Posted tagged ‘black bear’

A FAVORITE SEATTLE-AREA HIKE: Melakwa Lake

August 11, 2010

Denny Creek cascades over a series of waterfalls near the trail

A hike starting between the eastbound and westbound lanes of Interstate 90 might seem less than promising. But we didn’t give up, even after the trailhead parking lot was full by 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday and the freeway noise was constant.

The trail to Melakwa Lake is like that; since it is so close to Seattle, being on the near side of Snoqualmie Pass, it gets heavy use. The trail leads directly under the tall, elevated viaduct that is the westbound route of I-90. I find the viaduct strangely beautiful; it was built so that avalanches could pass directly underneath, without affecting traffic. The contrast of the massive and elegantly simple concrete structure with the wild and visually complex forest below is astounding.

The Snoqualmie Pass Viaduct lets avalanches slip underneath

Farther up the trail, families gather on the smooth stone along one stretch of Denny Creek for cooling off on hot summer days. Still, farther, there is dramatic Keekwulee Falls. After that, only the young and/or hardy make the hike to Melakwa Lake, which has a 2,300′ elevation gain in just a few miles.

We camped near the smaller lake, and enjoyed a quiet night with a bit of rain and low clouds that swirled and danced among the rugged peaks and pointed firs. I didn’t realize it until later, but “Melakwa” is a native word for “mosquito,” and the lake lived up to its name (what’s a wilderness experience without a struggle?). Worse than mosquitoes were the black flies, tiny creatures that love to fly behind your glasses and bite you right at the hatline. I came back with four nasty bites that still itch and are swollen as I write this, a week and a half later. There were also biting flies of normal size that pestered us on the way up the trail, but their bite isn’t as bad as their buzz.

I’ll let the photographs tell most of the story, but there was one additional event that we found interesting. When I looked into Melakwa Lake on Sunday, the sun’s reflection appeared coppery in color. I thought maybe it was something about the lake’s blue color that changed the reflection; but on the hike down, the late afternoon sun turned tree trunks a bright burnt orange color. Then, on the drive home, the setting sun was a ball of dark (not bright) orange in the sky–something I had never observed in Seattle before, though it was common in central New York where I once lived. We heard later that the unusual color of the sun was due to smoke from forest fires burning in British Columbia.

For more information about the Melakwa Lake hike, including trip reports by numerous hikers, go to: http://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/melakwa-lake

American Pikas, relatives of rabbits, live among talus slope rocks in the basin containing Melakwa Lake; they make their living by gathering wildflowers and sedges and storing the dried “hay” for the long winter. They live under the snow and do not hibernate.

GROSS ALERT: Pika scats, which Pikas eat, thus ingesting nutrients they didn’t absorb the first time around

Pink Mountain Heather at its peak of bloom

Meet “Misty Melakwa,” our snowlady for the trip

The smooth rocks in one stretch of Denny Creek are great for sliding

A Dark-eyed Junco (aka “Snowbird”) sang in the mist above our tent

There were about six tents in the basin the night we visited

An American Dipper peering into the stream near our tent

Evening and early morning were misty, with low clouds shrouding the mountains

Colorful stones in the crystal clear waters of Denny Creek

Green False Hellebore, a favorite of mountain photographers, is deadly; so don’t eat it!

Misty mountain morning

The blue glow of a misty deep twilight

I believe this rock, tortured and twisted with chunks and flows, is termed a skarn

Pacific Silver Fir shredded and gnawed by a black bear

Keekwulee Falls along Denny Creek

Morning fog above Melakwa Lake

Waves give a painterly look to Melakwa Lake

A coppery sun, tinted by forest fires, reflects off the waves of Melakwa Lake

SKINNED ALIVE: A Black Bear Story

August 5, 2010

Pacific Silver Fir bark stripped by a hungry Black Bear

When we panted our way up to Hemlock Pass on the trail to Melakwa Lake, Karen noticed a big tree, perhaps 20′ from the trail, that had its lower bark removed. Examining it, we discovered that the tree had been skinned alive by an American Black Bear, and that two other trees in the vicinity had experienced the same fate.

This was actually the fourth time we have seen this phenonmenon; in all cases in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. When bears emerge from hibernation in the spring, they are REALLY hungry, and where there are no people or pic-a-nic baskets to consume, they turn to trees. Specifically, to the Pacific Silver Fir, though they are known to have less than selective taste in trees and will consume others as necessary. But the Pacific Silver Fir is apparently the caviar of trees, and is targeted.

