Footprints in the snow

October 31, 2012 02:08 pm
Last month I quoted a biologist who said, “Not many people enjoy wildlife without a bullet or a hook.” The story was about kokanee spawning in Wallowa Lake and the unique opportunity to enjoy the yearly phenomenon with nothing more than a camera.

Neither a hunter nor fisher, I have “wood stomped” since I could walk. My parents have a picture of me trying out my new “waffle stompers,” aka hiking boots, in our living room on my fourth birthday.

As a pre-schooler, I hunted for bigfoot in the Coast Range. I knew bears to be all around, and perhaps, as my grandmother suggested, a heffalump was lurking in the fir and cedar forest.

Each fall since I moved to Wallowa County I see ample bear scat. It usually looks like a lot of barely digested apples in a huge “splat.” 

One afternoon while crossing the Minam River, hunters told me they had seen a bear, just where I was crossing, only an hour before. I wasn’t sure what to do with that information …

Hiking in the timber behind the house I get the eerie feeling of cougars and bears in trees above or napping alongside boulders, but I never see them. Coyote scat? Sure. Deer remains that could be cougar kills? Yep. But real, live predators on my lonely walks in the woods? Nope.

Parked at M. Crow and Company, the local mercantile, a fellow Lostinian pulled up behind me and urgently warned of a big tom that he had seen behind my neighbor’s house. He said he knew I walked there with the dogs and wanted me to be aware.

I’ve seen exactly two bears in my life and both times were from a vehicle. Once, I saw a coyote take down a fawn — again, I was in a rig. And I’ve seen lots of coyotes — from downtown Boulder to the neighborhoods of Portland to the fields of the Grande Ronde Valley — but always from a safe distance.

Spying wildlife

In September I backpacked for four days with the primary goal of spying wildlife and preferably predators. I wore my camera around my neck at all times unless I was sleeping. I was sure if I put it away I would miss THE SHOT.

In four days we saw ants, some bird that eats pine trees and a trout.

Sure, lack of luck has something to do with it, but so does my tendency to live inside my head when I hike – I can be largely inattentive of my surroundings. It could also be, in part, the amount of ruckus two dogs and I can make.

Last week I had reason to be more aware of my surroundings. Scat and leftover bone piles are evidence that doesn’t cause alarm, but seeing fresh prints in the snow brought home the possibility of actually crossing a bear’s path.

A friend in Alaska posted pictures on Facebook that could have been nothing other than grizzly prints. Perhaps that photo, engrained in my psyche, made me wake up when I saw smaller, yet similar tracks along our usual hike. At one point the tracks left the trail and went up the hill. My dog followed the scent for a ways before losing interest.

Where was she, or they? It seemed there were two sets of prints, one smaller than the other. A bear, her cub, three stupid dogs and their even stupider human could be quite a scene …

But there was no scene. Just a lame photo of a footprint, melting in the autumn snow, that I took with my phone for posterity.