Sometimes You Have to Poke the Bear

Headshot photo of Candi Tobin

Candi Tobin, Philanthropy Coordinator

by Candi Tobin | August 2016

Administrative Assistant, Land Steward, Philanthropy Coordinator – I’ve worn many hats at the Land Trust. This story is from my days as a Land Steward in the spring of 2013. I was doing what I thought was a routine monitoring visit at the Wilcox Flats Protected Area when I was reminded that the properties that we protect and restore can be wild and unpredictable places.

As I was skirting the river to check for invasive plants, a large, narrow hole came into view about 15 feet inland from the river. This hole was directly in the path that I was taking along the river and after considering my options I decided to leap over it to avoid thick shrubs on one side and the undercut bank along the river. I was mid-leap across the opening when I was startled by movement below and I suddenly started to think about the wildlife that might be using this hole as a burrow. By the time I landed on the far side of the hole, I was convinced—to my horror—that there was a flesh-and-blood, teeth-and-claws black bear asleep beneath me!

The shoreline has a fair amount of large woody debris at this stretch of the river.

The shoreline has a fair amount of large woody debris at this stretch of the river.

As soon as my feet hit the ground I flew, stumbling, through the woods, not stopping until I was some 50 feet away. By some stroke of luck the bear was still asleep. I couldn’t see the bear itself, but the steady rise and fall of the clumped vegetation that covered it told me it was there alright. I stood there for awhile gawking at the rhythmic rise and fall of the bear’s breathing and waiting for my heart to slow down.

I don’t know if it was courage or stupidity – more of the latter, I suppose – but whatever I had I mustered it and after several long minutes decided that I needed to see the bear for myself. I picked up a very short, rounded stick and chucked it toward the hole because in life, sometimes you just have to poke the bear.

Beaver activity at the Tatrimima property is hard to miss!

Beaver activity along the Nisqually River is hard to miss!

I braced myself to flee for my life through the woods or jump into the cold river to escape an angry, groggy bear, but my little piece of raining debris hadn’t fazed it. I crept closer to the burrow, adrenaline pumping, to get a better look. The bear didn’t stir; it’s breathing wavered only slightly as I approached. Finally, hovering on the edge of the den, I peered in… and it dawned on me that what I had spent the last twenty minutes panicking over wasn’t a bear.

It was the remnants of one of the massive cottonwood trees that pepper the shoreline! There is significant beaver activity on the property and the tree had been wrenched from the earth by the river and was wedged beneath the undercut bank. The “breathing” that had scared a solid five years off the end of my life was a gently rocking subterranean log; the protruding end of which was my “sleeping black bear”. Well played, Nature. Well played!

This property encompasses a beautiful riparian forest along the Nisqually River on the outskirts of Yelm – you should join us for a Nature Walk there sometime.