to develop a taste for them. After a little frost time, they are at first sweet, then a really tart after taste.

These are not edible.  They are in the honeysuckle family.

These are not edible. They are in the honeysuckle family.  Notice they are in ‘twins’

You recognize this garden delectible

You recognize this garden delectable.  Strawberry.  The raspberries were ripe as well.

On the way down, I found three distinct bear rub trees–all of them had hair and none of them had my bear’s hair.  All of them had blond grizzly hair.  Grizzly bears are called Silver-tipped because the ends of their hair follicles are silver.  If you hold a hair to the light and you see it fade to ‘white’, then you have a grizzly hair.

bear rub tree

bear rub tree

Grizzly bear rub tree

Grizzly bear rub tree

All those rubs within a mile and a half indicated to me this is a prime bear travel corridor, and that grizzly had been leaving his scent along the trail on the trees.  In the winter, the area is closed to people for habitat protection and that’s a good thing.  Wolves as well as large ungulates use this trail for easy travel into and out of the back country.

It was a great pleasure to watch that bear undisturbed for a while.  Seeing bears on the side of the road in Yellowstone is common, but watching one alone in the backcountry contains an intimacy and magic that is indescribable.

Little Black bear in Yellowstone

Little Black bear in Yellowstone.  My bear was bigger than this little guy.

An old bear experience

Its a good time of year to tell bear stories.  The bears are coming low, getting ready for winter.  I’ve heard a few stories in my valley from hunters.  Last week a ‘bad’ bear was dropped off just a bit north of the valley. Game and Fish spends a lot of their time moving bears around that get into trouble with livestock or grain, or just too close to towns.  My valley is one of the places where the bears are deposited.  Soon after this bears relocation, a hunting party killed a large buck and hung it outside their house to cool.  That night a grizzly came through and ate their kill.  A few nights later, a grizzly ate part of an elk that was hanging outside another home about 20 miles up the road.

This time of year I  imagine the bears hanging around outside the soda shop, talking, laughing, just waiting for a hunter’s gunshot to go off, then heading for their easy meal.

Yes, this is always the time of year we think about bears the most.  Which makes me remember my first, and closest, bear encounter.  Its great to see bears, especially from the car or through binoculars.  This is a great story and I would never want to get this close again.

My first bear experience took place in the backwoods of Glacier-Waterton National Park, on the Canadian side.  I was 17, fresh out of high school, and hitch-hiking across the West with two girlfriends.  It was the early 70’s when you could safely do those kinds of things.  We’d been dropped off in Vancouver by a friend who had received a new Volvo for graduation.  The four of us had talked about driving to the Canadian Rockies.  But as soon as we arrived across the Canadian border, Terri announced she was going to Alaska–alone.  So the three of us piled out of the car with our backpacks and that’s when our adventure really began.

After a few rides through southern British Columbia, we were picked up by a station wagon driven by an aging drunken vagabond and his side-kick.  Pretty soon we were doing the driving while the owners drank.  All three of us had spent our high school years backpacking the San Bernadino and Sierra Nevada mountains in a co-ed section of the Boy Scouts called the Explorers.  We felt ready for anything and certainly very experienced backpackers, or so we thought.

In fact. Karen and I had spent the previous summer studying at Banff  School of Fine Arts.  Every weekend we’d head for the Canadian mountains and explore some new uncharted territory.  We had our share of adventures there too, with blizzards, mosquitoes, and getting lost.  My constant amusement was to test myself to see if I could start a fire with just one match no matter what the conditions.  I’d gotten pretty good at it too.  So when our hosts dropped us off at the Waterton Lakes Park ranger station, we were all feeling completely prepared for trekking into the wilderness.

We headed into the main ranger station, asking about permits and hiking conditions.  I’ll never forget those Canadian rangers look of disbelief.

“You girls are going hiking, by yourselves? How much camping experience do you have?  You know there’s bears in the backcountry.”

We shrugged them off, got the appropriate permits, and began our 10 mile hike to our backcountry campsite.  Our first night took us to a site beside a large lake.  We arrived before evening, set up our sleeping areas, made a fire and dinner, cleaned up our meal and hung our food in a tree 100 feet away.  We were sitting around the fire when we noticed a large black bear come out of the woods and towards the tree where the food hung.

After exploring the hanging bag of food and realizing that he couldn’t get to it, the bear began walking towards us.  He must have smelled our dinner.  In the early days of backpacking, there wasn’t freeze-dried or dehydrated food available.  We brought parts of meals and cooked them; lots of rice, lentils, peas.  These meals required usually an hour of preparation and cooking, so the smells wafted with it.

