Friday, October 23, 2009

Gorman Ranch Road

Conversation with a Black Bear

[July 2007] As much as I would like the reader to believe that I am a man of the woods and the wild; that I have confronted ice storms by glaring into their teeth; faced down mountain lions by the force of my singular, alpha-dominant persona; and leaped from forested ridge-top to forested ridge-top in single, graceful, arcing bounds – seeing a bear in the wild is darned exciting. And affirming.

They’re still out there. Untamed. We haven’t killed ‘em off.

A grand idea it was. An evening ride up the canyon of the American River. After dinner. Spouse out of town. Dog secured in the side yard. Time belonging to no one but me.

The objective would be to investigate Ox Bow Lake, about 12 miles east of Foresthill on Mosquito Ridge Road, to see if it might be a fitting place to put in with kayaks and explore. The little reservoir proved to be delightful. A fine parking area is located where the Middle Fork flows into the pool. The sun retreating over the high ridge left hints of its daytime glory creeping up the canyon wall. Reflected into the water, an emerald-like grotto-green slipped through the glass-like surface. The wind was calm and the bugs had gone to bed. This would be a perfect place to paddle when the time came.

My evening foray causes me to think that my then-new KLR would be a great tool for exploring the backcountry. Second only, perhaps, to foot travel. The bike is quiet. Stable. Fuel efficient. And when called upon to, it pulls like a Jeep. On the windy pavement strip back toward Foresthill, a sign that called “Michigan Bluff – 9”, intrigued me. Up the canyon wall and out of sight, the gravel road curled. That was enough for me.

Twilight was about to descend, but it was still light enough to see. The bike has knobby tires that call out for unsurfaced conditions, and I had been remiss in not succumbing to this call during my prior two months of KLR ownership. Gravel roads on my pavement-eager BMW RT are approached with a timidness that removes any hint of fun or sport. In contrast, only a few minutes worth of experience on the dual sport promotes a confidence only dreamed about on other conveyances. Puttering up this graded, gravel road was a breeze. I could feel the rubber knobs of the tires reaching through the dust and rock bits to grip something solid below and then to release so the knuckles of the next section of the Dunlops could perform similar duty.

In moments, the American River was several hundred feet below me. The waning sunlight clung to the canyon top still several hundred feet above like a golden crown over some royalty’s emerald robe.

A stop to try to capture this on film. Well, electrons. Zoomed in. Zoomed out. Zoomed in. Then out. Frame. Focus. Zoom… Pause… I discovered that even with 7.1 modern-day mega-pixels at my command, it would be a waste of electrons to even attempt to capture the subtle glory of the descent of evening.

Back on the road. Enjoying the dusk. Impressed by the scope of the headlight on the little machine. And how the suspension smoothed the light’s beam. Gaining elevation out of the canyon, I explored around this switchback and that.

Uris Americanus is the American Black Bear, common, they say, to these parts of the west. Not so common that one who lives in a subdivision of the greater Sacramento region ever sees one. We’ve pushed them well away from our urban scourge.

A guy who knows a little something about bears is this correspondent’s barber – a fixture in town. Everybody who’s anybody gets shorn here. And it’s not the superb quality of the haircut that matters. It’s just hanging out with the sage, hip and funny hair-cutter for twenty minutes. Even though the barber is Rocklin, he lives east of town outside of a little foothill berg. Up in the piney country. He reports that he sees bears “every night.” Rummaging through the garbage. Licking salmon grease off the uncovered grill. Gently peeling the screen off the porch to get at the fresh peaches left there to ripen.

“I own the barber shop,” he says, “but I’m just borrowing the house from the bear.”

Unsullied by human contact, the black bear lives in the woods, generally below the snow line, doing many things in those woods, including foraging for grubs, beneath the decaying bark of downed timber, catching rodents and, perhaps, fish, grazing on willow shoots and leaves and nuts and berries. While those that frequent towns like Downieville and Colfax and Foresthill and Pollock Pines get fat and complacent raiding dumpsters and unsecured back porches, those in the wild are a bit more timid and a bit smaller. They work for their keep. So I’m told.

