Walking With Bears

The bear tracks were coming down the mountain and we were going up. They were frozen and had been left in the slush, my husband and I reckoned, two days before our hike. The way the light snow had fallen that day, and the timing of their walk, had preserved the round front pads and longer upside down pear-shaped rear paws, perfectly. When they stepped just right I could count each claw. They were longer than my mittens and wider than my boots. “It’s a good-sized brown bear,” my husband the bear hunter said.  We figured we’d walk with the bear for a dozen feet at most, and that he or she was probably just crossing the popular human trail. Three friends had come this way Tuesday. It snowed lightly Thursday afternoon, and this was Saturday. Our footprints were the first ones on the frosty switchbacks since the bear’s. Under the dusting of snow, the moss on the forest floor was still green. The spruce trees loomed even taller thanks to long shadows cast by low November sun.  The bear tracks were a surprise. Bears are not supposed to be around here. Mt. Riley is not near any salmon streams. It is in the middle of a peninsula and rises above a rural neighborhood a half mile from our house. The town of Haines sits between it and the wilderness of the Chilkat and Chilkoot River valleys where bruins reign. But this bear remained right on our trail, for a hundred yards, then two, and pretty soon, much to our amazement, it had been a mile. We lost him, (or was it her?) on a wide switch back, and were disappointed. But then it was back. Like the boys on the cross-country running team the bear had cut the corner. The steeper we climbed the more we speculated what the bear was doing, and where it was coming from. By the time the snow was over our boots the tracks on the trail became two. We stopped to check them out. Our bear was two bears. One bigger than the other, which meant it had to be a sow and a grown cub. Boars are solitary travelers. We lost them near a muskeg meadow close to the top. But a few hundred yards later, they were back. Two pairs of tracks came down from the highest point on the ridge.  The bears had climbed Mt. Riley just like us. At the top, they had even walked over to the edge for a better view, looking up the valley all the way to Canada. “That must be where they are going,” Chip said, “up river for the winter.”  On the way down, after we parted ways at a cut off next to the Lily Lake road, I imagined them threading their way from Lily Lake to FAA Road, past the plant nursery and the homes, behind Fort Seward to the Haines Highway, and trotting quickly under the streetlights near Mountain Market and the school before angling across the boarded-up Fairgrounds to the river. In The Stars, The Snow, The Fire a journal of a winter trapping in a cabin in the Alaskan interior, John Haines (no relation to our town’s mother, Francina Haines) wrote that snow could be read like a book. He said the imprints in it are “a shadow language spoken by things that have gone by and will come again.” No one could read the bears’ journey on the pavement. The bear tracks on the trail are now under a foot or more of fresh snow. Winter is here and it is time to strap on the snowshoes for my walk in the woods.  I wonder what the next bear will make of those big oblong prints? Will she know where I have come from and where I am going? Will she care? Will she enjoy my shadow company as much as I have enjoyed hers?

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