Thursday, October 26, 2006

Earning a Bear

Thursday October 26 2006

Most of this summer I’ve been, well, not exactly complaining about only seeing 2 bears, but perceiving, regularly, that I have seen only 2 bears this summer. I saw 6 last summer and 6 the summer before. Where have all the bears gone?

Well, some days you just have to earn your bear.

Earning your bear might entail starting work when it’s 8* outside, driving a couple of hairy 4WD roads up to 8500’, then hiking several miles up and up and up an undrivable former mining road to 10,650’ doing an archaeological survey. You gotta sweat and get the heart rate up, peel the layers off as you climb higher, stop to rest and discover and eat some foxtail pine nuts while getting sap all over you, and go where no man has gone for quite a while, where only a lot of muscle and lung power will get you now, and the bear just appears.

The road we had to survey started at the scant remains of an old stamp mill from the late 1800’s and wound up through aspens stands and then above where aspen grew; up through sagebrush-covered hills and then above where sagebrush grew; up and through foxtail pine forests in harsh alpine habitat. We started encountering some snow patches, and there, crossing our road in some snow: nice big footprints – “Bear!” It’s been so long that I’ve seen a bear that I was so excited by the footprints that all I could think about was getting the camera out to take a picture of them. Being so focused on those footprints, it never crossed my mind to notice how awful fresh they were, nor to actually look for the animal that had made them.

As I put my pack down to rummage through, Amy said “Whoa! There he is!” He was about 40 feet away from us.

At one time in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, up to 10,000 grizzly bears roamed the Sierras of California. The grizzlies carried with them the image of a fearsome, formidable killer, though most of them really preferred to be left alone. A 2000 lb bear was not uncommon, and the largest on record weighed in (dead) at 2200 lbs, in 1866. By 1922, they had gone the way of the buffalo - they were slaughtered, and there were zero grizzlies in California. Posthumously, if you will, they were named the official state animal in 1953. Now California just has black bears (which can come in any color, including brown), and while there have been black bear attacks (think problem bears in Yosemite), most (and all I have ever encountered) run away from you in the wilderness in fright, which seems kind of incongruous, being such a large, fast, powerful animal.

This one was a young ‘un, 2 or 3 years old, and he ran scared, above the tree line but below the snowy ridge, far and away. We got several seconds’ worth of viewing pleasure through the trees.

Amy said “Whew! My heart is pounding!”

It hadn’t even crossed my mind to be nervous, I was so excited to finally see another bear.

I wasn’t nervous at all… until I was subsequently attacked by a blue grouse. Actually, the grouse had been minding his own business and was strolling out of the foxtail pine stand on one side of the road to the stand on the other side, and we happened to meet at almost the exact same spot at almost exactly the same moment.

The grouse took to the air in frightened flight at this unexpected human, and I took to the air a foot off the ground myself at this unanticipated grouse, with my heart pounding. I must have had some post-traumatic bear willies after all.

We made it to the top of the road, where old mine pits and shafts perched just below and just over the top of a spectacular ridge. They were likely associated with the remains of the mill several thousand feet below. You wonder what on earth made those early miners come all the way up here to dig for riches, and how they got on up here, and if they got rich. All that’s left now are a few timbers from collapsed shafts and a few rusted cables.

It was a beautiful day up on top of the mining world, with the near peaks of the Sierras to the west and the Sweetwater mountain summits far to the north, and Potato Peak and Bodie Peak (which hovers over the old 1860’s ghost mining town of Bodie) to the east - and a great day all around for this summer’s Bear #3!

No comments:

Post a Comment