The route from the canyon bottom to Michigan Bluff is about thirty miles east of Rocklin. The breadth of the headlight beam from the KLR is broad, and, as dusk has settled, it nicely lights up the road and the obstacles moving in front of me as I round the bend.

Astride the Kawasaki, I sense movement ahead – lumbering, hulking movement. I try to down shift, but I’m already in first. The “moving obstacle” was a black bear. Ol’ Uris Americanus himself. Biggest one (of the about six) I’d ever seen!

He stops. Looks over his shoulder. Sizes up the floodlight coming at him. Assesses the burble of the one-cylinder engine. Supposes the prey isn’t really prey. But turns, none-the-less and rears up onto his hind legs, placeing one forepaw one each hip.

“Hey,” he growls, with more than a hint of disgust in his voice.

By now, I’m stopped, wanting to fumble for that camera.

“Hey,” he repeats, moving one forepaw from his hip and striking himself in the chest with a thumb. “I’m talkin’ to you.”

Like a dope, I look behind me. Nobody there. Of course there’s nobody else there. “Me?” I open the face shield of my helmet.

“Yeah. You.” Uris pauses. “What the hell you doin’ up hear this time of night?”

By now, I’ve killed the engine. I shake my head, amazed that this might be going on.


“Ridin’ my new bike.” I stammer.

“In the dark?”

“It’s not all that dark.”

“Of course not. You got that damned chunk of sunlight stuck to your front end.” He points. “You mind gettin’ it out of my eyes?”

I crank the handlebars to the right a bit.

“Now,” he continues, taking a step in my direction, “just what the hell are you doin’ up here at this hour?”

I repeat: “Ridin’ my new bike.”

The bear lets out a raspy exhaling noise. “Can’t you ride it during the day?” He pauses and puts his paw back on his hip. “You know what the matter is with you people?” he asks.

No, I think, but I’m sure I’ll find out.

“The problem is you’re people! It’s not bad enough that you tear around on those damned things during the day disturbing my sleep – and everyone else’s in the forest, but now you’ve got to be tearing around at night! When I’m tryin’ to work. Make a livin’. Stay alive.

“I’m nocturnal!” he growls. “You’re not! Go to bed for crimeny sake!

“Hell! You know, about three hundred yard off that way,” he points over my shoulder, “there’s a nasty-tempered mountain lion, just hoping I’ll stub my toe so he can pounce on me.”

I look over my shoulder.

“You can’t see him, but I could hear him just fine until you roared up on that damned thing.”

“I thought this thing was relatively quiet,” I countered. “It’s got a U S Forest Service approved spark arrester.” For my own safety, I hoped he couldn’t discern the sheepishness in my voice.

“That’s the thing about you people,” he retorted, narrowing his focus on me in a way that made me wish the KLR came with reverse. “You don’t know what quiet is. Everywhere you go, you bring you damned noise with you.”

I was stunned.

But Uris was right. Jet skis. Jeeps. Snow mobiles in winter. Battery operated radios. Aircraft overhead. And rifles. Rifles going off all the time in the forest for no damned reason! The forests of the west haven’t been quiet since the Indians were wiped out.

This poor beast was more petrified than threatening or scary.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got my hide to save.” The bear turned on a heel, fell to all fours and lumbered into the underbrush along the side of the road. Again, the earth quaked with each footfall.

By the time I slowly motored up to his path, he had disappeared into the brush and darkness.

I continued up the road to Michigan Bluff, thence to Foresthill, Auburn and home.

Along the way, I thought of several things. Not the least of which was: I’ve got to remind myself to ask the barber, next time I get a hair cut, if the bear that steals peaches off his porch, ever stops to talk with him.

© 2007
Church of the Open Road Press

1 comment:

  1. Clever! Fun story. I came across a bear and was too scared to listen to her. Dave, you really capture the old California. It's refreshing to see it still exists, from my light-polluted vantage point of socal.