Home MBE Articles In the Footsteps of Bears

In the Footsteps of Bears

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Tracking wildlife on the Nooksack RiverBy Mallory Clarke
Photos by Andrew Grubb and David Moskowitz

We park at a slight widening of the narrow Forest Service road. The bit of wetland we glimpsed at through the forest is calling us. My naturalist buddy Chris and I are off for a day of wildlife tracking on the Nooksack River. We close the truck door quietly and the soft duff under our feet muffles our steps. We are careful to avoid stepping on the breakable twigs and branches strewn on the forest floor as we make our way down a steep forested grade. Everything around us is mottled from the sun shining through the trees, and the cool air is reviving.

We are here to snoop into the lives of wild animals, to find out who is living where and who is passing through. The marks that animals leave behind on the landscape tell stories. Chris and I want to know what they did last night. Who were they with? What did they eat, and where did they sleep? Patterns of life for secretive wild animals can’t always be discovered in books and research articles, but reliably, there is information written on the ground and on the plant life around them.

We arrive where the forest ends at the edge of an immense pond. I kneel down to run my fingers across a blunt, six-inch stump of a sapling. Just as we suspected – beavers built this place. We can see the marks left by their teeth in the wood. The pond must have a beaver dam at the downhill end.

Wetlands are great places to track: soft, wet mud displays clear tracks, small animal habitat is plentiful, and predators come to where they can easily find prey. I whisper to Chris, “light-barked trees,” and point north. Black bears like to claw them because the marks are visible for a long way off. I’ve seen bear markings on light colored trees in and around wetlands often enough that now I expect them. When I’m lucky. We make our way along the edge of the pond toward the alders I had spotted.

Part way there, we stop at the muddy edge to look for tracks. Beautiful little Stellar’s Jay tracks are almost dead center in a patch of mud. Chris notices where the bird’s beak had broke the surface. On closer inspection, he sees tiny insect tracks that end at the hole. It makes me laugh. Another story. I knew Stellar’s Jays ate seeds and acorns, small rodents and even nestlings; now I know they eat bugs!

My chuckle sets off the birds nearby. They are making alarm calls to tell the neighborhood that trespassers are present. So much for sneaking around unnoticed. Bird language is a fundamental tool for trackers. Yes, it can backfire and help wildlife avoid you, but we humans can learn to read and use it to help us know where the interesting predators are at that moment. If I’m attentive, I can sometimes hear the birds telling me a worrisome animal is nearby and where it is moving. I can follow the birds’ lead and find the tracks of an animal who is just too stealthy and smart to let me see it, such as a bobcat or a cougar.

Giving up on quiet, we chat as we clamber over downed trees, pass Devil’s Club, and through blueberry bushes. Blueberry bushes are slow going due to the snacking factor. Eventually we reach the alders and there we find a beautiful display of bear claw marks. Each claw mark is about half an inch apart. They are lower on the tree than I’m used to seeing. In fact, some must have been made by the bear while standing on all fours or sitting. I crouch down to bear-sitting height. There is something awe inspiring about knowing you are in the exact spot once occupied by a creature who can draw on tree bark as easily as I draw on paper.

We bushwhack to a second tree and discover more claw marks; this time six feet above the ground. The width of the paws that made these is impressive and the marks are over an inch apart. We can also see where the bear stood on his hind legs and hugged the tree. He stretched his massive limbs up and around, and then dragged his claws down and toward his body. There are bite marks on the tree and dark hairs caught in the rough wood. We can see where the bear climbed 15 feet up the tree. We admire this artwork, touching the marks and guessing this bear made this visit over a year ago.

There is a sense of dangerous intimacy in knowing something even this insignificant about a wild creature. These marks are often communication. Was he announcing to the world he was here and not to be messed with? Was he advertising himself as a worthy mate? I stand with my hands as close as I can manage to where his claws were. I try to imagine what being that bear would be like: mostly solitary, not worried about much. Reluctantly, I pull my imagination away, and we walk on.

Later, we pass the truffle digs of flying squirrels, and pop out of the brush into a small clearing bordered by a huge downed cedar trunk. Before it sagged in decay, it must have been hip high lying there on its side. Part way along its length, it has been smashed open making a low spot, easier to cross than the rest of the log. We can see where deer and elk hooves had further worn the log in that same spot. I was curious about what had opened the log up in the first place, so I began lifting the barked edges looking for clues. Chris dug into the rotted wood itself and came up with a termite larvae just as I uncovered three deep short gouges in the bark. Mystery solved. The termites invaded the dead tree and once they were numerous enough to be worth the effort, a black bear looking for a snack sunk its claws into a chunk of bark to pull the tree open. This particular infestation was probably worth a few return visits for a bear who didn’t mind a bit of sawdust in his or her diet. We follow the elk over the cedar and keep going.

At last, we find a wide opening in the trees and have a breathtaking view of the pond, a swamp overflowing with green plant life, and in front of all that, riches: a wide expanse of dried mud with grass tufts punching up through it, suggesting it might hold human weight.

Mud, in this western Washington land of duff and leaf litter, is tracker’s gold. Clear mink tracks border the shore. We can see where the mink slowed down to investigate something, probably an attractive smell. A coyote trotted through last night looking for the cross trails of small animals worth hunting, probably the snowshoe hare whose tracks we also see. Three otters left the shore earlier this morning and loped straight out across the mud; one darted under a fallen log and two bounded over it. Their trails disappear into the distance before they reached the pond, running over mud so thin, I dared not follow them.

While leaning on the fallen log, I notice large hand-sized impressions on the moss all along its surface. I press my hand into the same moss and it jumps right back. Whatever made this regular pattern of impressions, did so by walking this log often, putting feet in exactly the same places over and over again. I trail along the log, looking for where the creature leapt on or off.

Finally, I come to it. Gorgeous bear tracks, shining in the mud, wend away from me. A sheen of water in each track tells me the animal was here very recently. Tired, I sit on the log and watch the bear in my mind’s eye. She jumps down from the log and slowly meanders into the woods. It’s been a day of inspirational bears. X

A Pacific Northwest native, Mallory Clarke is a wildlife tracker and a big fan of rivers. She teaches high school and likes playing in the Puget Sound rain.

Check into one of the following for tracking classes:

Best places to track:

  • Beaches, forest roads and the edges of any body of water are all likely to have substrate that will capture and hold animal tracks.
  • Try aerial photographs of your closest river. Look for white areas along the shores that
    indicate gravel or sand. Those areas are the most likely to have good substrate for tracking.
  • Bridges often protect sand or fine dust from the elements making tracking under them
    productive in wet or windy weather.