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Lee’s Stories

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posted on August 8, 2016 | Science and Nature
Jorstad’s for breakfast: animal stories

The morning I went
to Jorstad’s for breakfast,
I
rolled out of my sleeping bag in the
dark. 
It’s always cold then at Grizzly Lake,
but I suffered it gladly in T-shirt and shorts. I
had a long way to go and had to travel fast. 
It
was dark when I jumped the falls,
dark below the
cliff nearly a thousand feet below and in Grizzly
Meadow,
and darker and warmer on the trail
through the forest. 
It was dawn when I hit
the big trees
4 or 5 miles down the trail,
and quiet.
Small birds were busy
at their breakfast
in live oaks
beyond China Creek trail
and I was sweating.

Jorstad’s cabin
is at the bottom of Pfeiffer
Flat
in an open parkland of giant
ponderosa pine.  It’s a forest of light with
the north fork of
the Trinity River running
through it. 
Everything is beautiful there.  The
forest.  Jorstad’s cabin.  His out door kitchen and
picketed garden and his donks’ corral. 
George
built the cabin in 1935,
mined gold there for 50
years
and spent winters in San Francisco and
he wrote articles for newspapers.
I loved to
listen to his stories. Whenever I visited
Jorstad it was like sitting at
the feet of the master.

The first time
I saw Jorstad, between 7th
and 8th grades, was on a scout trip,
my first visit to Grizzly Lake.
We went
the long way around
, up through Pfeiffer’s
Flat, on up the North Fork and up Grizzly Creek
to the meadow, the waterfall, the lake and beyond.
As always for me with good storytellers and
good stories, and it was definitely that way
with George’s, I was mesmerized,
into it,
and pretty much gone when he
started and never really
came out of it.

 

The Bear.
The sun had
just hit just the tips
of the
tallest trees at the top of Pfeiffer Flat,
and though I couldn’t smell it yet, Jorstad’s
coffee was on the fire,
his donks were fed and
watered,
and pancakes were close behind. I would
be there in just a few minutes. 
Twelve miles apart
in rugged country, no electricity and no recent
hikers to let him know I was coming. He
didn’t know anything about it.
It would be a surprise.

The bear didn’t
know I was coming either,
evidently, though it could have and
avoided its own surprise.
It was tearing a
log apart for ants,
a bit off the trail and well
ahead of me as I came around a bend. 
I expected
it to startle
but it showed no sign of seeing, hearing,
or smelling me coming, and this was a puzzle. The bear
didn’t get it
or it didn’t care. It didn’t seem right for a bear
not to care
about a thing like that, so why in the world
hadn’t it seen, smelled, or heard me by then? 
Why
hadn’t it noticed? 
I watched, listened, and
caught my breath,
and then I
moved closer slowly.

Two hundred
feet.
A hundred. Fifty.
Half of that and closing and
still the bear didn’t notice. 
For all
I could tell,
all it noticed was the log it
was tearing,
the ants and ant eggs
it found inside,
and nothing
else
in the universe.

That bear was into it!

No Pfeiffer’s Flat,
no trail hikers might hike on,
no Jorstad, no nothing.  S
pecifically, no
me. 
The closer I got, the more interesting it
got
that the bear hadn’t noticed me coming and
I thought about several things.
If it were a deer
or a rabbit,
not to notice even the slim possibility
of danger
would have killed it long before
then.
Prey can’t afford to be unaware
of  their surroundings.
But
it was a bear.

Maybe it
doesn’t matter so much
for bears to
attend to those kinds
of things.
Maybe bears can attend fully to
tearing logs apart and pay no attention at all
to anything else while they’re tearing them.
Maybe I just
don’t matter to a bear.
But really? Really? I doubt it.

It was young,
still learning from mistakes,
like the rest of us.
It’s easy to imagine
youngsters “captivated
by” logs full of ants,
getting
“carried away”, and pay no attention
to – –
But how did it let me get so close? Why
hasn’t it reacted by now?
I couldn’t wait
to see what would happen
when
it discovered me.

