Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Wild Kingdom

The New Year has brought a challenging twist to life in the Foothills: a few days ago, I crossed paths with a bear. I froze in terror. It was dusk, and I was alone. John was away, and there was no one within calling distance.

Now, if I’d been out hiking on the many trails in our neck of the Foothills, or up in the Cascade mountains, I would’ve been just as scared, but I wouldn’t have been shocked. Black bears in the Pacific Northwest wilderness are about as common as wild mushrooms. This bear sighting, however, did take me by surprise. Because I was taking a walk on the private road leading to our property, and this bear was maybe one hundred yards from our house, as the crow flies. When I saw a big, black something moving ahead of me that late afternoon, I could hardly breathe. I tried to tell myself it was a deer. But who was I kidding—this creature had a huge, dark, rounded mass, not a slender silhouette. And deer generally either saunter, trot, or spring into their signature ping-pongy gait. This animal lumbered.

And here I was, with nothing more than an umbrella to defend myself with. The bear stopped in the middle of the road, as if assessing me. I guess it decided I wasn’t a threat or an annoyance, because it crossed to the other side of the road, and disappeared into the brush. I waited several moments—minutes that felt like hours, waiting for my heart to stop pounding, for my stomach to unclench, and hoping the bear was making some headway toward wherever it was going. But there was no way around it—I wasn’t going to get home by teleportation, like on Star Trek—no chance for a “Beam me up, Scotty,” to get me back safe. I’d have to walk. A ¾ of a mile distance.

For those of you who are wondering, why didn’t I whip out my cell phone, and call for help? Surely I wouldn’t take a walk in the boonies without a phone! Actually, in the interests of living a simpler life, I don't  have a cell phone. Besides, there’s no cell service out here. This gloomy afternoon, I really was on my own. So I forced myself to move forward, one cautious step at a time. Then I started walking faster, peering right, left, and behind me—I’d never been so vigilant. I was never so glad to make it to our driveway, and inside our fence.

I’d made light of previous bear sightings in my memoir, Little Farm in the Foothills—because, to be truthful, I’d never really felt threatened. Our first summer in the Foothills, I’d seen a bear a couple of miles away from our house, near a campground. I did get a jolt of fear, but it only lasted an instant. For one thing, I was on my bike, so at least I had a getaway vehicle (although I’ve heard bears can run upwards of 40 miles per hour, which would actually make me a sitting duck, even on a bike). And it took no notice of me, just shambled into the woods. So, no worries. I figured any bears in the area would stick around the campground Dumpsters, which were probably full of yummy leftovers. Then five years went by, and neither John nor I saw any sign of bears.

Things changed last summer, around the end of July. I got a rare phone call from my brother, The Wood Guy, who lives around a mile from where I’d had seen my first bear years ago. Coming home from work, he’d seen a bear on the road where I ride my bike. “It was a big one, Sue,” he said. “So watch out.” Three days later, on my bike, I saw the bear myself, about an 1/8 of a mile ahead of me. This bear was a bit closer to home, but still, I felt, nothing to worry about. It was well over a mile from our house. Then the following Sunday, heading home after a bikeride, I met one of our local law enforcement guys making his rounds on our road. He stopped his SUV and rolled down his window. “I just wanted to warn you that a few minutes ago, I saw a giant bear over there.” He waved toward the dead-end lane that abuts our road. “Be careful.” Now this was too close for comfort. I skipped my walk that evening. But when the days and months passed without encountering any bears, I relaxed. That is, until last week.

For whatever reason, our wildlife sightings have really picked up lately. In November, I was up unusually early, and from the kitchen window, I saw a long, low shape stalking the fence line next to the chicken pen. A bobcat. I ran outside, shouting and waving my arms, and it lit for the woods. Naturally, the cat’s had lots of opportunities to check out our hens when we’re not around, but John has built a sturdy compound for our little flock: a 10’ x 20’ run with six inches of poultry fencing below the soil, and steer wire enclosing the top. He’s also created a little fenced “tunnel” adjacent to our woodshed complex, so the hens have a safe, covered dust-bath area. All in all, I like to think that all those layers of fencing and wire has confused the cat enough, so that he’s quit trying to get in.

The cat didn’t leave our property, however: the same week, John and I saw the bobcat outside our fence around the corner from the hen compound, walking away from it. Which encouraged me to again conclude that it was giving up on trying to get our hens. Then a day later, from the bedroom window, I saw the bobcat up close, in our front (unfenced) yard. The cat must have seen the movement in the window, because it turned and looked right back at me. It was an extraordinarily pretty animal, with features as delicate as a housecat. It was hard for me to conjure up any dislike for it, even after another neighbor, who’d just acquired a small flock of hens, told me it had killed four of her chickens. But bobcats, from everything I’ve heard, pose no threat to humans.

But back to the critters that do: Two days after sighting the bear, I met a neighbor walking her dog, and told her about it. Turns out, a friend of hers had seen the bear too, in the very same place the week before. I’d always figured bears should be hibernating this time of year, but with the mild December we’d had, perhaps our bear got thrown off schedule.

And now we have mountain lions to worry about—my neighbor had seen two of them in her yard the day before. It could be, now that she’s got a housecat, and with the extra special delicacy of two chicken flocks on hand, the big cats have decided to move into the neighborhood. Our recent snowfall will make bears and cats easier to see—which is certainly a plus, however temporary. In any event, I’d better get used to the idea that there are some big wild animals where we live.

But if I want to live a full life, I just can’t cower in our house. So these days, I ask John to walk with me. I must say, I feel much safer, having a taller, stronger companion--especially a guy who is a retired police officer, and prepared for a little self-defense. Before I met John, I didn't even know anyone who had a gun. And when we lived in town, I was a cupcake police-officer's wife. (That is, I kind of pretended he didn't deal with firearms every day.) But once we moved out to the Foothills, I got comfortable really fast with having a few weapons around.

For our country strolls, John carries a sturdy maple walking stick, fashioned from one of our trees, and a Bowie knife on his belt...just in case he's forced into hand-to-hand combat. After my bear encounter, he started tucking a .380 pistol in his waistband as well. He says the .380 wouldn't kill a bear, but the noise could give one a good scare. I'd rather the bear just gets back to what it's supposed to be doing--catching its Z's in a cozy den until spring!