Stump in the Trail

IMG_2581The trail to Bighorn Peak is well-used and travel-worn, maintained by the National Park Service and packed down by the numerous boots, hooves, and paws of the creatures who travel it.  For a backcountry trail, the path is wide and smooth and usually cleared of logs – but not a few days ago, when a large stump miraculously appeared in the very middle of the trail between the time I went up, and the time I came down.

Walking down the Bighorn Peak trail came as a relief after my venture towards the mountain. Snow still lies deep in the north-facing forests, calling for off-trail travel to get anywhere near the Peak – up steep open slopes, through the passable west-facing woods with their tangle of snow patches and down timber, then on to a rocky ridge. From that viewpoint, the pyramid of snow that is Bighorn Peak loomed ahead. The top would wait for another time.

For a long while, I sat on the exposed ridge, sipping ginger tea and listening. Mostly there was silence. Then a townsend’s solitaire broke into song, the bird’s long series of notes filling the air in a clarity accentuated by the background chorus of quiet. A solitary raven drifted over, gliding off and off and off into the distance, without a crawck, no sound, turning from bird to black sliver to dark dot to a piece of sky. No other life stirred on the ridge. Spring is late in coming to the high elevations.

Then the descent, through dense woods, down steep slopes, then back on the trail where walking was easy. And there was the stump. Unavoidable, unmissable, sitting in the middle of the trail making it impossible to pass without walking around it. I approached the stump scowling… it looked out of place. It had not been there on the way up. I’m sure of it. How?

Not much of a mystery. Tooth holes punctured one side of the stump, claw marks dragged across the other side. The center was dug out. A bear had wanted the insects and ants living in the rotted wood. Chewing and raking away, the bear must have dislodged the stump from the slope above, rolling it down the hill until the stump came to its final resting place just there – in the middle of the trail.

The bear’s mid-day meal had taken place between my points of passing, perhaps while I sat in the silence of the high ridges. There have been many other times when some bit of evidence left on my return trek provides a reminder of the unceasing activity taking place beyond our knowing – the otter scat in my ski tracks (on the day I was looking for otters and did not see one), the head of a mouse in the trail, the rest eaten by coyote? Fox? Those momentos of the creatures’ doings leave me wondering – I am constantly looking into the woods or over the slopes with curiosity: what is unfolding beyond my senses?

On the day of my Bighorn hike, there was a bear doing what bears do, foraging for food, ripping apart a stump, consuming a few ants. Just this day, I had the privilege of knowing a bit of what took place, a glimpse into the doings of that wild community of life.

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