We
were less
than the breadth
of a room apart when the
bear froze and I froze too
. It just froze,
a giant jagged splinter of log sticking out
both sides of its mouth,
bear nor splinter nor
I moving even microns.  Unbreathing.  U
nblinking.
M
aybe even our hearts had stopped. We were frozen
in time.
Then it turned its head, toothpick and all, slowly
in my direction.  W
hen we had good, solid, direct eye
contact and were
nailed together by what we saw
in each other
and not one moment earlier,
I said, as quietly and respectfully
but with the full authority
of my greater
years,

“You weren’t paying at-TEN-tion!”

That bear
couldn’t believe its eyes.

It couldn’t believe its ears, either,
I believe,
as if never in its life had it been
insulted like that.
Maybe it was embarrassed.
I would have been. 
I don’t know what the bear
experienced,
but it spit that toothpick out of its
mouth
and took off across the trail like a
scared rabbit
, spraying sticks and dirt
like a teenager peeling rubber. It
was still accelerating when it
hit the brush
at the edge of
the flat, going like crazy.

That bear was smoking!
I couldn’t believe my eyes.

By “hit the brush”,
I didn’t mean simply to say
that the bear reached the brush, like

when I hit the big trees earlier
or the sun
hit the tops of them. 
I meant hit. The bear
slammed into a wall
twice as tall as it was
long, small trees standing thick, stiff, and
closely packed.  I
t would be hard to
squeeze through for us  going
slow, but the bear was
going fast.

The bear just hit it.

No swerve, no slow,
no taking its time to pick the best
spot.  No nothing. The bear ran
into the brush, through it, and on up the hill,
still accelerating
. The brushfield waved back and
forth
like a half time card trick in a stadium and
just as noisy.
I stood watching, listening, chuckling
to myself, and
wondering what it is like to be a
bear.  B
efore I knew it, triggered by an
exploding bear,
my mind flooded
with animal stories.

 

The Cougar
I was
much younger,
out
in the wilderness, as it existed
in those mountains and in those times,
with a group of boys.  It took forever to climb
the ridge.  H
ot.  No trail.  No shade, sun at our
backs. 
No wind.  Steep.  Thick, tall, stiff, sturdy
outward-pointed brush
resists all but down-
ward motion. 
Sweating slowly upward,
rarely touching ground, locked
in an uphill battle with
a brushfield.

Then we reached
the ridge.  Relieved. P
roud.
Panting.  C
ooling in the breeze.
Loving the view.  Silent for the first
time since forever, when
suddenly,
over the brow on the other side
below us,
a cougar
exploded.

Cougar explosions,
like bears’,
are something to
behold. 
Preying mantis explosions
are special too, but when they explode only
their arms and claws move and the body goes
nowhere, like a jab from a boxer. Frogs’ tongues
explode.
When bears and cougars
explode, the whole animal explodes all in
one direction, hopefully away
from where I am at
the time. 

What amazes
me most
about large
animal explosions
is not just
speed
but acceleration.  How fast
big animals can accelerate
never
fails to surprise me. 
Animals
can really scoot.

We didn’t actually see
the cougar explode, you see.
Not
like I saw the bear.  We heard it.
It ran down
hill, away from us, and
first came into view at the
canyon bottom. 
You think the bear was smoking? The
cougar made the bear
look like it was standing still.  When
it leaped the creek and started up the other side,
we could
not believe how fast it went!
How could anything run up
that brushfield
as fast as it did and clear the ridge in
seconds?
It was unbelievable, but it happened in
front of our eyes
and we had to believe
it.
We had just taken forever to
climb a ridge just like it.

Where was
the lion been when it
discovered us?  What was it
doing at the time?  What was it like
for the lion when it
sprang, suddenly, into
action?  What was its experience? 
I wonder
about the lion’s, the bear’s, our Airedale Molly’s,
and my own experience.  What I mean by e
xperi-
ence isn’t “in” words or language.  We may speak
during experiences and speak about them,
and we may experience speaking,
but ex-
periences are not in language. Not
the cougar’s and I think not
mine either, funda-
mentally

I don’t
think experience is
fundamentally in pictures
either, though I do see, hear, taste,
smell, and feel things.  What I think of
as my experience is how it is for me:
The
feeling of what happens
. What is it like for
a cougar? 
I’ve wondered about these things
as long as I can remember, and spent 40
years studying them professionally
with animals and, I must keep
confessing, human
students.

