It began as a typical summer afternoon. The planned hike was quite short compared to my usual adventures, but the harsh sunlight made me relish the protection of intermittent tree canopies. My destination was a waterfall, but the highlights were to be found off-trail.
The trail followed a creek upstream through a winding valley. Below the trail on the south-facing slope, vegetation was dense and berry-bearing bushes were plentiful. This is excellent bear habitat, but it is easy to become complacent after many hikes without bear sightings. The only signs of wildlife, other than insects, were various tracks across the damp sections of trail.
Little more than 15 minutes from my destination, I looked across the valley as I rounded a corner and noticed an unusual object around 500 ft away. At that distance, it was difficult to identify the golden object under intense sunlight. Suddenly, the round object moved! A blond black bear ambled through steep ground and shrubs, seemingly unaware of my presence.
Immediately, I raised my camera and started to shoot, using the medium telephoto lens to get a better view of the magnificent creature. Within around 20 seconds, the bear had disappeared into dense foliage.
After reaching my destination and relaxing by a high country waterfall, I made my way back down the trail. My thoughts were of the bear, and I wondered if I would catch another glimpse (perhaps a little closer). I looked intently at the opposite side of the valley as I passed the location of the sighting, but the bear was either still hidden or had moved to a new spot in the time that I had been away.
I made my way along the undulating trail, checking my surroundings for movement from time to time. Occasionally, the ripe northern gooseberries were too tempting to resist, and they made a sweet distraction from the still-intense sunlight.
Around an hour passed until I saw a large, dark object to my left. Much close than last time, a different black bear was foraging. Darker than the last one, but seemingly unaware of my presence again, the bear wandered through grass and shrubs in the lush vegetation near the stream. Perhaps 100 ft uphill, a nearby mule deer seemed to sense the bear's presence and changed direction. The bear moved quite slowly, and so I had the chance to observe from a safe distance.
The noise of the stream helped to hide any sounds that I made, so I could experience this rare treat without interruption. Despite his or her size and bulky shape, the bear moved with ease though rough terrain and vegetation, using a very sensitive nose and dextrous paws to search for food.
As I prepared to leave, I exchanged glances with a Native American symbol of strength and courage. After just a few seconds, the bear returned to foraging, and I continued along the trail.
Black bears are facing ever-increasing human encroachment on their habitats. These great animals are worthy of our respect. They are not the killers shown in movies, but they are wild animals that play an important part in the ecosystems of the North American wilderness.