Every spring I eagerly anticipate my reunion with the high country above my home. Just a few weeks ago the Forest Service finally opened the gates that provide access to the local mountain roads. The snow is mostly gone although above 9,000′ one may on some of the secondary roads still find drifts sufficiently large to resist the summer sun. But their days are numbered.
A few miles up one of these roads I stop at a public campground. I am surprised to find it deserted but the reason is immediately apparent. There are large signs everywhere announcing that marauding bears have closed it and the public is forbidden to enter. Knowing full well that these signs are only posted when the threat is imminent and the danger real, I leave my truck and walk beyond the gate, enjoying the silence but preternaturally alert. I make it only a short distance before the campground host emerges from his trailer. He is apologetic and polite but unyieldingly firm. I note the sidearm he is wearing and surrender to common sense, deciding I’d rather watch birds than be chased and eaten by bears. But the problem is the same the entire length of the canyon – bears, bears, bears, unseen at the moment but lurking all the same, a clear and present danger. The canyon is uncommonly empty, even for a Monday. It is a beautiful morning in a beautiful place but the feeling is oppressed, repressed, depressed.
I drive out of the canyon and a few miles later deliberately turn onto a rough road that drops into a narrower, deeper, wilder drainage. There are as many bears in this canyon as in the one I just left but on this road I am free to do as I please. There are no signs to warn me or armed men to protect me. There is no one else traveling this road nor, judging from its condition, have there been many since last fall. I accept the responsibility for my own safety. I choose my stopping points with care and remain alert. And the bird gods respond. A brown creeper aggressively defends a crack in a dead aspen from an enquiring chipmunk, chasing the tiny rodent down the mostly barkless bole as fast as its four little legs can carry it. The hills are alive with the sounds of hammering and I see downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, red-naped sapsuckers, red-shafted flickers, and American three-toed woodpeckers hard at work. An olive-sided flycatcher calls from the top of a tall spruce. A western wood-pewee mews from an adjacent fir. The flute-like songs of hermit thrushes fill the air, in vivid contrast to the din of tin trumpet sounding red-breasted nuthatches and rasping mountain chickadees. Lincoln’s sparrows call from the willows along the stream and Brewer’s and vesper sparrows reply from the open spaces. A trio of Clark’s nutcrackers chases an American kestrel in a chaotic feathered arc across the azure sky, squawking their dominance, asserting their territorial prerogatives. The sun is hot on my face and aspen leaves dance slowly in the cool breeze. It is a good day not to be eaten by a bear.