The Poet in the Woods

Ice bubbles in a pond at Partridge Run, December 2014.

Signs of life–though frozen–bubbles in a pond at Partridge Run, December 2014.

I pictured a poet.

In my mind I saw her flowing, reddish-brown hair, loosely twisted into a bun to keep it from catching on low branches, wearing a green-and-white checked flannel jacket, and carrying a notebook and pencil. Poet or not, she was making her way ahead of us, up the side of the snowmobile path off the southernmost trailhead at Partridge Run, in early December.

I knew I was embellishing the facts with this mental picture—but that day in the woods, I could clearly see evidence of her narrow, well-worn hiking boots. I could tell The Poet was short (because of her length of stride) and curious (wandering some, clearly stopping here and there), and in good enough shape to climb the side of the hill, though she wasn’t particularly skinny, looking at the depth of her steps. Snow had fallen the afternoon before, so all the tracks were fresh.

At the near freezing temperatures, shards of ice and sunlight. Partridge Run.

At the near freezing temperatures, shards of ice and sunlight. Partridge Run.

My friend C and I had ventured out on a sunny day into the glittering white of Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area, huffing and puffing while we followed the course of multiple snowmobiles, along with plenty of hunter boot prints and shotgun shells, dog tracks, square snowshoe indentations, and traces of quick light mice along with vole burrows. The hemlock- and red oak-lined path had been somewhat traveled after the snowfall.

Dried flowers, wild like the poet’s hair.

Dried flowers, wild like the poet’s hair.

After half an hour on the trail, we consulted our map.

“I don’t want to double back to the parking area to get to Pickerel Ponds. If we bushwhack over the hill to our right, we can hit Partridge Run Road instead of slogging the long way around.”
“Ok, I think I remember what the ledge looked like from the other side, when we were here in the summer. Let’s do it.”

As we trekked up into deeper snow, we were happy to see others had done this before, including a large-booted hunter (more shotgun shells) and the woman I was calling The Poet. Due to the hunter’s presence, I re-imagined her outfit, with a neon orange vest for safety.

My hiking partner struck out in front of me. “Look, she headed this direction, toward the fence. God, I love the old stone fences in the woods!”

Hip high stacked rocks wiggle and waggle all over woods and mountains in the Northeast, climbing up at near-impossible angles; in addition to stone fences, in the woods we often find evidence of rusting farm trucks, decrepit apple orchards and even the foundations of homesteads, with domestic bulbs and roses sprawling untended but lush in the middle of the overgrowth.

View through a late 1930s sedan on the W5 Trail, John Boyd Thacher State Park.

View through a late 1930s sedan on the W5 Trail, John Boyd Thacher State Park.

“She went over here! Boy, her boots seem awful pointy, for being in the snow! I wonder if she didn’t know it was going to storm.” The footwear pictured in my mind changed to western boots.

“This doesn’t seem to be the top of the hill we were thinking about. It looks pretty marshy down below.”

I followed one of The Poet’s side tracks as my partner veered left. The woman had scrambled over a tall pile of wiry brush. I half-wondered: why would she do that? If she were hiking over the hill like us, or even taking pictures or writing—none of those scenarios made sense with crawling like that.

I started to get a funny feeling; not sure why my heart had started racing, I called to my companion.

“Umm, I don’t think we are following a poet!”
Silence. Hiking Mate was obviously distracted.
“I mean, I don’t think these are human prints.”
“Huh?” She readied to climb over the wall to follow the recent steps.

As I hurried to catch up with my pal, following the prints between her and me, sunlight from the east glinted in the rapidly icing holes. I could now see distinct indentations at the front, of claws, and then the somewhat loping pattern of full and partial marks stretching out in front of me.

“Oh my gosh, stop right there! I don’t think it’s human—I think, I think—“
I couldn’t get it out fast enough— “I think it’s a bear!”

“What??!! Oh shit!”
“A small one. I think bear. If not, maybe wolf? Good-sized something….”

We didn’t stop to pull out our laminated Animal Tracks brochure to confirm one way or the other.

The lope and pigeon-toed angling of paw prints looks like a bear, but I am still not sure.

The lope and pigeon-toed angling of paw prints looks like a bear, but I am still not sure.

We once again experienced hightailing it out of the woods, sensitively aware how the energy changes when you believe you are close to an omnivore, even a probably-shy one. The tracks could not have been more than eight hours old. Maybe fresher.

A vague memory hovered in my mind, of something familiar about this situation, perhaps a news story I’d read long ago?

