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The weekend tracking program did not fill as hoped but had only two people. So I still took them to an area that is remote by any definition.
Two hours driving from Prescott on paved roads, then about another hour on graded forest roads.Our destination was a creek at the top end of a spectacular canyon. The monsoon rains made it very lush—deep greens, fungus pushing up all over—somewhat like mini ballistic missiles able to lift four even five inches of debris.
As with any tracking trip, the plan stays flexible so as to make the most of all opportunities. My attendees were a former marine sniper, and his ex-navy girlfriend, both gun toting outdoors folks with some good technical skills. But soon it became clear that tuning in to what was around us was the hardest part.
With a few hours of in- depth skill building, it was time to start a general recon going downstream from our canyon campsite.
The greater number of tracks were from elk and mule deer, with the occasional skunk and raccoon—not too much of a challenge. Then came time to look for bear sign. It is more challenging than some people think “hey black bear =big.”
In Arizona black bear rarely weigh more than 300 pounds. They do stand up at about 7 feet, if really trying to make a point. Black bears are omnivores, opportunistic, and above all, surprisingly agile. For bears there are two cardinal rules:
Try to not surprise one and try to avoid getting between mum and cubs. Another concern has to do female humans in the group. Ask if they are on their period. This is a backcountry legend that I think makes more sense than many others that are taken as gospel truth.
I helped raise a black bear orphan for the local zoo. Bears are very perceptive regarding hormones. Female bears predate each others’ cubs and male bears predate cubs.
Some Arizona tribal members suggest bear problems are more likely if a woman is on her period.
The fourth rule for bears is to keep looking up because they use nanny trees to park cubs during foraging trips.
The fifth and final rule is to be aware of what the bears are eating. Bears tend to find something they like and stay with it until the next tasty treat.
The first clue for my little group was an area the size of a 7-11 in which nearly all the rocks were turned or lifted. Under each rock were remains of ant colonies. The sign was about 24-hoursold, based on dew effect on the exposed Earth and the still damp contact lines track was leading to a den from where the rocks were set in the ground—like ring around the tub after sports games.
The interesting challenge came when the bear moved across and up the canyon floor. This was on quartz, sandstone and granite mixed with some lava rock. Some water was in the canyon, but the two sides provided a large dry area of more than 200 yards to track on.
Bears are timid. Based on one rear foot front foot placement, I determined this bear was a female. Female bears have a slight turn out of the foot that is more pronounced than males. Also, from seeing other bear tracks left by a known bear, we were tracking quite a hefty lady.
Getting low to the ground, it was possible to see the trail she left as she moved across the canyon floor. She was graceful avoiding the algae-filled water.
The trail appeared unclear, until I looked at it from panoramic view. Then, I noticed a rock that was moved slightly and some rocks gently angled out of their setting. Moving across the canyon in no great hurry, the bear edged up a bank toward canyon grapes, which were not in fruit, but the tendrils kick butt flavor wise.
Our group took the time to nibble and look around, for we had now climbed up to about 50 feet from the main canyon floor. It seemed the track was leading to a den area. It is my personal rule to avoid disturbing den areas, as it can lead other not so benevolent humans to the bear.
We had spent about two hours on the trail and we had not set eyes on her. She was about 20 minutes ahead of us, knowing this from the damp ground drying in the Arizona warmth. Later, we could hear her telling us off with gruff oomph! sound. August is time to pack on the pounds; playing tag was not a good game.
My two trackers in training were OK with seeing the tracks and hearing her. Seeing her was not vital, although, of course, it would have been icing on the cake.
In our tracking process, we became aware of the subtle clues as to other bears in the area. There was a spot where elk had stood waiting just under cover of a pine tree looking across a well worn elk highway.
There was bear sign from about that same time as a younger bear pushed over this rock and that rock looking for ants.
Waiting is a great natural skill. Tracking requires patience, waiting and often accepting rewards as they come, and not as we would wished.
Bob Matthews likes to spend time out in wild places. Arizona is his choice for home and the United States is his choice for country of citizenship. He was born in England. “My planet is yours, but my world is what I try to share.”