Boot spikes crunch loudly in the hard, crusted snow, drowning out the calls of varied thrushes. Pausing to listen, I smile and feel my beard stiffening with a building coat of condensed and frozen breath. Soon, my grizzled whiskers will be frosted and hung with tiny white balls of ice like it was taken over by wee folk and decorated for the solstice. Feeling the tension of freezing whiskers broadens my smile even more until it reminds me of the breath-borne virus that has the world hunkering down, has us all walking alone.
It is that magical morning crepuscular hour when beaver, porcupine, bear, even the occasional wolf might use this path. It is my favorite part of the day, and a time for moving slowly, deliberately, and most of all, quietly. I look at the trail ahead. Removing my spikes might reduce the noise, but the way ahead looks slippery, and I don’t want to fall. Emergency responders have better things to do than rescue a broken-legged bird watcher with boot spikes in his backpack this morning.
Trying to place my foot as gently as I can makes no difference. The sound of shattering ice crystals pierces the still air, and I am not the only one to hear it. Fifteen yards off the trail to my left, a black bear who until that moment must have been walking straight towards me oblivious to my presence, wheels around and crashes through the woods away from me. I never see his face, only his jet black round rump and powerful hind legs, and those only for a second before he disappears silently over a mound of snow.
The commotion sent something else scrambling away on the other side of the trail—something unseen, farther into the forest, something sounding eerily like the bear. I freeze in place looking back and forth, listening to one side of the trail and then the other. I see nothing. I hear only thrushes.
If I have any chance of getting another look at the confirmed bear, or a first look at the suspected one, I will have to move more quietly. I kneel to stretch the spikes off my boots and tuck them in a side pocket of my pack, stand back up, take two steps that are just as loud as before, then a third that slips on the ice and sends me shoulder first into a waiting hemlock. No broken bones. Lesson learned.
For the next two hours I crunch my way along the trails. Aside from the usual avian suspects, the forest is quiet. Snowshoe hare, red squirrel and porcupine have all left their tracks, but there is no mammal to be seen, and no sign at all of bruin.
Eventually I make my way back to the spot where I startled the bear. This time I turn off the trail to look for tracks. Slowly, I crisscross the woods searching for the bear’s path. My boots leave shallow prints, making grid-working the forest easy. Ten minutes into my search, I find two bear tracks. In the heal of one of the tracks, a single coal-black hair is pressed into the snow.
Looking back to the trail, I am convinced this is where the bear turned to run. In his initial burst, he pushed off, digging his hind paws into the snow, but on the run his soft pads provided floatation, leaving no more imprints in the crust. Following him would be impossible.
I wander the woods for another half hour, hunting unsuccessfully for bear sign until I hear two cars coming down the nearby road signaling that, for today, my wandering is over. Dawn is spent. It is time to surrender the forest to folk more diurnally inclined than me. For their safety, and for the privacy of the bears, I hope they wear spikes. For the health of us all, I hope they, too, walk alone.