Vertical tooth marks and diagonal claw marks

Can you imagine a bear coming up to a tree, delicately sniffing the bark and nibbling it to see if the taste is something exquisite? No? Neither can I. Instead, the bear roughly uses its claws to rip and shred the outer bark from a tree, then uses its front teeth (not its canines) to scrape the nutrient-rich phloem layer, which we call the “inner bark,” and consume the sugary treat. Mmmmmm …

You might think that foresters would dislike this bear habit, because it often girdles the trees and kills them. Right again! Foresters have long wrestled with strategies for discouraging bears from eating trees, even going so far as to put “vending machines” out in the woods where bears can get a treat that has similar nutritional properties as the trees, and is a lot easier for a lazy bear to exploit. Though I’m not sure where the bears are supposed to get the quarters for the vending machines … perhaps from campers’ pockets while they are “safely” asleep in their thin nylon tents?

Front tooth marks where the bear has scraped off the inner bark

Bear damage either kills or slows the growth of a tree

NEW JERSEY: The Jersey Bears

May 8, 2008

Everyone has seen Jersey barriers along the highway, but today I actually saw Jersey bears (and no, it’s not a minor league baseball team)!

While visiting the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which straddles the New Jersey/Pennsylvania border, I stopped at the Kaiser Trailhead in New Jersey’s Worthington State Forest.  The Flowering Dogwood trees were at their peak of bloom, so the woods were filled with that wonderful white frost of blossoms, which contrasted with the spring green haze of emerging maple and oak leaves.  After I finished my dogwood photography, I was putting away my gear and preparing to drive away when I looked into the forest again and saw an American Black Bear foraging in a forest opening about 100 yards away.  Excited, I stopped stashing my equipment and instead pulled out the 500mm lens and 1.4x extender [this is a photographer’s blog, so I have to mention my equipment!].  Then I set about observing and taking a few photographs when the bear was most visible in the forest.

Then, much to my surprise, two young cubs appeared in the brush—they were accompanying their mother.  The mother was well aware of my presence, and I dared not get too close to her.  The cubs were more skittish, and I was unable to get any photographs of them.  The mother was keeping them on a long leash, so to speak, so they were not cuddling up to her but instead were foraging on their own.  I found the mother bear’s feeding behavior fascinating; she would walk up to a rock on the forest floor, and use her front feet and claws to lift the edge of it–looking underneath for any grubs or ants or anything else edible that might be hiding there.  There were plenty of rocks, as this trailhead was at the base of Kittatinny Mountain, which has a backbone of crumbly rock.  I observed one of the young bears working the rocks the same way–mother had already taught these young cubs well.  Eventually the bears ambled up the mountain and out of sight, but I was left with a thrilling and completely unexpected experience.

Earlier, a young man who I suspect is a recent immigrant from Russia, stopped to ask directions.  Accompanied by his mother, he had left the interstate looking for a gas station and instead ended up on this remote forest road.  He was from Ottawa, Canada, and was returning to Canada from a New York City road trip.  As we were talking, I pointed over his shoulder at the mother bear, which had gotten unexpectedly close.  He was startled and amazed, and said it was the first wild bear he had ever seen.  I think his mother, who remained in the car, was scared to death!

After I left that area, I stopped at Dunnfield Creek Natural Area and walked the Appalachian Trail–or at least 50 yards of it!  This is one of the access points along the great trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia.  Dunnfield Creek is noted for its crystal clear waters that support the fussy native Brook Trout, who are known for demanding clean water and refuse to inhabit anything else.  Some fish, and some people, demand only the best!

When I was visiting the campground at Worthington State Forest, I saw a petition to save the campground from the budget axe.  It seems that the governor of New Jersey plans to close nine of these state forest campgrounds around the state to save money.  The implication was that the state intends to privatize some of these campgrounds, and that would be a shame.

For several federal administrations I have seen the U.S. Forest Service steadily privatizing the operation of its campgrounds, and I’m not happy with the results.  The price immediately goes up (to cover the profit of the operator) and the service goes down.  At one such campground in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan I found the bathrooms filthy and the water not turned on and the garbage cans removed, yet the price had gone up.  Why should we accept this?

When I visited Grand Teton National Park two years ago, I learned that they had privatized the national park campground where I normally stay.  I always enjoyed registering for camping and having informative conversations with the park rangers who staffed the office.  But with privatization the price had gone up and the people staffing the front desk could not answer my questions about the park.  Then one of their cell phones rang with one of those ugly musical ringtones and destroyed whatever good mood I had left.  Hey people, this is a national park, not a mall!  Learn about it so you can answer my questions and treat it with respect!

I guess the real problem is that America is failing to adequately fund the national parks and forests, and we are gradually seeing the fallout from that.  It is a shame to see Theodore Roosevelt’s great national forests and our heritage of great national parks fall into mediocrity.

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.