I’m not sure that I’m on an official trail. It’s a well-worn footpath to be sure, but it may not be on any actual trail map. We’ve set out to hike a loop around a creek with a salmon run. We’re between the back road behind us where we parked, a campground to the north, a lake to the south and the creek to the west. How lost can we get? We’re walking through a golden grass meadow dotted with towering old, cedars, pines and occasional sagebrush. There are adorable little pine squirrels quietly darting all about while Stellar Jays chatter from the trees. Soon we join a gravel trail, an official trail, and turn south toward Fallen Leaf Lake. The sun is warm, and the breeze is cool making the perfect temperature for hiking. The smell of cedar permeates the air, punctuated by the smoke of a distant prescribed burn. We make a note of the origin of the smoke plume in the treetops. It may come in handy as a directional aid in finding our car later today. The trail splits in several directions. We pause. A brief discussion determines the likely location of the lake, and so we go. A short rise to the top of a soft, pine-needle-covered path reveals the glistening turquoise waters peeking through the trees. A descent of woodpeckers dash about, working up and down tree trunks without much regard for us. Huge gray, brown and orange pine cones decorate the forest floor. Piles of their seed scales reveal the favorite dining spots of the pine squirrels and ground squirrels. A ground squirrel, with a white striped body and cute tufted ears, pauses just long enough to assess whether or not we might be dropping granola bar crumbs and then scurries off through tunnels in the deadfall. The lakeshore is lined with large boulders and the gnarly stumps of long-since-gone trees. The Sierra Nevada mountain range frames the backdrop. This is a place for lingering. The shoreline features make an attractive foreground in this grand landscape.
I think about switching to my wide angle lens. However, the white-headed woodpeckers keep distracting me and the Stellar Jays with their indigo, blue and turquoise feathers in the sun are beckoning the zoom lens. Stellar Jays are very common in the mountain west, but that doesn’t make them any less beautiful. These white-headed woodpeckers, though, I’ve never seen them before. Until now, I didn’t know they existed. They have a bright red nape, black wings and a white rump. White wing bars are evident in flight. No spots or stripes decorate their feathers, unlike the woodpeckers of the Midwest, just stark blocks of color (or lack thereof). These birds occupy a narrow range in the mountain pine forests of the Western coastal states. The familiar chickadees and juncos are prevalent here, too. Deep, rectangular holes chiseled into the trees reveal the presence of a substantial number of pileated woodpeckers in these pine forests. Yet, they will not show themselves.
There are a few people on the trails and almost as many dogs. Despite that, its quiet on the trails and on the early morning rocky beach. The smoke from the fires is beginning to hang low in front of the mountains. The backdrop of haze lends an ethereal quality to the thin treeline where the creek meets the lake. We stand atop the dam and look at the mass of fish in the stream. The water level is low, not reaching the level of the first step in the fish ladder, but the dam is fully open, so I suppose the fish will jump through there when the time is right. Its a beautiful, narrow, rocky clear stream in a ravine about 10 feet deep. There are clumps of dried grasses and sticks in the branches near the top of the ravine telling of the spring floods. Today, the flow babbles softly as it idly meanders. The main trail turns left away from the creek. A smaller trail turns north along the creek. That’s where we want to be. If we follow the creek, we’ll eventually hit the main road. So we turn north, periodically stepping up to the edge of the gully to watch the water run and ogle at the numbers of fish staging in the relatively stagnant pools. Sometimes we’re on a flat, wide trail, sometimes we’re making our own way stepping over fallen trees and ducking under low pine branches.
As we round the bend on the main trail, the densest aspen grove I’ve ever seen comes into sight. Most of the golden leaves have fallen revealing the textures and shapes of their unique trunks. I could lose myself in aspens for a good part of the day. So as we get closer, with my back to the river some 100-150 feet away, I begin to take pictures of the aspens. Rob casually remarks, “There’s a bear.” His words lacked the emotion of surprise, excitement or adrenaline. So I asked, “Are you serious?” Yep, I turned to see the sun glistening off the back of a bear as she disappeared down into the ravine. Two people walking along the far side of the creek noticed her, too. At this point, we couldn’t see her, but we could tell where she was by the behavior of the couple watching her on the opposite bank. She was moving pretty purposefully downstream. We continued along the trail downstream keeping an eye on the trees along the bank and warned a couple of people about the bear so they could leash up their dog. Then she popped up again. This time at a bend in the river where there was a break in the trees. She waded across the shallow creek followed by two cubs! So we’re quietly watching a sow with cubs fishing for salmon. This is not a bear that’s habituated like those in Alaska. None of those bear interaction guidelines apply here. The general black bear encounter guidelines are: if the bear doesn’t see you, quietly back away. If the bear does see/smell you, identify yourself as human. She didn’t see us, and we stayed where we were, 50 yards or so away. She caught a fish and walked behind the brush on the far bank to eat it while the cubs played. As she returned to the creek, walking in our direction, she looked up, stopped and locked eyes with us. We didn’t want to disturb her, so we silently stepped a little closer to each other. She seemed to go back to what she was doing when I saw the reflection of one of the people from the opposite ravine in the creek. He had walked down the ridge to the shore where she had just eaten her salmon. She and the cubs continued downstream. The river here makes a hairpin turn creating a peninsula of land on our side. All along this peninsula eight feet above the flowing water, brush obscures the water and the bears. We couldn’t safely approach without knowing where they were. Surprise encounters don’t end well. We found a suitable spot further downstream out of sight and a fair distance away to wait for her to come toward us.
The was a waterfall across the creek and the beautiful colors of fall. Bright red salmon were pooling in all the slower waters. The only sound was the gentle trickle and bubble of a shallow creek. But no bears appeared. As we were discussing what our next move would be, we suddenly heard people yelling and a car horn honking repeatedly. The commotion was coming from the direction of the campground we had passed. I guess we know which direction the bear family went.
We continued up the creek, marveling at the numbers of deep red salmon, sometimes following the edge of the ravine, sometimes finding our way back to the trail. As we neared the road, we started seeing people. First, just a few small groups of natives spearfishing in the shallow waters. Then, more and more in every direction. The footbridge at the road was crowded with people peering for a glimpse of a salmon. If they only knew the bounty that they could find if they’d venture a short distance off the roadway. A quick stop at the visitors center to shed some layers and offload some coffee and we left the crowds behind. Fifty feet out of the parking lot and we were alone again with the ground squirrels and stellar jays again. The path snaked through the sparsely populated campground. We kept following forks in the path in the general direction of our car, reasonably optimistic that we would find it. And there it was, the questionable but well-traveled path we came in on. Back where we left our car alone hours ago, the informal dirt parking area is full. It’s time for lunch.