GOOD DAYS IN THE FOREST
Grandfather, Great Father,
Thank you, good members and friends, for your remarkable and generous support. Your clear and wild voices offer heart and hope. Somehow along the way we hope you hear the depth of our thanks. It is not just written; it is heartfelt!
I know a place deep in the Uintas where a black bear--a very large black bear--and I met almost face to face (maybe that is why he seemed so big) early in October a few years back. It was very cold and the wind was howling--probably the reason we missed one another until we rounded the corner on a pass nearly 12,000 feet in elevation. Only krummholz spruce, snow flurries and one lone guy and one lone bear, each of us, at least the two large mammals present, wondering, What in the world are you doing way up here in October? We were both too surprised to turn and run or take a picture (me) or have lunch (him). So we looked square at one another, he in the saddle of the pass, me slightly below him, still coming up from the other direction (maybe another reason he seemed so big.) Well, we didn’t pass. If anything, it seemed almost embarrassing to see one another like that-- so I casually turned around and went back to where I belonged, my tent, the large meadow, meandering stream and two elk bugling across the valley. Old Bear went off somewhere else.
I think of that strange encounter always. Where and what are his days full of? Why and where does he stop, wander, munch, hide, sleep, nap? That was a very real, wild critter, consciously making decision after decision. For a few moments we met in the forest. A remarkable day!
I know another place in the Uintas where year after year for three decades we visited and watched a muskrat swim back and forth from burrow to burrow on a small subalpine pond ringed by small meadows and surrounded by dense spruce forest. Peaks and ridges tower 2,000 feet above this pond at 10,000 feet elevation. Obviously, in over three decades, this is a different muskrat, many times over--from the same family? Or related? Or a new occupant? Why this pond and not the three or four others within a few hundred yards of one another? How does each week pass, each month from warm summers to bitter winters? He resides in a wild home, but it is his home. Over the years in this spot Margaret and two dogs and I have heard elk bugle in October, seen bald eagles fly through late in September, howled with coyotes in August, marveled at a huge cougar print in the mud not 100 feet from our tent one morning where no print existed the night before, watched a huge bull moose belly deep in a lake, and found a stump of a tree so magnificent that we called it God--a place where we, to borrow from Annie Dillard, addressed our prayer to World. Good days in the forest.
At another place I know in the Uintas I watched a wolverine, yes, undulate back and forth and with obvious purpose, early in October, over a huge swath of alpine landscape at nearly 12,000 feet. I wanted to tell him that he doesn’t actually live here, according to the experts. But why ruin his day because there he was. Another good day in the forest.
On another trip Margaret and I spotted a huge great gray owl, dozing midday in a sweep of lodgepole pine. We were hiking cross-country and, within an hour, met a moose resting in the shade near a small pond and were attacked by a goshawk as we passed under her nest where an egg had been blown out in a violent storm the night before. Still worried twenty minutes later about what was above us in the limbs, we spotted the owl. I also had an obligation to tell him that he doesn’t live there, according to the experts. So I photographed him and welcomed him to where he isn’t. Over the years, through luck or because I truly love walking in the woods, I have seen other great gray owls where they don’t live. Good days in the forest.
I know a place in the Uintas underneath a rocky cliff where I walked with a very quiet partner above me. A healthy cougar was sitting there watching me go by. I was surprised by how obvious the whole thing was. Unlike the deer hunter who, a few weeks back, just had to shoot the cougar watching him walk by, I just kept walking, acting bigger than I was. It seems a gun in the woods would ruin a good day in the forest.
I know a place where many years ago a friend and I were hiking a long way from a trail on a cold drizzly day. Above us we had been watching a golden eagle fly over the rim of the canyon. Rather than making a graceful sweeping arc, she seemed to flutter, fall, tumble, flap then fly again. We finally saw her literally tumble out of the sky. It took us quite a while before we found her, still warm, in a small opening, maybe a couple of hundred yards from the lip of the canyon. Dead and gone from this world. No obvious wounds or injuries. We had simply watched her die. We wondered why and dropped our packs, wandered to the edge of the canyon and sat looking into a dense stand of willows following the bend and bow of the river. If anything, we were a bit spooked.
While talking, we both stopped in mid-thought and said, What is that? Out came the binocs. We waited. A large dark form walked upstream between willow openings. Bear? Moose? Five minutes passed and it briefly appeared...and was gone. We waited a bit, looking up and down the stream and, there, as plain as could be, was a grizzly bear strolling up the stream. Yes, a grizzly bear. In the morning we climbed down to the stream (the trail is rarely used and runs consistently 40 to 100 feet above the river,) Indeed, we found grizz tracks on a couple of sandbars but no bear. We both knew then, nearly three decades back, that what we saw was indeed corporeal, but very likely a physical ghost. Maybe the last? Maybe the loneliest?
But just imagine the wild Uintas if the Forest Service managed for wildness and not all terrain vehicles (ATV) connecting routes, dispersed camping spurs, or roads for off-road vehicles. The Uintas aren’t important for those uses. Options abound. But the Uintas are a wild home--the only home-- to these wild critters. Just imagine a mountain without domestic sheep. None of us would have gone without a lambs- wool sweater or a lamb chop. Imagine a place where old forests grow old and blow over, starting a new forest with new character. flooded with one group of critters after the next as the forest changes over time. Nobody would have missed out on a pole fence, shed, barn or house.
A good day in the forest is not a good day on an ATV, killing coyotes or wolves to protect sheep that can graze in a valley pasture, or cutting down some old and spindly lodgepole pine. That is not to say the meaningful work of a logger or cowboy is not good. It is better than most. But it need not be on the wild Uintas--the last of its kind where a good day in the forest is still possible.
We think our vision is right: Imagine a mountain defined by the creation of life, not the production of resources. Maybe someday we will get there!