A Walk for Ms. Wood
I live in the forest now. It has been something I have wanted since I was a child spending most of my summers in the mountains around Big Bear and now, here I sit, in an old historic cabin in the middle of the woods. Yes, that’s right. Not in town: in the woods.
I don’t miss my hometown of Long Beach when I am here. I know, like anything or anyone that truly matters; that Long Beach is always there waiting for me. Like a good parent, she let’s me wander and return for comfort as needed. It feels good to feel her strength somewhere off in the distance; just a short drive to the city that holds the people that I love.
Today the wind is blowing through the mountains, what feels like a warm Santa Ana, a precursor to the coming Fall, and I listen as the trees bend and sway knowing that I am completely alone. There is a quiet to the woods, a shift in energy when people pack up and head down the hill, and I know that my cabin neighbors are not present today.
Opal, my baby pit bull, has just come up to me as I write this, tail wagging, whole body wagging really, ball in mouth, hoping I will open the cabin door so we will go outside and therefore I pause for a moment and we do.
Being in the National Forest is not like walking in our town’s Nature Center. Yes, when I am in the Center I may run into a coyote, spot a hawk or an owl, or on the rare occasion glimpse a fox but, I don’t walk the path worried for my mortal life.
Here, I know that once I take the path into the woods there are any number of predators that I may come across and though most people find me to be a person that they see as “fearless” there are twinges that creep in, especially when I am with Opal; who to me seems like a lure for anything wild. I always have the feeling that she is a city girl in the country and that the true beasts will show her just what wild is as she gallops down the path chasing yet another beautiful butterfly or rushing to find exactly where the ground squirrel or the chipmunk live, oblivious to what lurks in her new surroundings.
A few months back, Stephen and I were stopped from our bickering, over who was going to build what inside of the cabin, by a beautiful gray bobcat that crossed in front of our kitchen window. We have always marveled at this window. A ten-foot by five-foot giant pane of glass, brought up the mountain sometime in the 40s and installed so that it captures a large span of forest and lake and makes you feel that you are viewing a landscape painting of magnitude.
The cat came up to the left of the glass, from the base of the ravine, and entered the picture and at first, my mind could not fathom what it was, too big to be a house cat or a raccoon, but not the right shape for a large breed dog.
He was beautiful, the way he moved at a steady pace, sure in his stride, aware of his surroundings with almost a strut to his style. He stopped in front of our window, enjoying the warmth of the sun and preened himself for a moment before something in his nature knew, just as I knew when I was in the forest alone, he knew that someone was watching.
He turned his head quickly and stared us down. We had been sure he couldn’t see us through the reflection in the glass but he had and we were privy to a moment of connection to something truly wild. It was the strangest feeling. His intensity burned through the window. I felt like I had been caught naked: vulnerable and unsure. It was then that I was glad that Opal had not been outside bounding about when he appeared, and though many locals said he probably would have “gone to tree” if Opal was present, something in his steely glare seemed to negate their reassurance.
His ears pricked up as he watched us and I noticed the fine feathered tips that shot straight up from the tips of his ears as if he had his own permanent party favors or fireworks displayed for all to see.
Then, he left, as mysteriously as he came to us, over the ridge and into the next ravine and I prayed to whatever God the forest listens to that he would live a long beautiful life undisturbed in his habitat.
Yesterday, there was a mama black bear and her two cubs destroying bird feeders for their liquid sugar and frolicking and playing in the trees across from our cabin. Someone had taken a video from the safety of their window and once again I was glad that Opal and I had been inside, an instant image of her running forward, baby-to-babies, all cubs really wanting to play and mama, ready to protect.
People love to act as if black bears are “no big deal” when I tell them that we have bears in our area and though I never correct them, I do like to imagine each of these people, walking a path, as they are crossed by a 400-pound black bear with cubs. I tell you what they wouldn’t do in this situation, they would never say something as stupid as black bears are no big deal ever again.
A bear is a bear.
And though yes, a grizzly can be terrifying, and anyone who has seen the film, The Revenant, has now had that idea seriously hammered home, a black bear can be scary too. I’m not quite sure what I would do if I were crossed. I imagine making myself big: arms raised, legs wide, mouth loud, as I have done before when dealing with coyote incidents at the park at home, I doubt I would pull out bear spray as a means of trying to ward a mama bear off; especially if this was a mama bear protecting her cubs. I know how fierce I can be protecting my own children, I can’t even imagine how terrifying I would be if I had canines several inches long and claws that could rip open a gut with one swipe. I imagine that my posturing would most likely amuse her but that my bear spray may be what would set her off. Hopefully, I won’t ever have to find out.
I have seen numerous black bears but I have seen a grizzly only once in the Big Bear Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. I watched as he floated in a pool and swatted a telephone pole around and bear hugged it as if he was on a floatie in a pool in my own backyard. It was then, in real life, not in film, that I understood just how easy it would be to “end me.”
But, having said all that, I do believe that I rather come across a bear than a cougar. I have thought about that more than I probably should, imagining me grabbing the scruff of it’s neck after it had pinned Opal to the ground and I of course, being who I am, would not allow my pup to fight it alone, and yes, I might die beating it off, but this is not the Nature Center and this is what you sign up for when you decide to live in the woods.
I have a healthy respect and a great love and admiration for these animals and I understand that this is their home, their territory and they have invited me in as a guest of the forest. I don’t carry a gun, though I have thought about getting one lately to deal with people, not animals, but for now, my only weapon of defense is a big stick, very Teddy Roosevelt as I walk through the National Park and thank him in spirit for creating this for me, for all of us really.
And so, I will stop writing now, and I will put on my shoes and grab my pack, and take baby Opal where she longs to go, out in the wild, and though I’ve heard whispers of a cougar somewhere up by Camp Cedar Lake and that the bears are now rumored to be close to the mineral springs, we will walk that way and be part of this great vast wilderness because as Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy’s cousin once said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” and I was not born to stay cradled in a cocoon but to live life to its fullest and look for a story worth telling and so off we go, into the woods, Opal rushing ahead as I follow her lead.