We knew what to do next, we thought.  The protocol at that time was ‘make lots of noise’.  We banged on our pots and pans until they were full of dents, but the bear just kept coming.  Bears don’t see well, they’re very far-sighted, but their sense of smell is impeccable.

As the bear came nearer, we all contemplated what to do next—jump in the Lake?  Out of the question as it was glacier fed.  Climb a tree?  We looked around but at this latitude and elevation all the trees are spindly sticks their limbs starting at around 20’.  At a loss, we began building the fire up into a roar and huddled together on our rock seats.

The bear, in retrospect, was probably a young male, inexperienced and curious.  Black bears can be more deadly than grizzlies.  When a black bear charges, he’s out to kill.  When a grizzly charges, they’re usually out to frighten you out of their territory or protecting their young.  Most of the time they bluff charge.  But we didn’t know all this at the time.

Our packs were leaning against a nearby tree, and although there wasn’t any food in them, they had the smell of food on them.  The bear went directly over to the packs and explored them thoroughly.  Soon this curious bear was approaching us.  Having exhausted making lots of noise and waving our hands, we sat perfectly still, not knowing what to do next.  I was sitting sandwiched between my two friends.  Karen on my left had her down jacket on.  It must have smelled like the pea soup we’d just finished cooking and eating.  The bear nibbled at her jacket, grabbing her skin in the process.  She yelled and jerked back. The bear, startled, jumped back too.

I suppose he’d never seen fire before, and probably hadn’t encountered people before either.  The next thing he did was wild.  This bear thrust his nose between me and Karen and put it right into the fire!  Of course, he pulled it right back out, and with his face next to my chest, he brought up a paw and patted his stinging nose.  It was like having your dog nuzzle right next to you and your friend, his face was that close.

Now oddly enough, I felt no fear at all, and was amused at this bears’ antics.  After his fire encounter, the bear walked over toward Sarajo on my right and was about to test her jacket out when she made a loud noise.  The bear sauntered over to our tents to explore them.  It seemed like we were never going to get rid of this bear.  He’d been in our campground over 45 minutes now.  I was glad I hadn’t jumped into the Lake!  Suddenly I had an idea.  When I was a kid, I loved to watch cowboy black and white movies on TV.  A common ruse in the movies was for the cowboy trying to sneak around a guard to throw pebbles in another direction.  That way the sentinel checked out the noise while the cowboy snuck around him.  I started throwing pebbles way out into the forest hoping that would get this bear’s natural curiosity going.  It worked and the bear headed out into the woods not to be seen again.

The next morning we packed up and walked around the lake to a backcountry ranger station.  The resident ranger told us how grizzly bears go after menstruating women.  He told us a story which he said happened just the year before (actually it happened in 1967, several years before, but he embellished it for effect I suppose), where in one night two women were killed by either one or several grizzlies and both had their period.  That mama grizzlies are very territorial and think its another bear in their area.  This idea has since been studied and dispelled, but at that time it was believed to link the two incidents together.    And since one of my friends started her period just that day, we were particularly alarmed.  We spent the next 4 or 5 days hanging around that back country ranger station, taking day hikes, shouting and wearing bells, and watching all wildlife within hundreds of yards from us run away as fast as they could.   The routine was so tiresome, not what we envisioned as backcountry camping, that we high-tailed it out of Glacier to the Tetons where we spent several glorious weeks in the back country not worrying about Grizzlies.

The next morning at the ranger station, there was a nice bathroom. Karen took her shirt off and she had large bruises in the outline of a jaw, top and bottom, with teeth marks, along her back, although luckily the bear hadn’t broken the skin.

I always wondered about myself and why I wasn’t afraid.  I knew that if I’d been in the city and some strange man had invaded our space, I’d be afraid.  I wondered if my innate instincts had become so removed from the natural world that I’d become a kind of freak, unable to judge danger.  Years later I was reading a small book by Jim Corbett about his early life in India.  Corbett has a National Park named after him.  He hunted and killed man eating tigers.  He said in this book that fear is an instinctual emotion that is triggered when the situation is threatening.  He had many encounters with leopards and tigers where, because these animals were not threatening him, he felt no fear.  Fear is appropriate to the appropriate circumstances, and where there is no real threat, fear does not arise.  I finally understood that, even though that bear was right next to my face, the reason I never felt afraid was because he was not challenging us.  He was just curious.  Not being afraid, keeping my cool, probably also kept the bear in a non-threatened state.

