A Forest Run, July 14, 2019
Lots of wildlife sightings on this morning’s run in the forest near home. Quite the morning, sparking some fond – and exhilarating – memories.
Hoping to avoid free-roaming cattle and skunks, I drive to a forest access a couple miles north of home. Right out of the car, Conall goes into alert mode, body a bit stiff, moving cautiously. I make a quick scan but don’t see anything moving. Finn’s dashing about near the car, happy to be in the forest again and waiting for me to signal we’re ready to start running. I follow Conall’s gaze just beyond the parking pullout and see a big, black cow standing a few feet off the dirt road in chest-deep foliage under the shade of tall pine trees. She’s near some recently burned and blackened tree stumps that give her good camouflage. She and Conall stare at each other warily as I convince the boys to move on down the road and start our run. Luckily, she doesn’t move so Finn doesn’t notice her. I don’t know where her calf is – cows and their calves are put onto this part of the forest to graze all summer – but I’m glad it isn’t nearby; the calves tend to run at the slightest thing, which gets the boys all excited, wanting to chase. A cow who stands her ground they can respect (or in Finn’s case, fail to notice at all).
I’m disappointed the cattle have arrived here for the summer, but I’m determined to get our run in anyway. It just means I have to be more vigilant, to keep Finn from chasing them.
Roughly a half mile into our run along a winding dirt road through the forest of old pines and firs Conall stops and stares through a dense stand of trees and foliage across a small gully. I follow his gaze but don’t spot any cattle. He’s looking straight through the trees to where the road eventually winds around, and I can tell he’s still looking for something, looking for movement. Suddenly I hear what Conall heard, what made him stop: an odd scratching sound on the other side of the gully. It’s loud. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this sound before, and can’t identify it. Conall’s excited, though; he wants to investigate.
Cautiously, I let the boys continue along the road, saying “Easy, boys,” their signal to not get too far ahead or go too fast. After rounding the bend and reaching an open, sloping meadow area to our right, I see a black bear slowly sliding down a big Ponderosa tree trunk, its back to us, claws digging into the bark to slow its descent. His fur a deep, shiny black, the bear stops about three feet above the ground, hugging the tree, and looks over its shoulder at us. Well, that explains the scratching sound! Conall’s fascinated, Finn’s unsure, and I’m impressed with the bear’s ability to stop and hold in place. Wanting to avoid an actual confrontation, I quickly turn around and call the boys to follow me as I retreat back up the road until we’re back around the bend and out of sight of the bear. I put Finn on leash. Conall I trust to not chase.
Now what? Turn back, or continue on?
Waiting a couple of minutes and figuring the bear, having seen us, has moved away by now – and wanting to continue our run because we’ve only just started – I cautiously let Conall go ahead while Finn and I follow, Finn still on leash. When we reach the meadow, Conall stops, looking across it with his tail slowly wagging in an unsure, wary way, showing me that yes indeed, there’s the bear, sitting calmly in the tall grass a few feet from the tree it descended, his back to us. I guess the bear thought we had left. Seeing us standing there, and realizing his error, he gets up and moves across the meadow at a slow loping pace, away from us and our road and toward a fence separating the national forest from private land. I notice he’s not very big; not a young cub, but not full-grown, either.
Whew. Okay, then. That potential problem avoided, heart rate back to normal, we continue our run down the road.
I let Finn off leash again and together the boys and I run along the road. I’m focusing on foot placement because this section has deep ruts from trucks driving on it when it’s muddy and soft. The boys several feet ahead and I’m doing my best to scan ahead of them for cattle without twisting an ankle or falling. We go no more than another half mile when Conall stops suddenly in the road, looking straight ahead, causing me to mimic his behavior. Another bear! This one is much larger. One look at us and it’s off, running like the wind, disappearing around a curve in the road within a second. I was lucky to see it at all. Putting two and two together, I guess this is mama bear; the first bear seemed small so is maybe her cub born a year ago. (Note to mama bear: please teach baby bear how to be more fearful, to run away faster. It will keep him away from hunters and their hounds.)
This is not the relaxing run I had in mind. Mama and cub are now separated and we’re in between them. This is a no-brainer: back to the car we go. I’m grateful we don’t see the cub again on our way back.
Frustrated that we’ve only run two miles, I drive up higher into the forest to a stretch of road we frequently run. I figure that up here, we’re plenty far away from the two bears. Again, my focus is on scanning for cattle, hoping we won’t see any. I’m also intent on not letting the boys investigate anything just off the sides of the road, wary of yet another skunk encounter, the first of three (so far) this summer occurring here.
We run another four miles. We don’t see any more bears, or cattle, but we do see (1) a snowshoe hare dashing across the road right in front of the boys, big white hind feet under its silvery-gray body and long ears; (2) a large grouse running down the road ahead of us before taking flight with an explosion of wings flapping to find safety in the trees; and (3) a spider as large as a quarter crossing the gravel road, light brown legs and head with a reddish, bulbous rear, a type I’m not sure I’ve ever seen and couldn’t identify later after doing a google search at home.
We also saw the usual assortment of chipmunks, song birds and ravens, but no skunks. No skunks!
