I rise to the sound of the river. It’s fluid motion is heard above the birds welcoming the morning. I kick the covers from around my feet and sit up, bleary eyed and semi-conscious… another day in the solitude of the forest.
My puppy hears me rustling and jumps up for morning scratches and a nice long stretch. He rolls over and I awaken my stiff hands in his warm fur. Mornings are tough when it’s cold and damp outside, but this is my world, my new existence. The outdoors have become my backyard.
I slide to the edge of the bed. My girlfriend is already up and making some nice hot coffee to waken my foggy brain and warm my cold hands. It continued to rain all night and a low mist hangs around the trees in the mountains before me. The ground sodden from the rain and smelling of fresh wet earth. My senses delight in the sounds and smells.
I pull on my clothes, left in a pile last night as I quickly undressed and ran for the cover of my warm bed, and breathe slowly as I inch my half frozen pants over my legs. The air in the van is damp and smells of the campfire we had all day yesterday to keep warm. The light is hazy as it struggled to break from behind the clouds and stream into the windows. I open the door and step into the morning.
The sky has begun to clear and has been washed of the smoke that has been choking the air and hiding the suns brilliance. I can see the sun as it slides down the mountain sides, illuminating the changing colors. Bright yellow, orange, red and vibrant green accent the mountain side, as fall starts to paint the mountains with its magical brush. I long for the warmth.
I take a chair close to the edge of the river and sit down to a piping hot cup of joe and feel it warm me as I take a sip. My girlfriend comes over and softly kisses my cheek and says “good morning.” I reciprocate with “thanks for the coffee.” She pulls up a chair and sits beside me. I take another sip and concentrate on it as it warms me on the way down my throat. This is life…and life is good.
The past week has been a tough one as far as breathing goes. The Northwest is on fire and the smoke follows the wind. We were fortunate to not have had the smoke all summer until this last week. I am reminded of the damage caused with a deep rattling cough. Between the dust and the smoke, my lungs are burning to breathe fresh mountain air once again. Today the rains have scrubbed the sky brilliant blue and the air fresh and cool.
Out of the corner of my eye I see a quick brown flash of movement. I turn my attention to two squirrels as they chase each other through the branches. Their acrobatics bring to me a sense of joy as they jump and scamper from tree to tree. Chattering wildly as they the run around, Gandaulf sees them and enters their game of chase.
We’re packing up for a hike along the Selway River in the Selway Bitterroot NF. We’re planning on about a 5 mile hike… it is the first real hike of our trip. Gandaulf is suited up in his green neoprene fleece jacket and orange bandanna. We layer up since it’s cold now but by the time we get to the trail head, 12 miles away by UTV, it will be warming up.
We pack the essential do-dads and emergency stuff, and pack it away in our day pack. We pack the jetboil and some chicken enchilada freeze dried backpack food and some lunch for the Boo. We pack some extra water, the .38, bear spray, and rain jackets. Nothing tastes better after a strenuous hike, than a cold beer, but we have decided to forgo those until our return to camp.
I topped off the gas in The Thing (our UTVs name) and take a rag to the thick layer of dust coating everything, mixed into a nice mud slurry from the rain the last 24 hours. We load up and do a double check and are off to Paradise.
We knew from speaking to the Fish and Game warden, that there are bears, wolves, mountain lions and rattlesnakes along the trails route… so we packed the .38 and the bear spray in close proximity to our front so if by chance we happen upon one of these predators, we can run… Ever read the label on bear spray? Remove the safety and spray a tiny test to see which way the wind is blowing! Do they really think anyone will have time to follow the directions? Hell no! Shoot to kill, mame, or injure then run! Instinct will win with most people.
We hop in the UTV and take off for Paradise, at the end of the Magruder Corridor. It’s a beautiful semi-primitive campground and the host to many of the trails in the area. We set out, packs on our backs, hiking sticks, Gandaulf in his finest wear, the .38… no bear spray!! No good… So I head back to the UTV to get it and run into a line of pack mules heading up to some random hunters camp. The mule skinner was polite and we let him pass.
We hiked about 2.5 miles through a heavily forested trail lined with white cedar trees thick with old mans beard. The rocks were carpeted with the most vibrant green moss and old dead fall was reduced to sodden fibrous skeletons, providing a new fertile place for low forest floor plants. As we came upon the cutoff for Bad Luck Creek, we saw our first bear track. We just brushed off the berry filled scat as old but these tracks were new. The hairs instantly rise on your neck when you realize you are in the presence of the top predator in the area.
I moved my bear spray closer and removed the safety, Chris checked her .38 and we laughed as we hiked on SUPER VIGILANT! We came to a stream crossing at around 3 miles in and decided to turn around and head out. I grabbed the keys to the UTV and fastened them to my hiking stick as a makeshift bear bell. You’ve never heard a set of keys make as much noise as it did today.
We hiked on and heard some footsteps coming up the trail and I noticed our Fish and Game Warden, Victor, coming around the corner. We exchanged pleasantries and I showed him the picture of bear poo that was fresh as of a few hours. He said a hunter almost walked in top of a bear yesterday by where we saw the prints. He was in for a 15 mile hike to an airfield in the wilderness where hunters and outfitters take clients to hunt elk, deer, bear… whatever is in season. We wished each other well and took off.
We were getting hungry and knew of a nice area right by the river for a stop for lunch. Of course we made sure we were up wind from our food smells. Gandaulf barked and created a safe environment for us, at least from bears. We made our chicken enchiladas and scarfed it down, each of us secretly thinking of the same thing… bears.
By the time we had made it back to our UTV, we had seen more fresh scat than we cared to, like it wasn’t there when we hiked in. Bear for sure, some other smaller animal that also loved the blue berries, and a white, well formed large poo full of fur. Guessing wolf or maybe mountain lion. At our lunch spot was an old moldy, very thick leg bone that had been caught between a long tree root and a rock, probably during high water. It had been snapped off in a very clean break. The bone was about 12” long and at the point of the break about 3” in diameter. We found many other bones and lots of scat to indicate maybe a favorite dinning spot. It’s is kinda creepy to think about being 4th in the predator line.
We made our way back to camp (home) and settled in for a good cold beer and to discuss all the sign we saw. Play ball with Gandaulf and nurse our sore bodies.