Black bear print

Becoming Bear

This fall I followed bears around so much I began to feel that I was becoming sympathetic with ‘bear consciousness’.

Its not that I was actually seeing lots of bears, although I did see a black bear as well as a Mama Grizzly (not Sarah Palin by the way) and her 3 cubs, but I was tracking and back-tracking them, exploring their sign and where they’d been feeding.

This fall was a lean year for the bears.  Poor pine nut crop combined with a lousy spring made for difficult foraging.  In addition, the ecosystem is full and their habitat needs to expand.  But every time a Grizzly tries to move into range not outlined in the ESA as reintroduction habitat, he gets moved.  I’d swear that the WG&F Grizzly guys must spend their entire summer moving bears–from Jackson to Crandall, Crandall to Dubois, Dubois to Gardiner.  Its really crazy, and there is plenty of good habitat beyond the designated reoccupation areas–habitat that has few people, but may have a lot of forest service grazing allotments–in other words, cattle and sheep.  Our government at work protecting cattle on our public lands.  A negative cash flow investment every year and meanwhile our nation’s grizzlies are caged in a large ‘zoo’ called the GYE.

So, that being said, there was more bear activity and close encounters reported this year than any other year.  Hungry bears were coming around looking for anything they could find.

In September, on my quest in the Wind Rivers, I had a profound dream-image of a Black bear who pointed the way for me.  Soon after that, Black bears began leaving sign everywhere around my property.  Almost every afternoon I backtracked a black bear and watched him dig up every Limber Pine middens on the flats above me.  Limber pines are not bears’ favorite pine nut.  They are smaller than White Bark Pine nuts and so carry less bang for the buck.  Also White Bark pine cones easily shatter or dehisce when they open, while Limber pine cones are difficult to open and full of sticky sap.  That means the bears must rely on the squirrels to do all the work instead of doing some of it themselves.  Robbing Limber middens in the spring is usual, but not as much in the fall when the bears prefer the White Bark at the higher elevations.  But this little black bear robbed every midden he could find.  His scat was full of pine nuts, mostly.  Occasionally I’d find one with rose hips, another favorite fall bear food.  Bears need lots of fat in the fall to get ready for hibernation.  Nuts do that, rose hips don’t.

Black bear in my driveway

One evening after tracking this bear I walked up my driveway to find a roll of barbed wire in my neighbors yard displaced about 10′.  After inspection I saw some bear hair and realized the bear had gotten tangled and dragged the roll of wire along until he’d gotten loose.  I tried to haul the wire back to its location but couldn’t make it budge.  That roll must have weighed 75 pounds!  I was duly impressed with this bears strength.

On another occasion I was driving out the driveway, came around a corner and there was a huge log in the road.  I stopped and got out to move it off the driveway.  The log had obviously rolled down a steep embankment.  As I pushed it out of the way, I noticed from where it had come:  a gargantuan old midden way up at the top of the hill.  This midden was surrounded by logs and that bear had pawed his way through the stumps and completely devastated the middens.  A squirrel chattered away at me.  “I’m not your culprit”  I told her.

Those two incidents taught me about Bear Power.

October was an unusually hot month here in Sunlight and Cody.  Days were in the high 60’s.  One afternoon I took the car up a draw on a bad dirt road.  As the road got more and more rutted, I decided to walk the rest of the way. The view was wide as the gradual uphill was surrounded by sagebrush.  The road paralleled a narrow gulch where spring runoff once flowed before our 10 year drought.  A lone pine tree grew in the dry stream bed.  Koda was in front of me as we walked up the road.  Koda the sentinel, the sign talker I call him, as he is my alert signal, watching for sign along the way.

Koda suddenly stopped, sniffed the air and looked around.  I stopped too.  But after a few moments he continued on his way, and I suspected all danger had passed.  But to my right, from under that lone tree, a black bear appeared.  He must have smelled Koda and I because we had made no noise.  That bear took off roly-poly as fast as he could across the sagebrush and straight up a hill.  He was the bear of my dream from a few weeks previous.

I was at the grocery store in Cody when I ran into my neighbor.  “My son heard a noise on the porch of his cabin in the middle of the night.  He looked out and saw a grizzly and 3 cubs.”  I had heard about this bear but hadn’t seen, after over 2 months of walking my woods and land, any sign of grizzly, just sign of my black bear friend.  I doubled my attention-efforts, always mindful of sign, noise, and bear spray close bye, but saw nothing after several weeks.

