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Conservation Educator’s Niche – January 2018

by Denny Olson

Denny Olson

In Northwest Montana, there is a different feel to walking in the woods. When I first resettled here, I had years of both casual and intense experiences under my belt in the boreal forest wild, and as I began to know plants, animals and the inanimate geography of those places, I gradually felt more at home in those woods — and very safe.

Then I moved here, to avalanche, grizzly and cougar country. The standard attire for walking in the wild was similar and seasonal, with one small accouterment added. On the belt was pepper spray – industrial-strength. When a female grizzly brought her two small cubs down from the foothills to munch on a coyote-killed deer in my backyard field, I spent a couple of evenings on the back porch being entertained by the cracking of deer bones out there in the black. Every nighttime walk the ten yards to my storage shed was an adventure. Awareness, attentiveness, took a big uptick.

Not many weeks after the grizzlies had moved on, in those same foothills (but less than an eighth-mile from my house), I was returning home from afternoon explorations. I caught some movement ahead and to my left, and watched a large cat, with a very long tail, bouncing back through the trees toward the mountains. Cougar. Cool. But it had the look, or perhaps the feel, of a young one. I stopped. My head was immediately on a swivel, my ears tuned outward as far as I could hear. It was an open woods, with only a small thick fir tree to my immediate left offering any cover. And, there was a flicker of movement behind that tree. I glanced down and saw my right hand magically holding the pepper spray in ready position with the safety clip on the ground. The instructions to my hand had come straight from the brain-stem and had bypassed the conscious “me”. I talked to the tree, explaining to whoever was there about the effects of pepper in the eyes. Sure enough, out comes mom.

She was bigger than I had imagined, being a rookie in cougar country, but something about her put me more at ease (relative to the situation). Her ears were plastered back. Not good. Her hair was raised all down her neck and back. Also not good. She yowled – easily the loudest thing I had heard in the woods for a long time, maybe ever. But that yowl, and the direction of her walk between more yowls – angling away from me – whispered “protective” in my subconscious. That was the good part. I was not considered prey. I was seen as a threat.

I wasn’t so foolish as to put down the bear/cougar spray, but I instinctively knew that my survival depended on reassurance, not defensive behavior. I talked to her about how I really didn’t mean to scare her child, and that I was just passing through her yard without seeing the no trespassing signs. When I talked, her erect hair flattened and her ears perked a bit. When I paused, she would resume her threat postures. But, critically for both of us, she kept walking away, finally feeling safe enough herself to bound away in the direction of her cub.

As I walked back toward my house, muttering “holy poop” or something similar, I found the reason for their presence, and her attitude. A large mound of leaves and sticks – with a fresh, warm, but dead, young whitetail buck under it, was destined to be cougar lunch. And I had interrupted it.

That was the time I finally put words to something I had been practicing all along in my extended relationship with nature. I had learned to be attentive, very attentive, and to trust my instincts. It has served me well in many situations — from something suspicious about a person that I just couldn’t put my finger on, but later proved to be very good reason not to trust, to leading interpretive hikes with multiple bear encounters. Always (at least so far), my “feeling” about the attitude of the bear, or the person, has kept me, and my charges, safe.

Nature, especially wild nature if we are so lucky to have access, offers a “community” of teachers. We know that time in nature makes us happier, healthier and smarter. Lessons abound out there, but attentiveness is the bell that starts the class period. And it offers another benefit. We get to feel much, much more alive.

“To those devoid of imagination a blank space on the map is a useless waste, to others, the most valuable part.”     Aldo Leopold

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