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In Search of the American Wilderness
By Doug Peacock
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 1990 Doug Peacock
All rights reserved.
THE BIG SNOW
It was mid-November and a winter storm was coming to the mountains of northwest Wyoming. The wind was gentle, chinooklike, swaying the bare branches of an aspen grove against a gray sky. The trees' leaves, already drawn to the forest floor by the October frosts of the brief Rocky Mountain autumn, lay silent under crusted drifts of November snow. I struggled carrying a bulky rucksack up the open slope toward groves of mixed fir, spruce, and pine. I had a 9,000-foot ridge to climb, another valley to drop into and cross, then a steep north-facing mountainside to crawl up until I reached the 9,200-foot contour.
At that elevation, under the roots of a large, lightning-struck whitebark pine, was a five-foot-long tunnel dug into the side of the forty-degree mountain slope. The hole had been dug by a young grizzly bear. I knew because I had watched him dig it. He had started on the twentieth of September, removing hundreds of pounds of gravelly loam. He planned on sleeping out the winter in there. When he wasn't working on his den, he fed on the whitebark pine nut caches of red squirrels. In October he left the area. If he had not yet returned, this storm would, I thought, bring him back.
The upland country of the Yellowstone Plateau was open, pleasant country. I stepped across a tiny creek and saw, hidden behind a boulder, a layer of golden aspen leaves placered against the bottom of a dark pool. The tops of yellow grasses were still exposed in the meadows; under the shadows of the conifers, low banks of windblown snow awaited winter. The breeze drifted north of me on the lee side of the ridge, while a high wind ran over the rocky spine above.
Through my binoculars, far below me, a bull moose stood motionless in the bushy willow bottomland. The elk and a small herd of mountain sheep on the distant slope had bedded. My blood felt sluggish too. The barometric lows preceding major storms heralded lethargic times: the ungulates brushed up, the fish did not bite, and the grizzlies hightailed it to denning sites, where they moped around and waited for the big snow. Grizzlies could sense winter storms days in advance. My three-year-old bear was probably putting the finishing touches on his den just then, raking it out one last time before adding bedding — grass, moss, or boughs of young firs. He would then withdraw to his porch, a dish-shaped depression in the loam just in front of the three-foot-wide opening to the tunnel, and lie like a sleepy puppy watching the darkening skies for the whiteness that would seal him within his mountain.
I walked uphill under the canopy of mature whitebark pines. Under a large tree, next to the trunk where the snow had melted, was a small pile of pinecones. A bear, probably a grizzly, had dug up a number of squirrel caches and raked out the seeds with his claws. Red squirrels were the middlemen; bears did not harvest the cones directly but were dependent on the arboreal rodents. Even in years when there were lots of pine nuts, if the squirrel population was down, the bears would not get many nuts. These pine nuts were a major source of food for Yellowstone's grizzlies. The three-year-old grizzly had been feeding on mast when I had stumbled across him digging his den six weeks earlier.
I climbed over a string of mossy ledges and topped out the ridge. Before me, to the south, lay the gentle, rolling up-country of the Snowy Range: willow bottoms, sagebrush meadows, and undulating grassy hillsides patched with groves of aspen and stands of pine and fir. The den site of the three-year-old bear lay four miles away, up on the steep side of the next low mountain. I could have gotten there by dark if I had pushed. But I had not come out here to hurry. Instead, I would hole up for the night and wait for the snow to begin falling.
Grizzlies at their denning sites are extremely shy; if they are disturbed they may abandon the area altogether and be forced to dig another den somewhere else. Once the first major storm of the fall begins, undisturbed bears become sluggish and are much less likely to be bothered by my presence. But I didn't plan on letting this little grizzly know I was around.
The high wind had died. The air felt heavy, still warm under its blanket of monotonous blue-gray sky. The snowy front pushed before it a low-pressure trough of languid creatures, a chorus of yawns. I stumbled down the mountain slope, through the dead grasses and winter trees, toward a narrow creek that meandered through willow thickets. By the time I reached the valley, just at dark, the wind had stopped altogether. The air was still and snow had begun to fall. Nothing moved except the large white flakes and the small creek, whose dark currents gathered the silent snow.
I followed the tiny creek up into the trees where the waters pooled behind the roots of a giant spruce. An eerie calm settled in over the mountains as I located a spot to sit against the huge spruce. I gathered wood from a nearby whitebark and kindled it with dry twigs off the lee side of a smaller spruce. I dug a down parka and wool stocking cap out of my backpack and prepared for a long night of staring into the fire. The temperature was dropping. The snow would be dry, and the spruce boughs would keep most of it off me. I carried no tent or sleeping bag this trip. I planned on sitting up all night tending the fire.