One day late in October a hunter illegally shot a buck by my property (I say illegally because the buck was shot less than 25 feet from the road and dragged across my neighbors property).  Then he gutted the deer out and left the gut pile right by my mail box.  That was no picnic.  Although I enjoy tracking bears, even ones on my property, I’m not interested in feeding and drawing them here with gut piles.  Nevertheless, I saw it as a rare photo opportunity and set up my trail camera.  Next morning the gut pile was gone with bear tracks around it but the camera was conveniently broken!  That was a double cursing moment.

Bear sign was everywhere this fall hunting season.  I went with the Forest Service archeologist up a dirt road to a nearby old Indian hunting grounds.  Koda found a gut pile by the road and grizzly tracks were everywhere.

It was only at the end of October that I saw her.  It was my birthday.  Koda had finally lost all of his tennis balls.  It was near dusk and I decided to help him find balls, so we walked into the meadow by my house.  I didn’t have my bear spray with me as I wasn’t going anywhere.  I walked along the meadow, our usual route to my nearby stream when something caught the corner of my eye.  It was a stump that, like so many stumps, looked like a bear.  Usually I pay those stumps no mind and since all the logging that was done last year in those woods, there are plenty of those stumps that fool me all the time. But for some reason I morphed that peripheral glance into my full direct attention and by golly, it was a bear!  And a grizzly at that.  Then I noticed the 3 cubs with her.  They were all quietly feeding in the woods about 75 yards away.  Strangely, they hadn’t noticed me nor the dog, nor had the dog noticed or smelled them.  I called Koda to me and we began slowly and deliberately walking back towards the house.  And we were getting pretty close too, except Koda realized we were going back so soon and began to balk.  He was crying and jumping “Let’s play”, and it was then, when I had to reprimand him, that that Mama Grizzly took notice of us.

I saw at once her moment of decision.  She had that question of “Flight, or Fight” going through her body.  I could feel it.  I handled the dog and we kept slowly walking back towards the house, me without my one time of bear spray!  But she decided we weren’t a threat, her cubs were close, and they all loped towards the forest.  I got back to the house with even enough time to get a fuzzy photo of  two cubs before they disappeared into the woods.

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear photograph

A few days later I went to check what those bears were digging for at this time of the year.  That Mama had to feed 3 hungry cubs.  Those bears weren’t digging middens, but digging up thistle roots.  Hungry bears and not much nutrients there.

The denouement of this long story comes in CA.  Just after my birthday bear sighting, I left for 6 weeks of work in CA.  One evening I was relaying a few bear facts and stories to some friends at a party.  I then walked into their kitchen to see the headlines of the local Independent Journal:  Bear spotted at Point Reyes. Now this is a big deal because although there are bears up the coast in northern counties, there haven’t been bears around the Marin/Point Reyes area for over 100 years.  The article said not to worry, as its only one black bear and there’s thousands of wild acreage out there.

I saved the article and a few weeks later was visiting a friend who is the head of the Marin tracking club at his home in Point Reyes Station, the town near the National Seashore.  Interestingly enough, he told me that along with biologists and Forest Service people, he was called out to verify that this was a bear track (although how you can mistake a bear track for any thing else, I can’t figure).  So he actually saw the track!  In addition, two different people gave him scat that they wanted to have verified as from a bear.  One person was in Inverness which is part of Point Reyes, but the other person lived in Lagunitas, a good 15 miles away inland.  Richard brought out two baggies with the sample scats and yes, there were both bear scat.  In his analysis, the one bear from Point Reyes had lots of bird seed in his scat, probably from a bird feeder on the person’s property.  The other scat was full of apple peel and seed, from that womans orchard.  Clearly if suburbanites are going to live around bears, they are going to have to change some of their habits.

So that ends my fall bear saga.  Something about tracking bears, following their flow, gets one into a bear mindset.  One night while I lay down to sleep, after days and weeks of tracking bears and seeing bears, I almost could ‘feel’ the consciousness of a bear.  It wasn’t that I now ‘know’ about bears.  But it was more like the beginnings of a ‘feeling’ sense, a bear feeling sense.  That was good.

Dancing Bear

I just had to post this.  Too funny.  I always love the warnings at the end.

Several years ago they were collaring wolves in the valley and I ran into a signage on the trail that read “”Caution.  Live Traps. Gray wolves are being trapped in this area for radio collars.  The traps are leg traps.  If you see a wolf in a trap do not attempt to release it.”

Duh!  Would I really go up to a live wolf in a trap and try to set it free?

Anyways, enjoy the video and kids “Don’t attempt to be a dance partner with a bear if you see one in the wild.”