Harking raced through town, smoothly shifting gears as she climbed the winding road leading to the benchlands. She didn’t think the boys had discovered the area she was interested in, but didn’t want to take a chance. At the trailhead, she veered off the pavement and followed a narrow path to the far side of the lake. Carefully, she hid her mountain bike behind a large Douglas fir toppled during last winter’s biggest storm.
As she made her way through the forest, Harking left the main trail and followed any wildlife trail she thought might lead toward her goal, a small hill above the lake where the lodgepole pine forest gradually gave way to aspen. She knew from helping her father that higher ground had the added advantage of capturing sounds from a larger area. If there were Lewis’s woodpeckers in this patch of forest, the recorder would pick up their distinctive churs. If not, she’d move it around to sample different areas in the valley, using the information to fine-tune her search for the elusive woodpecker. She had to see the bird to add it to her life list and while there were few other birds its appearance could be confused with, its atypical flight, slow and deliberate instead of the quick, undulating wing beats of a woodpecker, could easily be mistaken for a crow or jay.
Climbing the hill, Harking paid attention to the early morning chorus of songbirds resonating through the trees, the sounds of warblers, wrens and thrushes interspersed among the calls of crows and ravens. She was getting better at deciphering most of them, but she still needed help with what her parents used to refer to as “LBBs” or little brown birds. This last thought brought a smile to her face as Harking finally crested the hill and plopped down on the ground, sliding the heavy backpack around to her side.
Sitting with her legs draped over the edge of the knoll, Harking removed the recorder from her pack and placed it in her lap. She used the screwdriver on her father’s Swiss Army knife to open the face of the unit and quickly programmed the schedule, then replaced the cover and inserted the two small external microphones.
Surveying the surrounding clump of aspen, Harking selected a tree then strapped the recorder to its trunk, cinching the strap tight to ensure it stayed in position. Using her father’s GPS, she recorded a waypoint, just in case she had trouble finding this spot again, and assigned it a name: Woodpecker Hill. She would be back in a few days and hopefully get lucky with her first series of recordings. In the meantime, there was one more place she wanted to check out.
Retracing her steps to the base of the hill, Harking located a well-used wildlife trail she’d found on an earlier outing, the trail from which she’d spotted the slight rise of land that now hosted the recorder. Farther beyond the small knoll, the land rose sharply toward the base of the mountain, but here the ground was flatter and easier to navigate. She assumed it would be easier for wildlife as well and wondered what animals might be using it.Determined to find out, she headed down the trail to look for a good spot to set up her father’s remote camera.
As she hiked along, Harking was alert to the signs left behind by wildlife: the tracks in the dirt and mud, dried piles of scat here and there, and tufts of hair snagged and left behind on the small branches of trees laying across the trail. At a creek crossing, she noted the tracks of deer and elk, and what looked like either a dog or coyote. Seeing no human footprints, she assumed it was the latter. Jumping from rock to rock, Harking crossed the narrow stretch of moving water and continued on her way.
Rounding a turn in the trail, her attention was drawn to a massive pine tree. The tree’s full crown suggested the pine had started its life with little competition from neighbouring trees, probably in an opening created when one of the older Douglas fir fell decades or maybe even centuries before.
But there was something else that made the tree stand out.
As she got closer, a series of depressions in the moss led off the trail toward the pine. It was obvious they were bear tracks, worn into the moss from years of use.
Following the tracks to the tree, Harking could see the outer bark had been worn off in many places while clumps of hair stuck in the pitch oozing from the tree’s scaly trunk. She pulled a strand of hair out of the pitch. The subtle curls and tinges of brown suggested it belonged to a grizzly bear. Investigating further, the silver tips of some of the other hairs confirmed her first suspicion.
Years of bears rubbing against the tree had given portions of the trunk a polished sheen, leaving a record of their passage. Harking ran her hands along the lowest branches, just above her head. Even though they were at least six feet off the ground, the hairs stuck to these branches suggested bears were standing taller than her and getting a good back and head rub from the stately pine. The image brought a smile to Harking’s lips.
As she continued to check out the tree, Harking imagined she heard something moving in the bush not far away. She stopped for a moment and looked around, listening carefully.
Maybe the boys are using these trails.
Unable to tease apart any sound other than the babbling of the creek, she wrote off her initial suspicion and returned to investigating the tree.
But there’s that noise again.
This time she was certain something was moving toward her along the trail.
Looking away from the tree, Harking’s heart skipped a beat as a grizzly made its way around a bend in the trail, followed closely by three small cubs.
Harking froze, her mind racing as she tried to figure out what to do. Her dad had always told her to stand her ground when encountered by any wild animal—to assess the situation and quietly let the animal know she was there by speaking in a low, confident voice. Bears in particular had notoriously bad eyesight, he’d said, and often they stood on their hind legs to catch a scent. It was usually misinterpreted as an aggressive response, but her father stressed not to take it as such. Being overly dramatic won’t help the situation, he advised.
“Hey, bear.” Harking whispered the words but the grizzly kept coming.
“Hey, bear,” she repeated, a little louder this time.
The mother grizzly stopped suddenly and gave a short, sharp huff that brought the three cubs to a halt. Slowly, the sow regarded Harking, remaining stationary but rolling her head and shoulders sideways as she made her assessment. Seeming unsure, she gave two more quick puffs, sending the cubs scrambling past her and into the underbrush across the trail from Harking.
Harking could feel the hair rise on the back of her neck. Her heartbeat felt like it was echoing around the forest as the grizzly watched her with cold dark eyes.
Giving Harking no quarter, the sow slowly continued along the trail, taking forever to place each step. Finally she took one more sideways glance at Harking, then turned and followed the cubs into the forest.
As the grizzly disappeared into the trees, Harking let out a huge sigh and leaned against the old pine. It was only then she noticed her whole body shaking.
Suddenly thirsty, Harking pulled the water bottle from her pack. She steadied it and took a long drink, then splashed a handful across her face. Harking wiped off the water with her sleeve and returned the bottle to her pack. Noticing the sandwich, she wondered how far the smell of food might travel and worried about the potential for other bears to be in the area. Without a second thought, she pulled the sandwich from the plastic bag and devoured it to get rid of any attractants.
Harking gave the bears ample time to create distance between them and her. Then she crossed the trail and found a good location to place the remote camera. Taking it out of her pack, she aimed the infrared beam across the trail toward the old pine and strapped the camera into position at the base of a smaller tree. Next, she placed broken branches and other pieces of wood around the setup to camouflage the camera so no one would find it, including Parks staff. She then made her way back to the trail to see if it was visible to anyone or anything going by.
To test the setup, Harking triggered the camera by walking through the beam and checked the photo to make sure everything was working properly. Although she figured the tree would be hard to miss when she came back, she also recorded the location with the GPS. Satisfied she’d done everything she needed to, Harking closed her pack and threw it over her shoulders, then beelined back to her bike, hoping not to run into the bears again.Follow write_nature