Driving out of the forest after our run(s), I recalled several other bear encounters over the years, both in Idaho and Washington. In each instance, the bear couldn’t run away from us fast enough. That’s typical black bear behavior, and why I don’t worry about my personal safety. Although, as my wise father pointed out when I first moved to Idaho and shared with him the first time I saw a bear in the forest here, if one of my dogs chases a bear who decides it has had enough, turning the tables and chasing the dog, the dog will lead it right back to me, looking for assistance. Always better to make sure no chasing starts, in either direction.
Maia, the Bear-Wary Malamute
There was one close call, though, and today’s incident vividly reminded me of that earlier encounter. It was June 25, 2007, and I was running a remote trail in the Payette with my two female Malamutes, Maia and Meadow. By this point, we had two years of experience running trails in the Payette.
We’d run this trail a few times before. I knew it had several reliable water sources for the girls along with dense forest cover for shade and cool temperatures. Reaching a major creek crossing four miles in, our usual turnaround point, the girls make a beeline to drink and cool their toes. I stand on the stock bridge and watch them, tree-filtered sunlight dappling the water and their thick coats. The creek is flowing fast and loud, coming down a significant draw. Thirst sated, Maia jumps from the creek onto the bridge beside me, facing downstream; I’m still facing upstream, watching Meadow drink. Looking down at Maia standing beside me, I notice her tail has dropped and she’s very still. Strange. Trusting her body language, I slowly turn to follow her gaze. There in the undergrowth a bit downstream, perfectly highlighted by a beam of sunlight, is a cinnamon-colored black bear. I can clearly see her hunched-over back as she slowly makes her way through the shrubs up a hillside and away from us. She’s foraging and doesn’t seem aware of us; the creek noise and wind direction must have masked our approach.
I urgently, sotto voce, call Meadow to join me and Maia on the bridge so I can put a leash on her – I never know what she might want to chase. That accomplished, I turn and, standing next to the girls, watch the bear lumbering farther up the slope, not a care in the world. I call out (but not too loudly) “Yo, bear, move along!” but I don’t think she hears me; she doesn’t look our way. I clap my hands together loudly a couple times; that gets her attention. She looks over her shoulder at us, but doesn’t run away. I say a couple more yo bears as she slowly continues on her way, still foraging. At least she doesn’t seem to feel threatened by us, and that calms me a bit. Eventually she’s far enough away that I decide the girls and I can safely return the way we came, the opposite direction of her path. But just as we step off the bridge and onto the trail returning uphill alongside the creek, I see and hear the undergrowth moving in a spot 30 feet to our left and slightly up slope from us: baby bear, traversing the slope to catch up to mama. Now I’m very, very quiet, and make sure the girls and I don’t move, although Meadow is keenly interested in baby bear.
After what seems an eternity, baby bear catches up to mama and they move off in tandem, far enough away from the trail that I’m willing to try heading back up again. Quietly. With all three of us looking over our shoulders every few steps. Maia’s tail stays down for the next mile, her “bear warning” sign. When her tail returns to its normal curled-over-her-back position and she starts paying attention to the squirrels again, I begin to relax and let the girls off leash. We run the last three miles to the trailhead in pretty tight formation – Maia first, then me, with Meadow bringing up the rear – all of us more alert than usual to forest sounds. Every crack of a tree branch makes my heart leap.
As I replayed the scene at the bridge in my mind during the drive home, I realized how lucky we were. Usually a bear’s keen sense of smell and hearing alerts them to the presence of humans or dogs, and they typically run away as fast as possible. Or a small cub might climb a tree for safety. Since I’m usually running with just my dogs for company, I’ll often talk to them, telling them they’re being good, just to use my voice as a warning to wildlife that we’re approaching. Apparently, the tricks of a fast-flowing and noisy stream, the trail coming from above and dropping alongside the stream to the bridge, and wind direction all conspired to prevent the bears from hearing (or smelling) us until I started yelling and clapping.
I’m so grateful to Maia for alerting me, as she’d done so many times in the past when she knew a bear was nearby.
Worth her weight in gold, that dog.
Revisiting the Scene
Exactly ten years later, to the day, on June 25, 2017, I head out to the location of that bear encounter with my current dogs, Finn and Conall, and a trail-running friend, Ben. My rational brain knows there’s no reason to believe a similar encounter will happen here again, but my reptilian brain can’t forget what happened in 2007 and keeps me on higher-than-usual alert. Ben and I chat as we run, and I’m happy we’re making lots of noise, just in case.
Reaching that stock bridge, standing on it and surveying the surrounding forest, the memories flow as fast and noisily in my head as the creek under my feet. I take photos of the scene – I had a camera with me ten years earlier, but I wasn’t about to take the time to dig it out of my running pack, or become distracted with taking photos – so I can always remember and visualize the place.
Seeing those bears that morning in 2007, so close and peaceful, doing what bears do in their natural setting, watching my dogs’ reactions to them, experiencing simultaneous feelings of fear and awe, is something I’ll always remember and cherish. That is how bears should be seen, alive, not lurid trophies on someone’s wall.
Cover photo: the meadow where we saw the bear sliding down a tree.