Tuesday, June 9, 2009

So, So Cool!

For all my life there has been a species I have watched for in the wild. I think it began with a giant, over-sized, stuffed one that I had in my room as a kid. It is still there, at my folks' house and now my Nephew and Niece get to play with it when they come to visit.

I remember early childhood stories of a trip my parents and older sister took to Colorado before I was old enough to tag along. Reportedly my sister, then 5 or 6, was afraid to get out of the car in the mountains because these furry friends were going to eat her. I didn't make it out west until I was much older, so I avoided any early age Ursus related trauma - real or imagined.

I remember my Mom telling stories of her early childhood car trips to Florida - from Minnesota - when my Grandparents kept my Uncle occupied by telling him to "count the bears" along the way. They did it to keep him occupied, knowing there was little to no chance of ever seeing a bear from the interstate, and I knew that when the story was retold to me. Even so I always thought how cool it would have been to spot one, and ever since I have kept a secret eye on the treeline during car rides.

Now, in my life I have been blessed to have traveled fairly wide and far. I have seen most of the states, and handful of countries, and two continents. Along the way I have sought out the wild places, the sublime beauty of the unexpected vistas, and of course the critters that live there.

While doing so I have seen a fair number of the large and in some cases unusual animals that those of us in Colorado and the mountain west get to take for granted. Moose, bison, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, more deer than you can imagine, and of course the singing coyotes of the plains. Of all those that I have seen or sought, there are two that I have not seen in the wild that stand out, and one of those would be an unexpected sight indeed. The one that I don't count on seeing is the Mountain Lion. It is naturally elusive and shy, and unless staking out a known site, or finding oneself in a bad situation there is little chance of spotting one.

Bears on the other hand are supposedly everywhere. Campgrounds and picnic areas have bear proof trashcans - even in places where it seems a bit ridiculous. Signs warn of bears, and when camping we all take precautions to make sure we don't have an unwelcome visitor in camp. But, after 15 years in Colorado, heeding the warnings and enjoying the wild spaces I was beginning to think it was all just a lark put on by the tourism bureau or something. I could just see an intern driving a pickup through the woods, dropping a pile of bear "sign" here or there, scratching up a tree and possibly using cartoon-like feet to make bear tracks cross public trails at likely crossings.

Okay, maybe I wasn't that sceptical, but I had certainly resigned myself to the fact that bears were secretive and unlikely to be spotted unless they came visiting your camp or wandered into a housing development to upset some trashcans.

So on my visit to Betasso Preserve in Boulder yesterday afternoon I didn't have bears on my mind at all. That is to say, I wasn't thinking hmmm, lets look for a bear. In Colorado or any country where potentially dangerous animals reside it serves the hiker well to always keep the threats in mind. Birding helps this as watching and listening to the sounds of the forest will give advanced notice of what species may be active in the area.

To that end when I saw a lone fawn in feeding in the trees just above me I immediately began scanning for the doe. I didn't find her, but even a creature as docile and timid as a deer can become a threat if a hiker wanders into a position between she and her young.

That little fawn was a highlight in a fairly good birding day. I was supposed to hike with a buddy who is taking a couple of classes at CU this summer and was going to have a free Monday afternoon. Apparently not everyone totes full rain gear in their car and he had left town before I got out of work that afternoon. Of course afternoon rain in Boulder is isolated, and I headed uphill to Betasso Preserve. I didn't pop into clear sunshine, but despite a couple of thunder rumbles when I first arrived, and hanging near the car until I was sure the clouds were not gathering over my head, I was able to leave the rain gear in my pack all afternoon.

It was a good walk, and as any visitor to Betasso knows, either direction on the Canyon Loop trail involves a second half uphill climb. Note: if you do visit on a day other than Wednesday or Saturday please travel in the opposite direction of the posted bike traffic. Technically hikers have the right of way over bikers, but hearing a biker coming along the trail towards you before a blind corner will help everyone enjoy their time more.

After my climb back to the parking lot I was trading my shirt scented with bug repellent and sweat for a clean dry T-shirt. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and looked to see an American Black Bear literally bounding across the clearing 100 yards beyond the trailhead.

It was fantastic! I thought about calling to the people in the picnic shelter 100 yards in the opposite direction, but didn't want to run the bear off any faster than his enjoyable looking gait. I reached back into the car and grabbed my camera, in time to get a series of low light decreasing focus pictures as the bear continued into the trees and disappeared over the ridge.

In the end I decided not to alert the couple at the shelter. The bear was moving away, and I was so excited I didn't trust myself to speak coherently in front of people who were just as likely to be area residents, and view a bear sighting as being as common as the late spring thunderstorms we have this time of year.

So here it is, my first wild bear sighting:

So nice of the bear to let me get a few pictures before it disappeared!

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