• Sandi Ault

Madre a Madre

Some of the best hiking trails run alongside mountain streams. In the summer, the well-nourished vegetation along the banks offers shade, which can make a hike on a hot day something to savor. And regardless of the season, a water source will always provide opportunities for wildlife spotting, if you are willing to be quiet and patient enough. Further, if you hike deep into back-country, like I do, a stream can always help you find your bearings again if you get lost. So, in the pre-monsoonal heat of high summer here in the Rockies, Chaco and I head deep into the thickets and forests alongside mountain streams to get our daily hiking fix.

We were crossing a stretch of sunlit meadow surrounded by stands of tall trees on a deer trail the other morning when a big man came toward us, his face lit with an expression of excitement. “Bears!” He spoke in a loud whisper, once he got close enough for us to hear, one hand pointing behind him. “Fifty yards. A mother and her cub. Right at the fork in the trail.”

I was thrilled at this report. That was the direction Chaco and I were headed—toward the creek that is fed year-round by the slow snowmelt from the high peaks. I wondered if I shouldn’t have hooked my small cannister of bear spray on my belt today, but more than fear or worry, I felt eager anticipation that I might be lucky enough to spot bears this morning on the trail.

It’s been a prolific season of bears already this year. A good, rainy spring ramped up the understory of deciduous trees and shrubs in our foothills and the wild plums and hawthorns and scrub oak and other trees are loaded with fruit and berries right now. We occasionally see bears when we’re driving home at night, bears when we’re coming back from evening walks, and visitors report bears crossing our drive when they come to our house for parties and dinners. Even in broad daylight, bears raid our neighbors’ garages for dog food and go through their trash and their second refrigerators and freezers if those neighbors aren’t careful enough to close the garage door. They leave evidence everywhere that they are about: scat on the hiking trails, tamped-down foliage where they bed down at night alongside deer trails, pawprints in the muddy banks of the streams. But I have seldom encountered bears while hiking near my home. In higher terrain on public lands—yes. In the national parks, where they are more protected and elusive—yes. In the Canadian Rockies where they are abundant—yes. But here, regrettably, they tend to be bold when there are good-smelling grills, trash cans, open garages, and hummingbird feeders to raid. Not so much on the trails in daylight.

And so, after the heads-up from our fellow hiker, Chaco and I took the fork that would lead us up alongside a creek—and from there, we planned to climb until we reached a good overlook. Not wanting to arouse the wrath of a mother bear with a young cub, (which is a dangerous scenario), I sang and talked to Chaco as we walked, and clicked and clacked the knife sheath on my belt, hoping to broadcast our whereabouts and give the bruins a chance to seek cover and avoid an encounter. But secretly, I also wished we could somehow safely see the pair without an altercation. I have not had a close encounter with a bear since last summer, when (among several bear-related instances) we found ourselves mere yards from a young female grizzly on her way to a bath in a waterfall. That moment still causes me to flush with the thrill of it. I can still see her, and I call her Ursula in my mind, and often pray for her—that she is safe and away from people, fires, and roads so that she can have the long and healthy life she so deserves.

And so, as you no doubt have surmised, there is a fine edge in me between the thrill-seeker/wilderness fanatic and the wiser woman who implements cautious practice in the wild. Today, the angels on both sides of this issue were chattering from opposite shoulders as Chaco and I made our way across the stream. I saw prints on the mud banks—the cub’s (whose feet were as long as mine and wider), but not the mother bear’s. Climbing up from the drainage, I saw a thicket that had been thrashed through, the stems of bushes and young trees bent and broken. I saw a downed stretch of old barbwire fence demarking some long-ago surveyed but no longer maintained division between public land and state park. The bear-pair had headed north after they crossed the creek. I knew the country they were making for and was happy about that. There, in a protected wilderness area, a high meadow is lush with wild plums and beautiful rock formations riddled with caves that would provide exquisite shelter. A perfect place for a mama bear to raise her child.

Chaco and I went south along a deer trail that was thick with undergrowth, roots, stumps and foot hazards, forcing me to keep my eyes on the ground in front of me instead of looking around in wonder as I love to do. We climbed to a switchback and saw a big beautiful doe standing right in our path, not ten yards from us. She did not budge. Chaco, showing his wolf-stealth, went completely quiet, his ears back, his head low, his muzzle thrust forward to catch her scent. I ducked down behind him, trying to capture a photo through the goal-posts of his ear-tips. The doe eyed us with caution but still did not move. I stood again, and we stepped toward her. This deer was not going to share the trail with us. As we got closer, she looked less alarmed and more determined. And then I saw why: two tiny spotted fauns browsed in the underbrush nearby, unaware of the danger they could be subject to. Chaco lunged, restrained only by my grip on his lead, and the doe plunged into the thicket, her babies scrambling after her as they fled downhill. Not the mama and babies I had half-hoped to encounter, but another growing family and a gift of beauty. The way now clear, Chaco and I went on until we reached a good, high place where we could stop and rest and enjoy the view.