If the lion
knew we were coming

before we reached the ridge, sweat,
noise,
complaints to each other and all, why
did it wait so long to get out of there?
Or did it stalk
us, change its mind at the last moment, change its way,
change our destiny, and then flee?  But how could a pack
of noisy boys
surprise a mountain lion? Was it asleep?
Day dreaming of a deer?
Zoning out? Not keeping its
wits about it?   What? 
Don’t wild things, living in
wild worlds where it pays to pay attention,
pay attention?  Don’t they have to?
Isn’t that how it is out there?
Isn’t it how it is
in here?

 

The Deer
That same summer
on another trip,
south of Cuddihy
Lakes and north of Marble Mountain,
a
doe surprised herself,
walking along the top of
a cliff at the end of a lake,
where the fishing was as
furious
as ever before or since in my experience.
We were hauling them in and didn’t know any
thing about the deer. 
A rock fell from the
cliff, then silence
only silence for a
while, t
hen, on a ledge part
way down the cliff,
there
was a scrambling.
A deer!

How could a deer even get to such a place?

It scrambled, fell,
a
nd fell again, and dropped
to the rocks
by the water and lay still.
We were horrified! How could a deer fall
off a cliff? Don’t deer pay attention?
Had it
been watching us when it should have been
watching where it was going?
Did it
trip?   Did something frighten
it?   Why did it fall?
Why?  Why?

Long after dark,
burdened by venison and trout,
we left the lake.  Long after midnight,
sore, tired, and ready to sleep, we stashed
our meat
with eggs and bacon from before
in a 5-gallon can in the creek, rocks on top,
and crawled into our sleeping bags. The
next story begins at the moment
we awoke in the morning,
simultaneously.

 

The Other Bear
Hours
after sunup
and
baking in our bags
asleep,
we awoke to a crash by
the creek.  A
nd another and another
and another. “
It’s a God-damned bear!”
yelled Brunjes, “It’s got our meat!  Come
on!”
Out of our bags, on with our boots,
and off to the creek in a flash,  To
take our meat back from
a bear?

There was
no meat at the creek,
no venison, nor bacon, nor bear,
and only the lid of the can. Above us on the
other side,
in a small thick forest of alder in a
seep that fed the creek,
the bear banged
our can on the trees as it went
“Come on!” cried Brunjes,

and we went.

We
followed
a trail of broken branches,

bruised trees, and scramblings in
the dirt
and found eggshells, but no venison,
bacon, can, or bear.
The sound faded up the hill
then stopped, suddenly, and we continued, some
what more carefully. 
Bruises, hanging pieces
of bark
, sometimes by a thread, skinned parts
to scab over later and scar.
Scramblings.
Thirty or forty bruises up the hill from
the eggs
there was a sad excuse for
a 5-gallon can,
torn and in
tatters,
and none of its
contents were any
where in sight.

No eggs, no venison, no bacon and no bear.

Here’s what
probably happened. The
bear smelled the venison, found the
can, popped the, round, pressure-fit lid
with a nail, reached in the can, and grabbed
a leg of venison. 
When it pulled on the venison
the can came too, and it stayed that way until
the bear had finishied demolishing the can.
It could have let go of the meat, of course.
But that was a lot of meat. 
For a bear,
tearing open a 5-gallon can, while
a tedious bother, just
takes a while.

 

The Bobcat
A few
years before
I saw the bear on the
trail to Jorstad’s, but many
years after the cougar, the deer,
and the bear that stole our venison,
a bobcat and I encountered each
other at close range in nature
and neither of us was
at all surprised.

On a quiet,
cool, early morning
in spring,
mist swirled in
willows and calmness enveloped
the world.
I waded slowly and carefully,
crotch-deep
down Little Butte Creek, looking
for newts.
Willow leaves, unfurled but small, swelled
in California sunshine time and
just downstream, out
of sight and hearing,
Honey Run Road crossed the
covered bridge
on its way to Paradise.  Behind
me, way back up the creek,
the canyon was
deep.  Uncrossed by roads
for miles, it
approximated wilderness
and
I was at the edge of it.

Minutes earlier
as I turned a bend,
I
had noticed a log spanning the
stream before me,
noted the need
to duck under it when I arrived

and promptly forgot
about it.