The details returned with the same increasing speed as our legs, which wheeled faster and faster back down to the snowmobile path—yes, that’s right, it was a report of people following with relief what they thought were human prints. Laughing and relaxed, they’d enjoyed themselves on the path back to civilization, only to find themselves instead facing a bear at its cave entrance. I don’t remember what the consequences were for them, didn’t want to actually, even when we were back on more well-traveled terrain. We could have repeated that story. Gulp.

The path of the fronds froze in ribbons.

The path of the fronds frozen in ribbons.

The rest of the day we joked about the bear, with a slightly nervous edge to our laughter. How tricky that bear was. How it wore such nice boots. How it sometimes switched to snowshoes just to fool us and left its shotgun shells behind to throw us off. How it rode the back of the snowmobile, hanging off the side and careening, breaking branches that we had to move out of the path. How it had tossed beer cans and candy wrappers out the back—what an ill-mannered bear! How it pretended to be a poet, just to get us up that hill.

I was glad we didn’t actually stumble across The Poet. Since she wasn’t a poet at all.

Winter sun over side of Pickerel Ponds, Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area.

Winter sun over side of Pickerel Ponds, Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area.

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Lions and Tigers and Peaches, Oh My!

Orange newt in thick mud, August, Partridge Run

Orange newt in thick August mud at Partridge Run, Berne NY

Over two months ago, my buddy C and I hiked an overgrown path at Partridge Run, south of Albany. Like two girls in a fairy tale, we hopped and skipped and lolly-gagged, cameras instead of baskets-to-Grandma in hand. Small frogs surprised, bursting up with powerful rear legs from well-hidden spots in the mud. Orange newts appeared and disappeared, foreshortened limbs squiggling their torsos in cartoon fashion. We moseyed along, but then were stopped short by encroaching poison ivy and, smartly, turned around.

On the trail back to the car we spied something. A dark thing, in the middle of the path. A rock? A tree limb? An ailing creature? Cue the scary Little Red Riding Hood music.

I kneeled down to examine it. Looked up at my hiking partner, concerned. Looked down to take in the evidence again. Squinted up as we nodded simultaneously.

Yup.
Looks like it.
Bear, huh?
Yeah, see the blackberry seeds in it?
It smells musky around here–must be pretty fresh.
Oh. Look here in the mud. A claw print.

Straightaway we realized we should have been alert in the woods for something other than late summer wildflowers, amphibians, and butterflies. We quickly re-oriented to the aqua paint on the trees—Long Path “blazes” that marked our exit out.

Bee on the wing in late summer

Bee on the wing, before.

Only once before I’d been close to a bear in the wild (and known it), and that was a few months earlier at Kripalu. One early morning as the sangha gathered around a guest speaker, he noted drily: “You may want to look out the window.”

Across the back lawn, a youngster Ursidae was galumphing and gamboling, presumably drawn by the smell of our breakfast cooking. Since we saw the bear through glass, it was much more like a zoo encounter than a live one, though it made us all think twice before taking the paths alone at dusk.

Bears have also shown up in my nightmares, though not recently. Terror comes from a sudden smothering attack in the dark, from the inability to escape a creature so much larger and more powerful than me.

What I do know outside of nightmares: Black bears live in this part of New York, but not brown bears or the subset of brown bears known as grizzlies, which have a reputation of being more aggressive than black bears. The advice: Don’t hang out near rich food sources like fruit. Don’t get between a mother bear and her cubs. Hibernation starts in October and if you see a bear in January be very careful: it is likely a female, in labor, the most inclined to attack.

On the other hand, I have heard many stories of fairly peaceable bear-human encounters, where everybody just backed away.  Because, very importantly, bears are reclusive, prefer not to run into humans, and so we hikers should proactively announce our presence by making noise, shaking bells or singing.

***
Therefore, back in the woods, my helpful hiking mate, who was aware we should not be silent in case we came upon the depositor of the dung, began to shout.
Oh Mr. Bear, Mr. Bear!
SHE’S the plump and juicy one. I am the old stringy one. (Pause, as if listening.)
Yes, the one with the baseball cap, that’s her.

Only half-laughing, we sped our legs to cover territory fast, then faster. She continued:  Oh Mr. Bear, Mr. Bear! We had a lovely visit but we’re leaving now!

Arriving unscathed at the car, we weren’t ready to give up on our day in spite of run-ins with poison ivy and bear poo. We drove south, arriving at a more civilized path, one that led to Tubbs Pond.

I remarked as we sat down by the water, Glad I didn’t stop to eat my lunch in the woods.

Then it dawned on me the horrendous portent of what I carried in my bag, into what had proven to be active bear territory—cue more sinister music—as my fellow hiker hollered gleefully into the trees nearby,  Oh Mr. Bear! Mr. Bear! 
She’s got A QUARTER OF A PEACH PIE in her bag!

