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September, 2003

Bear Encounters

by Valerie

Our overly civilized country has a dearth of large predatory mammals except for humans. Mankind has managed to eliminate most of the competition wherever we proliferate because we simply don't like anything bigger or stronger than us that isn't a strict vegetarian. So it is, nowadays, a rare and memorable moment when any of us actually meet up with a wolf, cougar or bear. I've never been lucky enough to see the former two animals in the wild, but the latter has managed to maintain its population to such an extent that even infrequent visitors to wild areas such as myself are occasionally rewarded with a precious glimpse.

The only species that I've seen wild is the black bear. Grizzlies have such a limited range in the lower 48 states, that a chance of seeing one largely depends on visiting one of their few strongholds. My earliest meetings with black bears occurred in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Some of our camping trips during the 1960s and 70s included this area, and bear sightings were guaranteed. Black bears were numerous, and they were adaptable enough to learn that plenty of junk food was available along the roads and in the garbage dumps. These bears were better at panhandling than the intersection pros here in Austin and were invariably fat, bold, and covered with mange. A ranger explained that the poor quality of their diet caused the patchy brown spots and hair loss that we saw on all these animals. A more memorable encounter with one of the resident Smoky Mountains bears took place one night in a campground. We never actually saw the bear because we were too scared to look, but the sound of a HUGE animal sniffing around our tent was rather unforgettable. Just imagine how it sounds when raccoons and skunks are foraging in your campsite, then multiply that by 20-fold. It was better than the best campfire ghost stories. The very next day, the rangers were in the area to trap a nuisance bear, reported as spending too much of its time in the campgrounds.

Better bear sightings would come when Larry and I made trips to the San Juan National Forest, in Colorado.

black bear On our first trip, we camped near Silverton, in the national forest's South Mineral Campground. There were several trails starting at this area that led into the surrounding peaks. Sometimes Larry and I would take off in separate directions just because of our individual interests. One late afternoon, I thought I would check out a steep switchback trail that led up to the intriguingly named Ice Lakes. I took the dog, and the hike was exhausting, interesting, rewarding, and just as beautiful as all the other hikes we've taken in the mountains. On the way back down, Frisky suddenly dropped back from pulling at the end of her leash. In fact, I almost tripped over her. She put her tail between her legs and started to SLINK. I'd never seen her act that way, and was pondering what might be her problem, when I rounded yet another of the dozens of switchback turns. There, straight ahead and just beyond the next turn in the trail, was a large black bear, calmly munching on some tender fresh grass. I got the camera out and took a photo. The bear didn't seem to be ready to move on anytime soon, but it was an almost comfortable distance from the trail. It was getting late, and I wanted to get back to camp. So, with heart racing far faster than it had from walking uphill at 10,000 feet, I quietly dragged the dog along the trail towards the bear, which cooperatively walked off a bit. As soon as we made the turn and started to head away from the beast, Frisky resumed pulling on the leash with an intensity she has rarely matched, even when chasing after rabbits or squirrels. She was quite eager to put as much distance between herself and that frightening ursine animal as she possibly could.

We made a couple more vacation trips to the same area in Colorado. One of our favorite pastimes was to park along the side of a gravel road that overlooked a large valley. On one side of the road, the slope up was steep and covered with small trees, while, in the other direction, there was nothing but a rocky cliff outcropping which dropped away giving a clear panoramic view of a small stream meandering through the tall, lush grasses. In the evening, we might be lucky enough to see elk as they came out of the surrounding forest to graze in the meadow. We also thought we might see more exotic beasts, such as bears or cougars. Earlier hikes in the area revealed that bears were certainly present, as we saw their fresh and unmistakable tracks.

black bear tracks After a strenuous day of hiking, it was relaxing to sit quietly in the car (used as a moveable blind) and observe the natural events unfolding around us as evening approached. We used binoculars and even the telephoto zoom lens of my camera to aid our viewing. One such session had produced nothing more than a lone elk wandering along the creek and a few marmots scampering on the rocks. No other wildlife deigned to make an appearance, and so we started up the car and began to leave the valley. Only seconds after driving forward, we were very startled to see a bear, just on the uphill side of the road, staring into our car window. It had been about to cross the road to the valley, and if we'd just been a bit more patient, we could have witnessed its progress right out in the open. As it was, the close encounter, however brief, was still rather breathtaking.

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