I set out on a hike in the southern Los Padres National Forest to a creek canyon where I have found bear trails on a previous adventure. I wanted to find a fresh trail of a bear and practice my skills in trailing. The first thing I noticed when I hit the trail is how many acorns have fallen. In fact, it was raining acorns as I walked into the forest. The interior and coast live oaks were full of them like ornaments on a Christmas tree. That’s when I became aware of the repetitive calling of two grey squirrels; they were doing that high pitch nasal sound I know too well from living in the redwood forest. Many a times I tried to walk quietly and unnoticed through the forest, just to be betrayed by the ever vigilant gray squirrels. I stopped and focused my attention to where the sounds were coming from. The two squirrels seemed to be right above the bottom of the canyon, calling back and forth. Then I saw the culprit; a bobcat was walking along the creek bed with a slightly annoyed look on its face. It sat down for a while, presenting a perfect photo opportunity, but my camera was still in a bag. I figured I would have likely spooked it off if I tried to take it out, so I just stood motionless and admired this beautiful creature. It headed up the bank on the opposite side of the creek bed and into the shrubs, apparently out of the squirrels territory because they stopped alarming. Not a bad way to start off a hike, I thought to myself, but I decided to alter my original plan of going up the creek bed to stay out of the squirrels’ way and continued along the trail.
As I was gaining elevation, the oak trees became sparser and made way to shrubs along with a few juniper trees. I noticed some still had berries on them. A short distance further I stumbled upon another wonderful discovery; fresh mountain lion tracks! They were beautiful and crisp, with clearly defined triple lobes on the back edge and double lobe on the front edge of the heel pad. The lion was walking in direct register, where the hind feet fell in place of the front, a gait that is most energetically efficient for felines. Occasionally though, the hind feet would fall little bit ahead of the front feet, creating a wonderful opportunity to study the tracks of this elusive animal.
I find something irresistible about feline tracks that make me want to find the next track and the one after that. Instinctively, I began trailing this lion. The lion moved along a sandy trail which made finding its tracks relatively easy. Every so often it left a scrape at the junctions of the trail and side animal trails. Mountain lions do that to communicate with other lions. Not far off though tracking got tough when it strayed off the trail. The next most obvious route the lion could have taken was either down to the creek bed, or up the slope into the trees and chaparral. The first meant looking for tracks and sign in sparse patches of coarse sand between rocks and boulders, and the second required keen observation of turned leaves and gentle compression in the litter of the forest floor. From the angle of the last track I could find it appeared that the lion turned toward the creek and since that was my original destination, that’s where I headed.
I tried to get into the lion’s mind of how it moved down the bank of the creek, but I could not find any tracks to confirm my suspicions. After coming up short on searching all obvious routes for any sign, I returned to the trail to investigate the tracks more closely. I decided this would be a great opportunity to do my first assignment from Principles and Study Tasks to “Walk with the Animal” by Jim Lowery. I marked seven tracks I thought were from the same trail and right away I noticed that one track did not fit the pattern; it was too close to the one preceding it. Upon closer inspection I realized that is must have been an older track. The one belonging to the trail was just a little bit further. I also noticed a gap where a track should have been right on top of some leaves. After looking closely I noticed that some leaves were cracked, some laid at an odd angle, and some were covered by a little bit of sand where the paws of the lion pushed off. Ability to notice details like that at a glance is necessary to trail a lion or any other animal through a difficult terrain and this was a humbling reminder that I still have a lot to learn.
The sun was getting higher and I decided it was time to enjoy the shade and cool air of the creek bed. I started walking down the stream, and investigated a variety of scats that were conspicuously placed on prominent rocks. I really appreciated the variety of colors, shapes and sizes they came in. Many of them had plant material; seeds of coffeeberries, and skins of manzanitas, likely remnants of foxes and coyotes. I also realized what a major thoroughfare the creek was to so many different type of animals.
I did not expect to run into any animals in the middle of the day and was not taking great care to move silently. Wearing hiking boots and having to scramble over boulders did not help either, so I got startled when a big brown butt blurred in front of my eyes. Luckily for me, the bear was even more startled than me, and decided to sprint up the hill. For how big and fat it appeared, it moved incredibly fast. By the time I brought the camera up to my eye it had already hid behind the trees not leaving me much of a shot. It was incredible how such a large animal could blend in with the surrounding landscape so easily.
It was a week of record high temperatures across California, and the bear was likely enjoying the shade and cool air by a couple of pools of standing water in the creek bed. I felt bad for scaring it off and causing it abandon this comfortable spot. I looked at the clear disturbance in the leaf litter the bear left behind. I found my fresh bear trail after all! It would have been much easier to trail this bear than the lion, I thought to myself, but while I wanted to follow it up the hill, I decided against that idea to give the bear its space. I made it up to the bear by picking up a bunch of beer cans and bottles at the bottom of the cliff where apparently the beautiful view compelled some humans to make it a bit less so.
Just a little way down the creek, a canyon wren distracted me from my thoughts once again by singing its series of cascading down whistles which sounded like laughter. It took me a minute to locate their maker, but in a very canyon wren fashion it hopped along the rock face of the creek bed and flew up to the crevices looking for insects and spiders. Every so often it would fly up to a prominent spot and pour its heart out into another song.
Standing there at the bottom of the creek with the wren and its song, I admired how this particular species has adapted to fit right into the niche of steep-walled canyons and bases of cliffs like a piece of a puzzle. It likely knew this creek as well as I know my own kitchen. That thought made me feel calm and grounded. I was a visitor here, and it was time for me to move on. On my way out of the creek bed, a grey squirrel jumped between the branches above my head and observed me closely. But it did not alarm.