I whispered: And (more dawning, a veritable sunburn of realization) a sandwich, peanut butter and–

Whereupon she added with relish to her public service announcement:  AND HONEY!

Peace pie, water and sky on the Tubbs Pond dock.

Peach pie, water and sky at Tubbs Pond.

In the sunlight of the Tubbs Pond dock, safely consuming my late-summer pastry, I thought: Huh. In our hurry to get the heck outta there, fresh bear scat in our noses, I did not stop to take pictures.

And was beginning to regret it.

I ventured to my partner: Can we go back? I’d love to get a picture maybe of the tracks…is that crazy? My heart thumped in my throat like our legs had moved: a little fast, then faster. Without too much hesitation, she acquiesced. Only twenty minutes of walking, we figured…

Of course I was afraid. It would be a calculated risk. End of summer, blackberries obviously nearby, recent proof right in our footsteps of large alarming creatures–at least one of them.

But if I let the fear beat me, I might regret it forever, I thought. I really wanted photographic evidence of what we’d seen.

And lately I’m tired of being afraid of things, always stopping with “Maybe I’ll hurt myself, maybe I’ll look stupid, maybe I can’t be A+ at anything.” My new more honest self says: “Of course maybe I’ll hurt myself doing new things and of course I look stupid sometimes and yes, maybe the bear will return to the scene of his crime—er, droppings”—but should I let that keep me away?

My pulse continued to increase. I noted and then ignored it, as we climbed back into her vehicle.

After all, it was with some knowledge that we were deciding to proceed—to make noise, and look up and around while hiking, not just at our feet. Aware that if the wind is blowing at your back, the bear can smell you up to a mile away; if at your face, you can stumble on them because they can’t smell you at all.

Not out of the car a minute, hand cupped around her mouth, my buddy started:
The peach pie is in her belly, if you’re looking for a treat.

Jingling keys and singing, we found the path. She mumbled under her breath: Can’t believe we are going back into bear infested woods to get a ratsa-fratsa picture. I thought to myself—If I get attacked by a bear I’m gonna not only feel stupid, I’m going to have BEEN stupid.

Off to the side, something dark and thick swam forward in the woods; my eyes bulged and attention narrowed sharply–Oh my god, there’s a bear!

–Oh, a burned stump. In pseudo bravery, an aside to the cutthroat hiking partner: Here is where in the scary movie they say: Don’t do it! Don’t go back! You know there are bears in there!

Heart still thumping hard, I slowed my inhale, slowed my exhale. It didn’t help.

Maybe this IS a scary movie, I thought. Maybe I AM part of a fairy tale, but I can’t think about it now; I’m busy paying attention to my surroundings I shook my keys louder.

We walked quickly, one ahead, one in back.
I will stay behind you and have my camera ready, so I can take pictures when the bear comes out to greet you. She snickered mercilessly.

I hoped she knew it’s ok to take pictures with a small camera, but not one with a big lens because the bear interprets that as a large and very aggressive eye. I did know that when you encounter a bear, you look sideways at the ground, and back away or circle around.

Joe Pye Weed, with a non-lethal creature.

Earlier we’d passed Joe Pye Weed, visited by a non-lethal creature.

We arrived at the fated spot much more quickly than we thought we would; fear definitely distorts your sense of time. Involved in looking for the prints again, we walked along the path identifying deer and raccoon in the thick mud, and others, including the horse’s hooves we’d seen all over Partridge Run.

Then there they were–round, small, but bear’s prints, definitely not dog, definitely not people or coyote…click-click the camera went. I neglected to check the woods every second or two. In fact, the more bear-free minutes that passed, the less afraid I felt. We finished and hurried back to the car, the distance even shorter this time.

On our final steps:
A granola bar, Mr. Bear, I think she’s got one of THOSE still.

In the car, we giggled in relief. I had faced my fear AND gotten the pictures.

***

I am glad I had a hiking partner who was willing to go back, even if she was (verbally anyway) also willing to throw me to the omnivores. Glad I got to enjoy my peach pie, and the fairy tale lesson did not involve being swallowed and cut out again, or some outside hero saving me. Glad I’ve learned to not live without fear but to feel it and choose my action.

Having a wicked-funny friend along sure helps.

***

Postscript: At home I analyzed the photos. The ground was so wet and gravelly, it was hard to capture the details of the prints that were visible three-dimensionally, in person. You can’t see where we saw that nails and claws had dug in, versus just some other animal’s pads displacing the mud. But the dung was delightfully clear.

Yup, there it is.

Yup, there it is. The pile of scat was not large, hence the bear wasn’t either. Which is just what the size of the prints indicated as well.