I spread out a small groundcloth — raingear, actually — dug into the bottom of the pack, and pulled out a foot-long oblong bundle wrapped in a spare wool sweater. I unwrapped a skull and placed it next to me facing the fire, balancing the upper jaw carefully upon the mandible. It was the skull of an adult grizzly, a female. I had come by it in the White Swan Saloon in the town north of here. A local horn hunter, a friend of mine, had bought it for me from a rancher who had poached the bear three months earlier on a grazing allotment in the national forest a few miles from the border of Yellowstone National Park. The same sheepherder had also shot at, but missed, another grizzly who was hanging around the female. That much was common knowledge. What was not known was that the two bears were related, and the previous winter they had denned together up the hill a mile south of my fire.
I didn't know what to do with the skull at first. I just did not want the sheepherder to have it. He had already made enough money selling the bear's paws and gallbladder. The sow grizzly had never killed any sheep that I knew about, though that didn't mean she would not have started at any time. At the time she was killed, the female grizzly was almost eight, fairly old by Yellowstone standards. She had successfully mated once, probably when she was four and a half. The following winter she had given birth to a single cub — at least there had been only one cub with her the next spring, when I had gotten to know her. She had emerged from the den in late April, dropped down to the valley I had crossed an hour earlier, and fed on an elk carcass. I had backtracked her to her winter denning site. She and her cub had made a highly distinctive family: the sow's fur had a slight golden hue with a darker stripe running down her back. The cub had been nearly black with a silver collar extending into a light- colored chest yoke, which had faded sometime during his second year. They had been back on these slopes feeding on pine nuts the same fall, and I found their den the following spring. Altogether I had found five dens on this same hillside within a few hundred yards of one another. All but the first could have been dug by the same female.
I consider the mountainside a special place, a place with power, as I do certain other valleys and basins there and up in northern Montana where grizzlies still roam. I return to these places year after year, to keep track of the bears and to log my life. The bears provided a calendar for me when I got back from Vietnam, when one year would fade into the next and I would lose great hunks of time to memory with no events or people to recall their passing. I had trouble with a world whose idea of vitality was anything other than the naked authenticity of living or dying. The world paled, as did all that my life had been before, and I found myself estranged from my own time. Wild places and grizzly bears solved this problem.
When I ran into the goldish mother bear and her dark cub on this mountainside I was more than a decade away from the war zone, and my seasonal migration to grizzly country had become a pattern. I had come to this place in the spring to greet the grizzlies as they emerged from their winter sleep and again late in the fall to see them into their dens. Since the female always denned in the same small area, it was easy. What I hadn't known was whether the young grizzly would return to den there after his mother was killed, or whether he knew how or where to dig a winter den. On September twentieth I had found my answer. Besides what he learned from his mother, this young grizzly had his own instincts.
The cub was now back on the family estate. I wondered what he would have done if the sow had still been alive — move off to another mountain? I was curious about these things, although I had come here this time for other reasons. I poked another stick into the flickering fire.
"Payback was a motherfucker," the grunts in Vietnam used to say. Meaning something about the difficulty of getting what you deserve — a sort of Stone Age notion of justice. Over there, believing nonsense in defiance of the blatant absence of any just distribution of earthly rewards and punishments helped you get through the night. After Vietnam, I caught myself saluting birds and tipping my watch cap to sunsets. I talked a lot when no one was around, especially to bears.
I tied a woolen scarf around my neck and held the skull up to the flames, staring beyond it where huge snowflakes glistened in the reflected light of the fire. Strings of connective tissue clung to the poorly scraped bone. The sheepherder had done a lousy job. I heard he had buried the grizzly's hide. He only dug up the skull 'cause someone offered a bundle of money. I should have gone back and blown a dozen of his stinking, bleating sheep into woolly heaven.
I felt the corrugated bark of the spruce tree pressing against my shoulders and looked back at the bear skull. "I wonder what you know, bear," I said to no one. Where had she spent her summers? Had she ever consorted with the great Bitter Creek Griz or fished the cutthroat spawning streams? I had never seen her play with her cub, although she had been a very protective mother. She had probably been pregnant when she was killed, having mated just subsequent to weaning her cub. Even in death, she was better off here on the mountain than mounted on some asshole's wall.
I set the skull down and threw a large deadfall on the coals. The log popped and sputtered, showering sparks that rose into the lower boughs of the spruce. I pulled my coat tighter around my shoulders, glad for the dead calm, which felt almost warm even though the night temperature had plunged far below freezing. I had a sense of urgency, even danger — the need to finish my business as soon as possible and get out. This was the storm that would begin winter. November blizzards had been known to dump over a foot of snow a day for several days. By the next evening, walking out would be difficult. All the roads on the plateau would be closed. In three days it would be all I could do to slide my pickup across the passes behind the snowplow. An accident or miscalculation could mean freezing, or wintering up here. But the predicament was familiar. Danger was part of what attracted me to grizzlies in the first place — danger married to great beauty.
