Tony Vagneur: When a pup and cub become pals, it’s rather fun and dangerous
My daughter, Lauren, and her neighbor, Cortney, hike the mountain behind their houses every morning at 6. That’s when they leave, not when they get up. They each have two young children, and it’s about the only time of day they can squeeze the time in. Their husbands take up the early-morning slack.
The other day, they spied bear tracks ahead of them on the path. A mama and a cub, winding their way up the mountain. A few minutes later, they passed a decades-old water hole just off the trail, one they pass every day. Coming back onto the trail, just in front of them, were the tracks of the bruins, this time accompanied by water dripping in the dirt, coming from the bears just finished water break. Lauren and Cortney, experienced backcountry hikers, were anxious to get a glimpse of the pair, cameras at the ready, but to no avail.
For the past week, I’ve been traveling to the high country every other day, clearing deadfall and packing cattle salt, getting ready for the summer grazing season. It’s so amazing out right now: The mountain columbines are blooming higher up, the lupine doing the same. The grass is a brilliant, deep green that no thesaurus can embellish, and there’s been a continual, cool breeze under profound, almost totally clear blue skies.
And, every time, I’ve noticed an increasing amount of bear sign; rolled over deadfall and scat. More sign than I’ve seen since the ’90s, when I saw more bears in one summer than I could count. It must be getting too crowded for them in town.
A few days ago, my pup and trusty chainsaw in tow, ready for whatever we may face, we came across a blowdown of aspens — gnarly, twisted, green aspens blocking the trail. Several of those aspens were huge for their species, and I guarantee you, there is nothing more dangerous than incredibly heavy, green aspens when they’re interlaced and you’re slicing them up with a chain saw. One killed my good friend, Max Vaughn, several years ago and my respect runs deep.
Operating alone, I decided to skirt the blowdown and trim out some old, deadfall that would provide a way around the blowdown and make it possible to get up the trail. My dog, Tux, like a smart dog, soon disappeared, staying out of the way and away from the sound.
About 15 minutes into the project, I looked around for any visible sign of Tux, and seeing none, started hoofing it back down the 50 yards or so to where I had left the horses, our last known site as a group. Dogs are smart about this, generally speaking.
Off in the distance, the horses were where I had left them, but no sign of the dog. He’s probably lying down, was my thought, but before I could digest that completely, I saw another animal, sitting on its haunches behind a downed tree, staring in the direction of the equines. What the hell, it’s a bear, either a cub or a seriously compromised runt from last year’s edition. Of course, it’s a cub, but where is my dog? And where is the sow? This could get dicey really quickly. But the horses are totally calm, so just relax.
I whistled for Tux, who immediately came charging through the pink, wild rose and berry bushes interspersed amongst the trees, as happy as a dog could be. And the cub, he stayed right where he was, ears flicking off flies and nose twitching in the air. There’s not much one can do in situations like that. Go mess with the cub, and mama is sure to appear. The horses and my dog seemed fine with the situation, so I chose to return to my work.
Tux disappeared again, back toward the horses, and I had a reasonable calm about the state of affairs. He probably knew more about it than I did, but he’s only 6 months old, so it’s questionable.
Several minutes later, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye and immediately stopped, unsure of what it could be. It doesn’t happen very often, but coming through the woods toward my location were two creatures, my dog, followed by the bear cub. It was like they were buddies, out for a gambol in the woods. Trying to get me killed, most likely.
Immediately, we headed back down the hill, hoping the rumbling of my chain saw had kept the mother somewhat at bay, although I knew the moment she missed her cub, or spotted me, she might be a handful.
There’s really no more to say. We got back to the horses without incident, mounted up and rode off, leaving the cub to look for his mother. And I’m still trying to get my head around the entire episode.
Tony Vagneur profusely thanks Jeff Montabone and Bailey Parker for clearing out the aspen blowdown. Tony writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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