Friday, June 14

The Crestone Eagle is a nonprofit monthly newspaper serving Crestone and the San Luis Valley

Into the Wild: Bear, beaver, brookies, & loons

By Bruce Becker.

Anyone can do the things I’ve done if they’re willing to live the life I’ve led.
~ Fool’s Crow

Loons. Maybe my favorite waterbird. They are the epitome of wilderness for me, so primal. Loons have a maniacal call that puts the “wild” in wilderness. 

Loons are built for the water. A diving duck, they’re in their element there. Incredibly fast swimmers, their feet are set far back on their bodies to propel them swiftly through the water, hunting fish. But they are ungainly on land and build their nests very close to the water. Sometimes, the nest gets flooded out by springtime snowmelt and the loon loses her eggs. 

I am camped in a lean-to on the Cedar River, having canoed here across the Cedar River Flow, through a long maze of dead and drowned trees standing like spires, trees that were flooded out years ago. Now the home of beavers and loons. Common loons, to be exact. And brookies. Loads of brookies. Brook trout, the state fish of New York, are actually a char, apparently only distinguished from trout by the vomer, which is part of the palate or roof of the mouth. They inspired me to tie my own fly, “Bruce’s Brookie Buster.” 

I’m here on a full moon in October. Columbus Day, a perfect time to be alone in the woods. All the kids are back at school, the woods are devoid of humans, cold enough at night for a good campfire, hunting season hasn’t started yet, and the brookies are spawning.

One night, I canoe out into the swamp, where I sit quietly listening to the night sounds. Suddenly, a huge beaver shoots out of the bank like a torpedo, under my canoe, rocking the canoe and leaving a foamy wake. I relax back, watching the full moon rise in the misty fog that lies over the warm swamp, when I realize I’ve lost my way through the puzzle of downed timber in this large swamp. But as I sit there, I notice leaves on the surface are slowly floating in one direction, so I follow them as they show me the way out of the swamp and back to my lean-to.

I’ve always had a sentimental attachment to this place because my dad, Hawkeye, trapped beaver, mink, and otter along the Cedar River back in the 1930s, and taught me many wilderness skills here. Lots of the little things that make a big difference in the woods, like how to set a snare.

As I light my evening fire, I spot a shiny black bear watching me from the woods about 50 feet away. I say hello and explain who I am and what I’m doing. The words I speak aren’t important. It is what I say with a gentle heart and my mannerisms that he understands. He is my friendly neighbor who shows himself to me over the course of a few days. He is respectful and never inappropriate. I always clean my fish in the river and keep a clean camp, so I have never had a bad experience with a camp bear. I have had many experiences with bears that weren’t bad and a few that could have gone bad but didn’t.

Like the time I was backpacking on the Northville-Lake Placid trail, heading toward Mud Lake when I saw a tiny cub scampering down the trail straight toward me. There are only black bears in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. 

But this little guy was brown. I stopped immediately and instantly looked around for a defensive position or a climbable tree, knowing mama was close by. Even though black bears are expert tree climbers, danger could only come from one direction if I had to climb. 

So I dropped my big backpack and stepped over to a stand of small birch trees that I knew I could shinny up if mama appeared, but were only six inches thick and would be small enough for a large bear to have difficulty climbing. 

The cub was maybe 50 feet away from me, now sitting on the trail, looking at me, when I saw a huge sow ambling up the trail, about 50 feet behind the cub, unaware of my presence. She topped a small rise in the trail and saw her cub sitting there, looking at me. As soon as mama saw me, she woofed and the cub, thankfully, trotted back to her. The two of them stood there looking at me for what seemed like an eternity, while I avoided direct eye contact. Then they just walked away, heading down the trail in the same direction I was going.

I stayed where I was for quite some time, digesting the moment and gathering my wits. After thinking it through, I figured she hadn’t perceived me as a threat, so I took out my aluminum Cub Scout cooking pot, and after shouldering my pack I continued down the trail, following the bears and banging my pot and its lid together. The noise of metal on metal is not a natural sound in the woods and spooks any animal within earshot. I didn’t see those bears again.

Back on Cedar River, when it comes time to return to civilization, I paddle my canoe reluctantly, as I always do on the return, listening to the call of the loons.

Bruce Becker is a flute maker, retired masonry contractor, and horse trainer who has lived in Crestone since 2005. Photo: Lori Nagel/Sunflower Studios

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