I sensed
slight motion.
Near,
at the level of my eyes and
to my right,
a bobcat had stepped
up on the log
and was crossing casually,
lost, seemingly,
in a world of its own dreams
and strolling.
All stream, mist, civilization, and
wilderness beyond us,
we occupied the same small
space for a while,
the bobcat in its dreams and I in mine,
relaxed, content to be together in that place and in that
way.
In my mind’s eye I see it looking both ways before
crossing,
noticing me, discounting me as a threat,
and continuing,
at peace with the thought of my
being there.
After I raised my eyes it glanced
once at me,
paused briefly, and continued
its calm stroll 
across the log.  As far
as I could tell,
nothing wor-
ried it as much as
wet feet.

The
bobcat
disappeared
at the other end of the log.

I ducked under the log and
continued my work.

 

Back
to the first bear.
Meanwhile, the bear I surprised
on Pfeiffer Flat
kept crashing up the hill.
I stood still on the trail, remembering, wondering
about the bear’s experience. 
Jorstad finished his first
cup of coffee
and poured his second, fresh from the fire,
and thought about breakfast.  I thought about coffee and
breakfast too
and joined him a few minutes later.  We
had a great breakfast and a swapping of stories

and I headed back up the trail, full of life and
ready to rejoin the hummingbirds.
I
loved breakfast at Jorstad’s!
His
stories were amazing.

 

Lu and the
other Cougar (2003).
Just last Saturday, Lu left this phone
message,
calling from our place on
Quadra Island
(we still lived in
Vancouver then).

“I saw
a cougar.
It was
really amazing,
exciting,
and scary. 
I was walking up
toward
Monty’s place, just beyond
his sign, when
a young cougar stepped
out of the bushes ahead of me and crossed
the road.
I stood, watched it walk across
the road
less than a hundred feet from me,
then I walked slowly backwards
all the
way home. 
I am standing on the deck
now a
nd wanted to tell you, so
there you go.”

So there you go too.

As you can
imagine, Lu’s cougar story
has more detail when she tells it in
person. 
When it first stepped out of the
forest  she thought it was a house cat, closer to
her and smaller than it was. 
When its tail began
to emerge, her first thought was
that it was awfully
long! 
Then she realized it was larger, more distant
than she thought, and a cougar not a house cat.  She
felt a jolt of adrenalin, breathed deeply, and kept
her wits about her.
Controlling her flight or
fight response to the adrenaline, she
retreated cautiously backwards,
first into the openness of
our meadow and then
to the safety
of home.

How many
memories can be triggered
by the explosion of a bear?  How
many experiences can grow out of it?
We already knew about the wolves by then.
We had listened to them howl, near, just before
dawn, and I had tracked them coming and going
in snow. 
There are other stories to tell about
those and other wolves, especially with
respect to Molly the Airedale. 
If
I forget to tell you and you
want to hear them,
remind me.


George Jorstad
celebrated his 80th birthday
with my research group, together with
a gathering of friends of his who had hiked in
for the occasion.  George wanted to return to Grizzly
Lake one last time but couldn’t make it up the cliff.
So we brought everything down to the edge of
the meadow below Grizzly Falls and had a
party.  We called it
The Great
Grizzly Lake Music
Festival of 1980.

It was a
joyous celebration

of George’s birthday, George’s
life,
and being together in the wilder-
ness. 
A few years after George died in 1988,
his cabin was protected as a historically signifi-
cant part of the Trinity Alps Primitive Area, and
is maintained.  Parts of George’s story are at
this hiking website. Posthumously, George
Jorstad published a book in 1995:
Behind the Wild River: A
search for a better
way to live
.


Note about
animal explosions.
Acceleration is the name of
the game in predation.  Predators
must accelerate to catch prey
and prey must accelerate
to avoid them.


My
calling the story
about the other bear “The
Other Bear” is in part a nod to
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
My favourite poem of his
is Otro Perro, the
Other Dog.


Note added
December 2018.  The
Honey Run Covered Bridge over
Butte Creek, near Chico California, was
the last covered bridge of its type in the US.
The bridge burned in the 2018 Camp fire that
also destroyed the communities of Paradise and
Magalia.  The lower end of my newt study area
was near the bridge, where I saw the bobcat.
The upper end was above Magalia, about
6 miles away in the same drainage,
near where the Camp fire
started.


Written June 2003.  Edited January 2019

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