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On our way back at the end of the day, we split up for the last two miles and I explored off-trail in the encroaching shadows. Grizzly tracks appeared just before I reached the cabin. Had it gone before Ben or after him? Following the tracks by headlamp led me directly to the cabin.
Ben was standing on the porch and announced, “This griz came right up to the cabin, with smoke coming out of the chimney, smelled our pee, and then flipped over the pack rat we threw out and kept going up the river trail—where we’re going tomorrow.”
The lesson here is that while the big carnivores won’t cavalcade in front of you in Kishenehn’s old forest like they might in, say, Yellowstone, there’s no question they’re here. The other lesson is that if you trap a pack rat and toss its carcass in front of the cabin to see what will come eat it, you don’t have to worry about it being a grizzly bear.
Sometimes the wildlife encounters here are less oblique. Consider the time we were walking along the border swath, that 40-foot-wide treeless line in the sand our country maintains up and down mountainsides for reasons only bureaucrats can understand. Ben was walking a short distance ahead of me as I snapped pictures. Then the ravens appeared, circling loudly over Sage Creek. We immediately squatted down and watched. We suspected a kill site, but we couldn’t see down into the creek bottom.
As I stalked my way toward the bank behind Ben, he came speed-walking back to me furiously waving his hands. I’d never seen him so rattled. Quietly but with a fierce urgency he said, “Go, go, go! There’s a huge black grizzly bear on an elk carcass in the creek bottom.”
He was terrified in a way only someone who has just seen a murderous grizzly at close range can be. It hadn’t seen him, he said, but it was swinging its snout from side to side trying to sniff out the intruder it knew was there. We had to leave, he said, now.
Some people say the value of large predators is that they teach us humility. At this moment Ben was a spouting fountain of humility. Clearly this was more of a wilderness experience than he was looking for.