The last thing I expected when I signed up for an animal tracking class was meeting a bear face to face in the wilderness. But let me not get ahead of myself.
A couple of summers ago the itch to learn more about my natural surroundings and their inhabitants grew to a point at which the balms of new Audubon phone apps, books of bird behaviors, and the like could no longer soothe my yearnings. I did a little research, discovered Rob Spieden’s Natural Awareness Tracking School, and soon after was enrolled in a basic animal tracking class. I wanted to know more about the critters whose trails I kept stumbled across when I was traipsing about in the woods. As I am a teacher, I did research about animal tracking in advance, too: I was pleasantly surprised to find that a lot of the major titles in this relatively small discipline were at my local library, and so I filled my evenings between enrollment and the start of class with reading.
Rob is a great guy–very knowledgeable, highly motivated, and supremely enthusiastic: one morning during the class, he woke up, drove to check the condition of a muddy track trap he knew of along the New River, and then drove back to the school to meet the four of us for our early AM session. He was filled with contagious energy about what he had seen, and soon we were peering at impressions in sand and mud, marking prints with sticks, pondering gaits, and basically having a blast.
My evenings during camp were spent, fittingly enough, in the wilderness. I camped in a bend in a creek in the Jefferson National Forest, nestled between two incredibly steep and thickly wooded slopes. I enjoyed the natural surroundings in the day, but as evening fell, I felt suddenly cut off from society. My phone had no signal; I had seen no vehicle pass by my camp on the rustic, gravel forest road. I nevertheless dined well, enjoying some soup and bread, and dutifully crawled into my tent at 9, aware of the rich chorus of animal and insect sounds funneling through the narrow gorge in which my camp was situated. The night was dark, pitch-black. No man-made light reached the bottom of the gorge save my own fire, stoked and simmering low for the evening. This I eyed until it was all but out through the no-see-um mesh of my tent. When it burned out, the darkness closed in as if it were a creeping presence.
At ten I awoke suddenly.
I had fallen asleep, but now the darkness was filled with the yipping of coyotes, circling about my camp site. I fumbled for my flashlight, vainly shining it in all directions, capturing only foliage and rocks in its harsh glare. The coyotes continued, their yipping louder. I knew that coyote attacks on humans were rare, but such a thought is small comfort when one is alone, trying to sleep in a pitch-black gorge, the thinnest wisp of mesh between you and the menacing sounds encroaching from the darkness. So began a long evening of restless, nervous energy and very little sleep.
I don’t know when I fell asleep again, but my watch’s alarm roused me to a cool, misty morning. Staggering out of my tent, I eyed the woods about me: they were peaceful and calm, bearing no sign of the creatures whose cries had populated the night air hours before. Coffee was a welcome relief, and gradually I came to.
I was eager to return to the school for another day of tracking. We were headed to Carvin’s Cove, a 12,700 acre nature reserve near Roanoke, Virginia. Here Rob was confident we’d see countless deer. We wandered along Carvin Creek in an area of lush underbrush and comparatively level ground. It was not exactly easy going, but it was rewarding: deer beds and scat were everywhere, and Rob pointed out local features that one could use for natural navigation as well. Back and forth across the creek we went, sidestepping piles of raccoon poop, until we came to an area where the trees receded a bit. Here a rotten log captured Rob’s attention, and soon he was pointing out in shredded wood the unmistakable signs of a bear’s curious exploration of the log. A little further on we found another log, similarly shredded; a hundred feet later I noticed a broken branch which, upon closer examination, Rob confirmed to have been snapped by a bear–I black hair was caught on the bark of the tree. This was a recent sign; a bear had been active here not long before. Excitement grew in our little group: we had come to find deer signs, but this was a huge bonus!
The trail we followed became the game trail that the bear was evidently accustomed to traversing, too. Soon we spotted piles of bear scat, some innocuous little piles, others more ominously large. And at last we broke out onto the shores of Carvin Cove Reservoir, watching as delicate deer grazed on leaves and grasses between the woods where we stood and the edge of the water, just beyond them. While they took notice of us, they did not flee, but rather moved gradually away until they vanished.
Rob scouted ahead, returning with a huge grin on his face. He sent us to some mud flats to scout for tracks, and soon we were bent over the unmistakable trail of a bear. Unlike the deer, whose trails led from cover to cover, the bear’s trail betrayed its total sense of security and curiosity. It wandered across the flats in seemingly indolent fashion, pulled here and there by something that caught its eye or, more likely, its nose. I felt affection for the creature, imagining this untroubled stroll.
After an attempt to capture a track by one of the class members, Rob went on ahead of us to retrieve our vehicle while the rest of use ambled slowly through the woods, chatting with the excitement of the day’s discovery still fresh. Ahead we saw Rob pause, one hundred yards distant, making Mickey Mouse ears with his hands, pointing into the woods. Bear, he seemed to be saying. Then he waved us off, as if the “bear” he had seen had dashed away. We joked about the convenience of his being far ahead of us, too far for us to confirm his sighting. Rob had a great sense of humor, after all. So we continued walking and talking.
Suddenly the feeling that I was being watched stole over me, and as the hair rose on my neck, I turned to look to my right, into the woods that were darkening with dusk. An impossibly jet-black bear stood behind a fringe of underbrush, perhaps a hundred feet distant. Its ears were perfect cups above the blackness of its face, giving it a cute look–this was the bear of a children’s nature book. But then the reality that nothing separated me from this apex predator seeped into my consciousness. We had all stopped; no one spoke. We knew that running would suggest to the bear that we were dinner, but I don’t think any of us wished to move. The bear eyed us from its vantage point.
For excruciating, miraculous moments, we stood facing the bear, the bear staring with equal intensity at us. I felt wonder and peace, my curiosity quickly overcoming the momentary fear of recognition that I was facing a bear in the wilderness. Seeing this creature in its natural environment after following in its footsteps all day was magical, and the bear seemed content to let us admire it from our scant distance away. My eyes traced the outline of its head, my focus zooming in its dark features in the midst of this vast wilderness. Then, with a movement that was frighteningly, unbelievably quick, it turned and crashed through the underbrush, an unstoppable natural force in its own element. Though it fled from us, it was then that I felt a twinge of fear; then, that I realized firsthand the speed and power of this incredible creature.
But in the aftermath, a feeling that I had been blessed radiated through me. How rare, how wonderful the experience of that day! As if from a reverie, I turned back to my fellow trackers. Each of us had been slowly reaching for a camera when the bear had vanished into the dusk. None of us had gotten a picture, but we were all beaming from ear to ear.
That smile stayed with me a long time. I had sought a deeper connection with nature through the animal tracking course, and it had certainly delivered: a chance encounter that was more spiritual than I could have imagined.