It was March 2006, and the infamous Jim Kramer and I had taken a weekend trip out to the coast to explore some new areas photographically. We had no itinerary and only a rough route planned out – basically, we were winging it to see what we might find, which as far as I’m concerned is the best way to do it.
We were following a sandy access road down among some farmed fields that were interspersed with irrigation channels and scrub brush, which meant at times we could see for hundreds of meters, and shortly afterward visibility dropped to a few car lengths. I had remarked a little earlier that there remained a possibility of spotting American black bears (Ursus americanus,) because I had seen some before in very similar terrain. But at this moment, we’d stopped at a promising spot and had been out of the car, exploring some ditches and copses for wading birds, turtles, and hawks when I turned back towards the vehicle and happened to glance down at the sandy road. And abruptly registered what I was seeing.
“Hey, Jim?” I called out, and when he turned to see what I wanted, I gestured down at the road. I can’t recall if I unnecessarily said, “Those are bear tracks,” or not – it seems likely, even though I knew damn well he would recognize them as easily as I did. If nothing else, the size of them against the tire marks left no doubt.
Immediately, I was struck with how many places within a short sprint from us could possibly conceal something the size of a bear, as well as realizing that it had rained the night before, so the unobliterated tracks had to be less than eight hours old. Black bears are not particularly aggressive – quite the opposite, really – but then again, it was birthing season, and even still you never really want to be within a few dozen meters of one while lacking, say, a nice thick zoo fence in between. Our focus was still about trying to spot something before it spotted us, but now less from an accomplishment standpoint and a bit more from a self-preservation one.
We never saw any bear at all, and I couldn’t tell you how close one might have been at any given time, but it was clear that the possibility was more than passing, and it lent just a hint more drama to the day. It’s true that, any time one is in bear country,
there will be a jamboree you could be crossing recent paths, but seeing the direct evidence makes it more immediate than possibly just imagination, you know?