A heavy tread on the gravel drive, as if from a very large dog or a small pony trotting past my front door. It’s late Tuesday morning. I’ve been feeling depressed about the end of a too-short vacation, and am still very tired. But I force myself up out of my chair in front of the computer and over to the window in time to see a medium-sized black bear pausing where the trail enters the woods. I step out onto the porch for a better look. The bear sees me and gallops up the trail, quickly disappearing behind the thick curtain of leaves.
It’s good to be home, I think, as a male ruby-throated hummingbird ricochets back and forth above my herb garden, displaying for some nearby female. What wildlife did we see in the city? Pigeons, starlings, English sparrows, gray squirrels. This dullness in my head is nothing a good night’s sleep can’t dispel.
An hour later, when my ten-year-old niece Eva comes down from the other house, I tell her about my sighting. “Nuh-UH! You’re lying! I don’t believe it!” I show her the blurry photo I managed to snap as the bear’s butt disappeared up the trail. “That’s no fair! I hate you!” she exclaims. I’ll admit, it doesn’t seem right that good wildlife sightings should come to those who sit in front of their computers, while others go for long walks and see nothing.
Eva wants to go looking for the bear immediately, but I tell her it could be anywhere by now — and besides, I badly need a nap. Later in the afternoon, she bugs me about camping out that night, but I manage to persuade her that a walk at dusk will suffice. So around 8:15 we head up into the woods of Laurel Ridge, following the trail the bear took.
Our trails are mostly old woods roads, almost 200 years old and deep in moss, so it’s not hard to walk quietly. A doe bounds up out of the ferns, and we head off-trail to search for her fawn, with no luck. We continue bushwhacking for another couple hundred feet through the woods, Eva in the lead since she’s shorter and prefers an unobstructed view. Then we rejoin the trail and circle the three-acre deer exclosure, continuing on the trail that parallels the field just inside the wood’s edge.
At the top of the field next to the spruce grove, another couple of deer bound off, and again we search around where they had been standing, but still no fawns. We do a little more bushwhacking through the edge of the black cherry woods that was so devastated by the ice storm the winter before last, and I’m pleased that Eva seems to have no trouble finding the easiest way between the felled trunks and blackberry vines. Then we cut over past the vernal pond — now nothing but a slight depression filled with flattened leaves and dried mud — and head down along Sapsucker Ridge. It’s about ten after nine, and I’m anxious to get Eva back before her grandparents go to bed.
The woods are open here — mostly oak — and off to our left we have a good view of the sunset above the Allegheny Front and the lights of Logan Valley below. The wood thrushes are mostly silent now, but a scarlet tanager sings a few, final bars of his hoarse song as we pass under his perch.
Eva stops short about seventy-five feet from the powerline right-of-way. “There’s a bear!” she whispers. Now it’s my turn to be skeptical. But I crouch down until my head is level with hers and I can see out under the leaves at the edge of the woods, thanks to the browse line made by our too-numerous friends the deer. Sure enough, a dark space among the ferns has the exact shape of a bear. It looks much bigger now than it did in the light of late morning. It’s standing still, facing the sunset, and my inclination is to stay still and see what it does, but Eva is already creeping forward on her hands and knees, so I have little choice but to follow suit.
We close about half the distance between us before the bear seems to shake itself out of its reverie, and moves forward, out of sight. We stand up and walk out onto the powerline, certain that the bear has moved off, but discover instead that it’s only gone as far as the nearest power pole at the edge of the ridge, less than twenty feet away. It now seems quite large — a male, I imagine, making the rounds of the power pole message boards in search of females, which are just now coming into heat. As far as we know, we still have two female bears wandering this end of the mountain, and both should be chasing off their year-and-a-half-old cubs this month, preparatory to their biannual mating.
“Lift me up! Lift me up!” Eva commands, and I quickly comply, locking my hands together into an unstable seat. She blocks most of my view, but what the hell — I’ve seen plenty of bears before. Eva is beside herself with delight. “Hello, bear! I love you!” she cries, waving wildly. It stares at this strange apparition for a few seconds before turning tail and crashing off into the woods.
We follow the bear’s fresh trail back to the other ridgetop power pole and find dozens of fresh gouges in the wood and a pile of large splinters around its base. “The bear stands on his hind legs and goes scraaaatch, then turns around and rubs his shoulders against it,” Eva informs me, repeating what her Nanna has told her. We’re descending the ridgeside, following deer or bear trails through the thick hayscented fern, the half moon bright above the trees to the south. Examining the power pole at the base of the ridge, we find that it, too, has been freshly tagged with ursine graffiti.
“Where are the stars?” Eva asks as we follow the mowed path across the field. Besides the moon, so far only one star and a planet are visible. I explain about the darkness, how it comes in increments, and how much of it we need in order to see.