Sue kicked the pile of bear scat with the toe of her boot, then leaned over and peered at it. “At least two days old,” she murmured.
I didn’t know whether to be relieved or stay worried. Did two days old mean the bear was two days away in some other huckleberry patch or was it two days hungry and due back to this one any time now?
Late July is huckleberry season in the low mountains of northern Idaho. Huckleberries look and taste a lot like blueberries. One difference is that huckleberries are smaller. Another is that they are a favorite summer snack of Northwestern bears.
As we walked, it occurred to me that I’d never had to look over my shoulder or discuss in a very loud voice the virtues of sharing the woods while picking blueberries. In fact, I’d never really considered the possibility of actually sharing the woods with creatures which might take exception to my eating their lunch, or that might realistically consider me an acceptable substitute. I was beginning to feel a lot like Goldilocks and wondered if before devouring me, the bear would drizzle me with huckleberries the way I had my pancakes that morning.
“You don’t think we’ll actually run into a bear?” I ventured, pointedly ignoring the scatological evidence to the contrary at my feet. I was not comforted by her reply.
“Mmmm, yeah, we could. They sure like huckleberries.”
“How do we know if they are around?” My voice went up several decibels and at least one octave.
She looked at me, then at the pile of scat at our feet, and then back at me.
“No, I mean NOW. Around now.”
“Well, usually you hear them. They are really noisy. They just crash through where they want to go. Not like elk or deer which you only hear by accident. But then, sometimes you just happen on them.”
“Oh, swell. Then what?
“Move very slowly. Back out the way you came. Don’t try to run. No matter how clumsy and slow they look, bears are very fast and agile.”
I eyed the distance from me to the safety of the truck. If spurred by the adrenaline rush brought on by immanent consumption, I figured I could make it. “You mean I couldn’t beat a bear to the truck?”
Sue looked at me. Eyed my overweight, out of shape middle aged state, grinned and shook her head from side to side. “No way. I told you. Bears are fast.”
I was not convinced. However, as we continued on our way through the undergrowth, noting the vegetation for her habitat survey, stuffing ourselves with huckleberries, I joined in making a great deal of racket, singing camp songs, talking and laughing with abandon.
We encountered no bears that day. I haven’t had occasion to eat huckleberries since.
I’m really glad I didn’t have to find out if I could outrun a bear, because deep down inside. I’m pretty sure Sue was right. But don’t tell her that.
Saturday morning the temperature dropped to 32 degrees, colder than it had been for a few weeks. Sadie and I had waited until the sun was over the ridge of the Sandias before we headed out on our walk in the open space near our house.
It was good we waited as the air was warming and the birds were singing now. Sadie spooked a rabbit and tore after it. Ridgebacks can run fast, but rabbits, having more to lose, can run faster. She rejoined me and trotted along a few paces in front, as I walked along sheding layers of clothes thinking about how nice it was to have the warm weather birds back. Earlier I heard a western wood pewee and a spotted towhee. Further along, I spied a canyon towhee on a pile of rock. It also started singing, as did a curved billed thrasher from its perch on a cholla. Ahhhh spring, I thought as I strolled along imagining that the concert was for me, rather than for some female of their species.
Just as I was threading my way through some boulders near the top of a hill, we heard the characteristic, shrill bark of a coyote very close. Sadie, who has no use for coyotes was off like a shot. I yelled at her to come back. As I came around the rocks at the crest of the hill, she came trotting up. Another bark sounded and I looked up. There was a coyote about 20 yards away barking taunts at Sadie. The coyote showed no fear of me.
I grabbed onto Sadie’s breakaway leash to make sure she stayed with me. After a hard stare at the coyote she came along willingly. I headed back toward home. As we walked down the hill a chorus of three other coyotes started in calling and taunting trying to lure Sadie into chasing them.
Many of the Southwestern Native People refer to the coyote as a trickster. I had just observed one of the reasons why. Sending one member of the pack out to lure dogs to come play or chase is a common tactic. The lure then leads the dog to an ambush by the rest of the pack. I think Sadie may have fallen for this trick once. Her speed and endurance may have saved her. She knows this trick now and was content to escort me back home.