Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Bear in the Winter

Last Saturday evening here on the farm it was 12 degrees and snowing.

And just two days before it was warm enough, in the mid-50's, that while I was at the upper spring, cleaning out the in-take to the water pipe that diverts water down to the greenhouse, a large black bear came along, at first inelegantly making a racket as it stomped through the brush and leaves and then stopped just a few paces from stepping on me.

What happened was this. Being a warm day, I decided to get the water flowing from the upper spring while the water wasn't frozen.

I spent the morning following the pipe up the mountain from the greenhouse, through the woods, moving limbs and trees that had fallen on the pipe during the winter, and finally working my way up to the spring where I was busy cleaning out the water catch basin where spring water was diverted to the pipe.

That's when I heard it. Something coming through the woods. Something making a lot of noise.

My first thought, its a human. Maybe someone hiking along the trail on the ridge and had decided, for whatever reason, to bushwhack off the trail, and make their way down to the valley.

That's when I stood up.

Down in the spring I didn't have much of view around me. And I couldn't tell which direction the sound had been coming from. Anyway, the stomping, by then, had stopped.

If you have taken the trail up from our house, the trail that starts behind the greenhouse, it goes that way.

I looked along the trail as it meanders its way up towards the mountain top.

Nothing.

Then I looked down the trail. From there you can't see it, the forest is too thick, but the greenhouse is only a couple thousand feet away.

Nothing.

And then I had a feeling something was looking at me and I looked up above me, on the mound of rocks and fallen trees where the spring bubbled out of the ground.

And standing there, on top of the mound, above the spring, not ten feet away, was a large, gaunt, black bear.

I don't know if it was looking at me or not.

Which reminds me of why I was up there..

Near disasters.

Or maybe it was a middling size one, what ever way you judge disasters, like occurred last year almost this time -- March 3rd I think it was--- when the outside temperature quickly dropped into the single digits and the water coming from the uppper spring stopped flowing and the pipe froze solid causing the greenhouse boiler to shut down. That disaster cost us thousands of cabbage, broccoli, pac choi, cauliflower a lot of our sweet peppers and many other seedlings. Which was one of half a dozen unforeseens causing us a really stressful June.

But let's go back to the bear.

I know from experience that bears periodically break their winter hibernation

One winter I was hiking a trail in the mountains above Charlottesville, and several miles into the hike, I was by myself, I turned a bend and came up on a ford over a creek.

With a bear on the other side.

We stared at each other for a dozen seconds and for a moment I thought she was about to jump across the creek and chase me back down the mountain.

Fortunately, instead, she turned and, leaving the trail, follow the water upstream.
I waited until I could no longer hear her and then quickly splashed across the water and hurried up the trail. Several hours, on the way back down from Skyline Drive the only sign of the bear were her tracks in the snow).

(I just looked bear hibernation up in Wikapedia and read that bears actually don't officially hibernate, but they go for what sounds like a really long nap).

Anyway, if what bears do is anything like honey bees (during cold months honeybees hunker down into a tight ball, the ones on the outside moving towards the middle to get warm and the ones nice and toasty in the middle getting shoved to the outside). However, on warm days (over 50 degrees) they break the ball up, take the trash and garbage out, haul in water and take a look see if there's any food about. Obviously, the more warm days in a winter the more stored food it takes to keep a beehive hive alive.

Bears must be sort of like that too.

Last week it was warm and the bear decided for whatever reason to climb out of its hollow tree (I just had a horrible thought, I've been up in the woods cutting down dead trees for firewood. Dozens of dead trees. Some of them, turning out to be hollow on the inside. Change of subject).

or wherever it was staying for the winter. And was acting sort of like I do when I wake up, stomping around, making a lot of noise, and came up on that mound getting ready to slide down the other side.

Only I was standing there.

It stopped and looked down at me. Both of us staring at each other. Until, like that bear in Charlottesville, it decided it had better things to do than to worry me.

It took me a few tens of seconds to move. I could hear the bear moving off, doing more stomping through the leaves, breaking dead fallen limbs, and then covering more and more distance until there was silence.

I climbed up on the mound but there was nothing to see. An empty forest that was quiet, almost completely silent.

And then a squirrel, running lightly through the leaves jumped up the side of a tree, scurried up the trunk and then around to the far side. Disappearing from sight.

Off in the distance, four miles away, I could hear the traffic on the interstate.

I looked around for a while before climbing back down to the spring and began hooking up the pipe to the intake. Thinking about where the bear was spending the winter before climbing back up the mound again. Looking around and then climbing back down and getting back to work one more time.

Leigh

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