IN THE CATSKILL MOUNTAINS
A PERSONAL APPROACH TO NATURE
by Walter F. Meade
From "Of Bees and Bears":
One day I had taken a pail and gone to the head of the hemlock woods to pick wild blackberries. This area supported some very large hemlock trees, several hemlock thickets, many deciduous trees, two big mossy swamps and a trout stream. Often I had fished there and had walked the muddy old wood roads looking for song birds. It was a good blackberry year and I was sure to find a crop in the clearings among the hemlocks. Shortly after I started down one of the old log roads I came to a halt in mid-stride. I was about to step in a large bear's track in the mud--the first bear track I had ever seen. I studied the hind foot impression and compared it to ones I had seen in books. The pad was about eight inches long and the claw marks showed clearly. The track appeared to be at least a day old. According to the stories I had heard Dad tell about how far bears travel, the bear could be miles away by now. . . .
A few days later I returned to the hemlock woods, not for berries, but for another look at the bear signs. Within minutes after entering the evergreen woods . . . I found fresh bear tracks in the mud. Like a hound searching for a scent, I looked everywhere for more clues to the bear's stay in the evergreen woods. I discovered many tracks and droppings along the path I was following. The wilted tops of jack-in-the-pulpit plants lay everywhere. The bear had scooped the shallow-rooted perennials out of the ground with its claws and had bitten off the fiery tuber. The bear had not left a standing plant that I could find.
It was in the thick hemlock swamp that I found the freshest and most impressive signs of the bear. The hot, muggy, late-August day had brought out swarms of mosquitoes who were eating me alive as I followed the muddy path deeper into the swamp. I was about to turn back because of the constant irritation when I came upon a depression that had clearly been dug by the bear. This muddy, sunken bowl was about ten inches deep, three by four feet wide and contained a couple of inches of water in the bottom. Nearby I found two more bear wallows. This bear was staying cool by bedding in the mud during the hot summer day. The mosquitoes had been bothering it too, because I noticed a couple of hemlock trees eight or ten inches in diameter that the bear had been using to scratch itself. They were plastered with dried black mud and a few of the bear's body hairs.
Further along the main path that led to this wallow area I found a tree that had been bitten or clawed, and there was a maze of bear tracks in the mud around the base of the tree. The bark and some of the wood under it was ripped loose from the tree about six to seven feet above the ground. Apparently the bear was marking its territory by tearing at the tree with teeth and claws.
In spite of all these signs, I assumed that my presence in the swamp had driven the bear out and that it had retreated up the mountainside. Indeed, I had not seen or heard the bear either time I had been in the hemlock woods. I realized my mistake when, walking back along the muddy trail, I found in several places that the bear had stepped onto my tracks. The print of his hind foot clearly obliterated the mark made by my shoe earlier in the day. The bear had never left the swamp!
I looked around and suddenly became aware that I could not see 30 feet in any direction. The high cinnamon ferns, the tall grass and the numerous hemlock thickets made this swamp a perfect hiding place for the bear. Where was it lurking? It could be within a few feet of me. Would it attack? Should I start running? No, for it would be fool-hardy to try to outrun a bear. How I wished I could just fly straight up in the air to get out of the swamp. Slowly I reasoned that the bear had known where I was all the while I was in the swamp. It was keeping out of my sight, but did not want to leave the cool refuge from the summer's heat. With great caution, I walked back out the muddy trail, taking very long steps.
Later, in the early fall, a farmer shot a big bear less than a mile from the hemlock woods. Although I visited this beautiful moss-covered swamp many times in years that followed, it was never the same. Something was missing--it needed a bear.
Walt Meade was a wildlife photographer specializing in portraits of animals and birds in the Northeast. He was also a celebrated and beloved storyteller and a farmer for 30 years in the Catskills. Before his retirement in 1980, he served first as farmer and nature instructor, and later as director of the Manhattan Country School Farm for 10 years. His nature writing and photography have appeared in numerous regional publications, including Kaatskill Life and The Catskill Quarterly.
127 pages, 63 color plates, 10 black-and-white plates, 10 x 8, 1991
Originally published at $25.00, this handsome hardcover is now available at $15.00.
Copyright © 1998 Purple Mountain Press. All rights reserved.