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Bears in the woods: Social distancing with big bruins

Social distancing is the best way to appreciate majestic bruins
Grizzlies or brown bears are known for their long claws and distinctive hump over their back and shoulders. When Lewis and Clark traveled west, they used the same word to describe grizzly bears and mosquitoes – “troublesome.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like bears, but at a distance. Say, as a brown dot in my binoculars. Or in children’s books or as film stars in funny, animated movies, but not in camp.

Bears belong in the woods – their woods, not mine. But it is hard to talk to bears to get your feelings across. Big bruins need to understand social distancing.

I guess I have a love/hate relationship with bears. I love to look at them, to watch them, but not too close. Years ago when my wife took our two sons in the family van on a long arc through the West, including the obligatory Yellowstone National Park campout, I stayed home and worked. When she returned, we had bear hugs. At bedtime, I found a children’s book about a bear. I sat on the lower bunk. I began to read.

I got halfway through the first paragraph when my youngest at 5 years old backhanded me as hard as he could, smacked me on the jaw, knocked the book out of my hand and yelled at the top of his voice, “NO BEARS!” Resourceful father that I am, I chose another book.

Later that evening, I asked my wife exactly what had happened on their Yellowstone camping trip. She described a graphic movie a park ranger showed illustrating campers who had survived bear encounters. The film contained vivid images of why those campers no longer needed to part their hair. They did not have scalps. But I am a slow learner.

•••

In Alaska with daylight streaming down during a long June twilight, we drove into Denali National Park before heading to our lodging at 11 p.m. I’ll not forget stopping to photograph a stout log cabin with a perfect mountain scene behind it. As I walked around the cabin to a boarded-up window, I wondered why the closed cabin had sharpened 9-inch spikes sticking through the 2-inch wooden shutters.

Then the light bulb went on: grizzlies. I was in Alaska after all, where the standard grizzly bear joke is what do bears call tourists in school buses entering the national park? Meals on wheels. Who says bears aren’t smart? It just took me a while.

I questioned why Alaskans sitting around picnic tables always had large loaded pistols and a big set of binoculars right there with the brats, buns and mustard. I thought they were being excessive until my wife and I walked beside a rushing creek for half an hour until we saw salmon jumping every which way. It was then I said to myself, ah, leaping salmon, fine food for bears. Perhaps we’ve walked far enough. We scurried back to the rental car and waved at the Native Alaskans, their sausages finished, pistols loose in nylon holsters.

Delta County has had a lively and successful history of fruit growing, but sometimes, the art on fruit box labels has been misleading. This reproduced fruit-box painting, now a building mural in downtown Delta, is certainly not an accurate depiction of a grizzly. Instead, this painting looks like a roaring muskrat.

Here in Colorado we have smaller black bears not nearly as aggressive as grizzlies, but still, bears love to get into campsites, toss around coolers, nibble on snack food, truck seats, whatever is handy. I like bustling bruins – from afar. This spring, I pushed the envelope looking for the snow line. I headed into the La Plata Mountains to stand alone in an aspen grove as snowfields melted into a hand-dug irrigation ditch funneling water to ranches down below.

My Lab-Great Pyrenees mix named Fiona had just flushed a dusky grouse, and I felt elated about her hunting possibilities for the season ahead. Walking into the aspens, I spied woodpeckers and tried to focus on them with my small birder’s binoculars, but they were black and white flashes against a field of white tree trunks.

Then I stepped out of the snow and up on to a dry ridge to find a rocky outcropping where generations of hunters must have rested on the rocks. I scanned up and down the ridgeline. I glassed the far west ridge, saw a dark stump that did not make sense and I put down my binoculars to try to understand why that stump was on the edge of oak brush with no other trees near it. Then it hit me. That’s not a stump, I thought, that’s a bear.

I looked again and the stump had grown four legs. I never saw its head or shoulders, but the bear moved slowly around, just out of hibernation, and as the wind blew my scent behind me, I stared through my field glasses for several minutes, mesmerized, watching this embodiment of nature awaken to the first blush of spring. He or she was an old bear, with plenty of dark fur interspersed with white and gray. Then I slowly turned away to walk back to the truck, to leave the bear alone on its sunny hillside, doing its slow little bear dance, rolling stones and looking for insects and grubs.

•••

Years earlier, I had been on the same mountain, on a different ridge, just taking a walk with a shotgun for grouse because my buddy had not filled his deer tag and we had my buck already hanging. I was there for support if he got anything. John went one direction and I went another. At the allotted time, I turned around, retraced my steps and headed back downslope. In late October snow, I froze. Frightened. The hair on the back of my neck tingling from the most ancient of fears. A bear, a big bear, had followed me just minutes after I had crossed a small opening in the forest.

Sheepherders have long loathed bears, which can get into a sleeping flock of sheep and wreak havoc by batting lambs right and left and killing ewes. For decades, herders have left messages carved on aspen trees. This herder drew a warning about bears in the La Plata Mountains. The bear arborglyph, however, more closely resembles an open-mouthed large dog.
Sheepherders have long loathed bears, which can get into a sleeping flock of sheep and wreak havoc by batting lambs right and left and killing ewes. For decades, herders have left messages carved on aspen trees. This herder drew a warning about bears in the La Plata Mountains. The bear arborglyph, however, more closely resembles an open-mouthed large dog.

His large paw prints in the fresh snow almost covered my size 12 boot prints. He had walked exactly where I had stepped. He followed me upslope. He was there in the woods, somewhere close, and I had light shotgun shells suitable for grouse that only would have peppered his behind and made him mad.

Heart pounding, senses totally alert, I pivoted left to right looking for his sign. He had followed me, placed his paws in my footprints, for 30 yards or so. The question now: Where was he? Even in the cold, I began to sweat. My carefree walk in the woods had become one of the oldest terrors humans fear, when we are in the presence of big predators unsure of the animal’s intent.

Having walked slowly up the slope, I made record time descending the ridge, occasionally looking over my shoulder, trying to tell Mr. Bear that he was welcome to his mountain and that we’d be leaving soon.

•••

This summer, I was cooking dinner camped in a forest meadow near the Hermosa wilderness. The last sunlight glistened on a late June evening. On one burner was soup. On the other, a large, plump sausage wafted the sweet smell of grilled meat into the air. I looked uphill from the meadow 200 yards or so and that’s when I spied a cow elk lying in shadow. I flipped the sausage with a fork and went to get binoculars to study the elk, ears pointed toward me. That’s when the elk became a bear. My guardian dog snoozed on the shady side of the truck.

Mr. Bear was as surprised to see me as I was to see him. When I realized I had no ketchup or salsa, I wondered how I’d explain that to him should he saunter down to share my sausage. Luckily, he scampered off.

Driving out the next morning after a long night in a very thin bright orange nylon tent, I thought about the blessings of nature. I pondered how much we learn from animals in the woods, about ourselves, about humility and about their territories that we invade. Outdoor adventures with animals make us human, put us in our place and force us to realize that we are only visitors in their habitats. We owe them respect. As I said, I like bears – at a distance.

Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.

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