Brushing a sticky, silken strand from my face, I know my steps are the first, at least for the time it takes the spider to spin its thread again across the trail. Farther up, Wes and I work our way around the cracked and splintered subalpine firs that mark the path of a snow avalanche. We gaze upslope at the swath of bent and broken trees that speak of the power of snow churning down from the high Wallowas. This summer’s wildland hikes have given bountiful opportunities to read the land and listen to its messengers.
Far above us on a precipice, while hiking the trail to Ptarmigan Tunnel in Glacier National Park, we hear the insistent cries of birds that seem to come from within the rock itself. On our return, a golden eagle swoops in to land on the nest we cannot see to feed the eaglets that still beg relentlessly. A few weeks later, camping above an unnamed alpine lake in the Eagle Cap Wilderness below its namesake peak, a golden eagle lands in a whitebark pine and remains there, perhaps all night as the full moon rose and shone its silvery light.
Turning from glorious eagles to what lies underfoot reveals what might seem humble in comparison, yet in the squelchy mud appears nature’s calligraphy. Touch the oval, paired shapes of deer hoof prints. Compare them to the larger set from elk there, too. Put your own hand next to the canine pad track with its claws etched into mud. Is it coyote or wolf? Ask who has come here, when, and where they are going. Follow tracks. Find the pressed grasses where the elk lay down, the scraped tree from antler rub, or the dug up ground squirrel hole left by the passing bear.
Backpacking down to the East Eagle Trailhead on our last morning of a six day loop, we note the increasing frequency and freshness of black bear scat, not surprising among thickets bursting with sour red chokecherries. Time for a few “hey bear” calls and hand-clapping!
Berries on trails often signal the presence of bruins, yet not always. Earlier this summer, my son Ian and I hiked a benign coastal trail south of Florence, Oregon, wandering along a sandy creek to the dunes. Suddenly, the coal black bear stepped out from the salal bushes just 20 feet away. We glimpsed its magnificent thick coat of fur and a face that mirrored our own shock. In seconds, he wheeled around and ran off.
My heart pounded more when Wes and I spooked a grizzly bear, while hiking and talking (not loud enough apparently!) on our 18-mile loop over Pitamakin and Dawson Pass in Glacier. We never saw the bear, only the thimbleberry, saskatoon, and huckleberry bushes waving as the great beast crashed away. I’d reached for the bear spray in Wes’s pack and had it at the ready. We yelled and clapped and I felt a flush of adrenaline heating my whole body.
Read the land. Listen to its wild messengers. Safety is one reason. The other? It’s a reminder of that adage, “The journey is the destination.” Rather than focus on the apex of the trip, like scaling a summit, every step offers a puzzle to solve, beauty to absorb, or an unexpected gift in the form of the fallen flicker feather, the striped pebble, or the palm-sized and perfect paper wasp nest. Stopping to photograph a wildflower, you notice its pollinators. Some are beetles and flies, others are butterflies and native bees.
Alternate between the up-close view and the all-encompassing gaze. Note how glaciers scoop out the U-shaped valleys, and the way the clouds build up in afternoons to billow, darken and rumble with thunder. See how wildfire blackened only parts of a forest–skipping and dancing its way, the shaper of ecosystems. Challenge our own preconceptions. Let nature give us evidence, yet never draw concrete conclusions. All is dynamic, shifting, and a return trail never looks the same.
Finally, stay put and let nature come to you. Whether idling at camp or resting at trailside, that’s often when the deer steps out of the shadows, the kingfisher flashes by on the stream and lands in the tree in front of you, or when a toad hops out of a clear pool where trout are rising, and bats whisk away the daylight with every fluttery beat.
Read the land. Listen to its messengers. Become your animal self in the wilds. Be at home.