This is our habit: go hard until we find someplace great, stop and savor the beauty, and then turn around and come home—usually taking a different route on the way back so we can see new sights. Having a wolf companion is a contract to exercise long and hard every day. Our hikes take up most of the morning in the summers, and often a second, shorter romp in the evenings, capitalizing on the coolest times of day. And we spend most of the afternoons in the autumn, winter, and early spring hiking, adjusting to the time when it is warmest and brightest in the mountains. Rain or shine. Snow, sleet, the wolf still has to be exercised, and so both my husband and I have the gear and don’t have excuses. Two exceptions, both related, call for a stand-down: lightning and hail. Both are dangerous, especially in the mountains, where the mineral makeup of the peaks are lightning magnets and hail can be treacherous. In late July and early August it’s monsoon season, and this makes hiking in the mornings a doubly-good choice. Because summer heat builds up in the afternoons from the plains, banks up against the cool air aloft in the mountains and causes the clouds to lift and clash and creates afternoon thunderstorms that are rife with both lightning and hail. Better to go in the morning on hot days and be off the slopes by mid-day.

Hiking around home, we see lots of local wildlife. Rattlesnakes below 7,000 feet. It used to be they didn’t come even this high, but perhaps due to global warming, they are now a common sight. We see lots of deer (plentiful here), skunks in the evening, squirrels, both red and grey foxes, coyotes, and an abundance of birds—including eagles, peregrines, hawks, buzzards, wild turkey, and smaller birds, especially Steller’s jays and ravens. Once we spotted a mountain lion. Others who live in the area have reported bobcats but I have yet to see one (but I’m hopeful). If we go up into the national forest and hike at higher elevations, elk are abundant there. And if we hike along bigger creeks, and streams, we sometimes see trout in the cold, roiling waters. And more rarely, we will spot the retreating back of a black bear somewhere off at a distance in the forest—making plenty of noise as it flees from the smell and threat of people.

Today, as Chaco and I headed back towards home, I took us down a low ridge and onto some gently rolling terrain that made for easier walking and a sunnier path. After our encounter with the doe and her babies, my mind was on the ferocity she showed in shielding her little ones. I’m a mother, too, and I understood the powerful protective instinct that can cause you to sacrifice yourself to save your child. It was a moving show of spirit, and I hoped it boded well for the two little ones, but my concern for them was more that those fawns were born so late in the year. Could these ever-later birthing seasons among the deer be a result of climate change, too? Would those tiny spindly babes have time to put enough meat on their bones to make it through the early, often harsh winters we have here in the Rockies? I hoped so. They didn’t have long to fatten and grow. We often have a big snow in early September—usually followed by a few weeks of glorious autumn—but still an early freeze could kill vegetation, which could doom those slender babes.

As I pondered all this, Chaco and I descended into a low mountain meadow where the grass was high and a deep swale to the east of us was lush with cattails. My concern was for snakes, so I kept my eyes mainly on the area directly in front of our feet. But the cry of a hawk caused me to stop and look up, and after I spotted it, to look around. Less than fifty feet away, down amongst the tall cattails and no doubt in some shallow water, a tall figure stood gazing at me. My heart raced and I felt a rush of joy. She was beautiful. Her coat was cinnamon brown, gleaming in the sunlight, and her nose was as black and shiny as ebony. Her round face perched atop her upright pear-shaped body, belying the size and mass of her as she towered on her hind legs to both appear large and get a good look at us. I froze, and Chaco—oblivious to what was above his line of sight due to the tall grass around us, took notice of my alert level and began to sniff the air. It all happened in a matter of a few seconds. My mind had been on one mama and here was another, facing me down to take our measure. Were we going to encroach on this beautiful idyllic place where she had chosen to raise and feed her cub? Or were we going to move along and leave her to the intense business of foraging enough food for the two of them before those first snows came?

The crazed thought to pull my phone from my pocket and snap a photo of this gorgeous creature flashed across my brain. But I dared not move. Unafraid, I felt tears well up in my eyes. I wanted to promise this mother that she would be safe here—she and her cub. I wanted to congratulate her on choosing such a perfect place to rear her offspring. I wanted to tell her how beautiful she was and how lucky I felt to see her. I wanted to come back and visit her again and again, just to experience the thrill I felt now at the sight of her.

Grasses and cattails rustled not far from her and I could only make out a small dark patch which must have been her cub. The mama bear, satisfied that we meant her no harm, dropped into the undergrowth and out of sight. Chaco still periscoped his head, sniffing at the air, knowing something was there that he couldn’t see. And I promised myself not to come this way again for a while so that this mother could feel safe from at least one intruder into her foraging territory.

My mind mapped out what was surely her home turf, from the point where my fellow hiker had reported seeing her to this place, miles away. I knew the area well. Tomorrow, Chaco and I would go another way. But I would carry the memory of this encounter with beauty with me as a treasure.

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