My seasonal calendar was often tied to these blizzards: they told me when to leave the mountains. Big snows make winter. They send the grizzlies into their dens. At least, they do on this mountainside. Grizzlies do not all den at the same time; it all depends on sex, altitude, and how far south they live. For instance, the last Mexican grizzly in the Sierra Madre may not den at all if the winter is mild. South of Canada, females who are pregnant or living with young at higher elevations den first.
I nodded off briefly, leaning my head against the gnarled trunk of the spruce, thinking I could feel the weight of the snow piling up on it. I wrapped up the skull and packed it away, watching the big flakes filter through the branches like feathers of snow geese. Sitting in a major mountain storm in search of what some people regard as the fiercest animal on the continent instills a certain humility, an attitude that pries open in me a surprising receptiveness. My friend Gage, who was here with me when I stumbled on the first den on the mountainside, could find humility before nature in his backyard. I cannot: I need to confront several large, fierce animals who sometimes make meat of man to help recall the total concentration of the hunter. Then the old rusty senses, dulled by urban excesses, spring back to life, probing the shadows for shapes, sounds, and smells. Sometimes I am graced by a new insight into myself, a new combination of thoughts, a metaphor, that knocks on the door of mystery.
The fire's glow cast a halo of light in the falling snow, and I conjured an aura of reverence surrounding my mission.
We walked point for the 101st Airborne during the summer of 1967. The operation centered on the country just north of the village of Ba An on the Song Tra Na in Quang Ngai Province. I was the only American green beret with our point platoon of mixed Vietnamese and Montagnard troops out of our A-camp at Bato. Behind us were three platoons of U. S. paratroopers.
The operation was not going well. Each unit had taken casualties. We had lost our platoon leader the night before. He caught a carbine round through his head just under and behind his eyes, which paralyzed his respiratory system. While I was keeping him alive by giving him mouth-to-mouth, the Americans mistakenly called in gunships on our position. I was the only one in the point platoon who spoke English, and by the time I could call off the air strike we had two more wounded. The platoon leader died while I was screaming fucking stop on the radio.
The next morning we led out into the rice paddies, walking along the low dikes. There were half a dozen water buffalo near the far side but no people except one nine- or ten-year-old boy in shorts. The boy might have been tending the buffalo. We walked across the paddy without incident. The airborne troops followed close behind.
The boy stood in the rice paddy thirty meters away watching me and the twenty irregulars as we walked by. When the boy saw the Americans he ran. Why he decided to run I would never know, but when he did the Americans opened up on him, first one or two, then an entire platoon, tearing chunks off his small body with M-16 rounds. My people watched, silent and grim-faced.
The truth was that any last vestige of religion had been choked out of me during the last two months in Vietnam by scenes of dead children. To this day, I cannot bear the image of a single dead child. In the years that followed, I had found it easier to talk to bears than priests. I had no talent for reentering society. Others of my generation marched and expanded their consciousness; I retreated to the woods and pushed my mind toward sleep with cheap wine.
By daylight I was cold and cramped, anxious to start moving up the hill. Five inches of fresh snow covered everything except the ground under the thickest trees. The air was still, no wind yet. Once it begins to blow, beware. This easy late-season stroll through the woods could quickly grow dangerous and I would have to get out fast.
The dry snow fell softly though harder now from the gray sky. I shuffled up through the pines in the morning gloom. Visibility was a couple hundred feet and decreasing. I figured the den lay half a mile directly upslope, and, although I thought I knew exactly how to approach it, it was possible to get turned around in this increasingly white landscape where every view looked the same. I pulled the thick wool cap down over my forehead to shield my eyes from the snowy glare, which even in low light could cause snow blindness.
At the base of a whitebark I saw the remains of a squirrel's nut cache scattered onto the fresh snow. I stepped over to the debris: ear-shaped flakes of whitebark cones, pieces of cones, and whole pinecones scattered over the snowdrifts. A frozen bear scat lay near the pinecone midden in the snowless crescent on the lee side of a tree. I poked at it with a stick, finding a couple of undigested red berries from a mountain ash tree. This sort of scat is common just before grizzlies den up, when they empty out their digestive tracts for the long sleep. The ash berries may act as a purgative, although I wondered where they came from, since I had not seen any Sorbus bushes for days.
Excerpted from Grizzly Years by Doug Peacock. Copyright © 1990 Doug Peacock. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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