Sunday, April 26, 2009

Off The Beaten Path

As the last of the 24” of snow melted this week, I took a walk with my young sons in Olin Gulch in celebration of Earth Day. My four year old gleefully kicked slush at the dog in the two-track for a while before declaring his desire for “my own trail” and then setting off at a 45 degree angle from the main valley. Mom, infant brother, and wet dog followed.

As we walked, we identified tracks from ravens, rabbits, Sula (dog), ground squirrels, and even the tracks of a cross-country skier. And then my son stopped. “Mom. Look at THESE tracks.” I wandered up to where he was standing, staring down. “They are big,” he said. And they were. So I asked my standard question, trying to be cool and nonchalant, “So what do you think made these tracks?” No pause. “A bear.”

I agreed.

With all of our efforts to manage trash daily with off-site contained recycling and a bear-proof compactor, I haven’t seen much bear activity or bear “sign” around the ranch since my return to camp in 2001. But here was a set of perfect tracks in the snow; a post-winter, slightly pigeon-toed, long-clawed lumber headed straight toward the pond in the valley.


In the hour walk that followed, we kept talking about the bear—wondering where it lived, what it had been eating, and—of course—its size. We also talked about why we don’t usually see, or see signs of, many big animals or predators around anymore. We talked about habitat loss, weather changes, and our impact. With a four year old, when the conversation gets too heavy, suddenly he starts pretending he is a whale diving or a motorcycle jumping a ditch—but today was different.

He asked a lot of questions—hunting was a subject that both distressed and fascinated—but, at dinner that night, his favorite part of the day was, “The walk—and the big bear tracks in the snow.”

The slogan of my youth was, “Earth Day…Everyday.” And every day that we can get our kids, the Sanborn summer camp crew, our local school children, our country as a whole OUTSIDE, the more likely each individual will be to have a deep, authentic experience or interaction with the natural world. It is the best way we can create passionate stewards of our wild places; trying to do it through technology is a weak—and distancing—substitute.

Could we see bear tracks online? Yes. Could we watch a show about bears on Animal Planet? Yes. Would my son have run into his preschool classroom the next day and immediately told his teacher about “the really big bear that walked down to get some water after it slept for a long time and probably went to look for some bear berries or maybe some dead animal but not people because bears want their own space away from people because people hunt bears and I don’t like hunters but I like bears but they’re big….”? Probably not. And even though his teacher could only understand about 1/8 of his rambling story, she nodded and said, “I like bears, too. I want them to be around here for a long, long, LONG time.” And my son? He just smiled and said, “Me too.”

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