Spooked on the mountain
Diana heard it first.
“Is that a bear?” she asked, her voice anxious and quivering. “Listen!”
The sound was a low, menacing growl. Whoa! Then again, a longer, louder, “GRRRrrrrrr...”
Bears, I later learned, don’t actually growl. They grunt, click and chomp their teeth, blow out air, snort and, when stressed, roar, sometimes loudly. We didn’t know that, and given the circumstances, even if we had known all that we wouldn’t have taken the time to ponder and evaluate whether the sound was a growl or a roar.
Later, while wolfing down gigantic nacho platters at the Green Springs Inn, we learned we weren’t the only ones who heard the growls-grunts-whatever and were unnerved. Kimo, who had charged ahead and alone on the group hike back from Boccard Point, told of hearing whatever it was and anxiously doubling back to be with others. Mark said the group he’d been hiking with first thought the sounds were those of a bear, then decided it was a cow.
The discussion, and nachos, were part of a day that began that morning from the Powerline Trailhead on Soda Mountain Road about four miles off Highway 66 near the Greensprings Highway summit. From the trailhead we’d hiked south along the Pacific Crest Trail into the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area.
After about two miles, near a grassy saddle, we detoured cross-country and uphill to Little Pilot Butte, where a ridge of jumbled rocks overlook the valley and, best of all, provides views of Mount McLoughlin.
After savoring the sights, we returned to the PCT. Most people going to Boccard Point follow the PCT south about a quarter-mile to a junction, where there’s another parking area, then follow an old dirt road/trail another two-plus miles to Boccard Point. Not us. Instead, after returning to the PCT from Little Pilot, trip leader Hans Kuhr led us briefly north before taking his newest bushwhacking route — different from the one he used last year — that he claims saves more than a mile of hiking compared to the conventional route.
Following his lead, we rambled through the woods and brush, sometimes following an abandoned road, until meeting up with the Boccard Point Trail. From there it was another half-hour plus to Boccard Point, which some call “the Heart” of the Soda Mountain Wilderness, and the panoramic overlook.
It is a dramatic place — a stony crag with eye-popping views, including portions of three mountain ranges — the Klamaths, Siskiyous and Cascades. Snowy Mount Shasta is the most impressive sight, but the vista includes Pilot Rock, the Trinity Alps, Mount Eddy, Mount Ashland and nearby Soda Mountain, recognizable because a utility line and series of antenna structures bisect the wilderness area into two sections.
The Soda Mountain Wilderness covers 24,707 acres and is part of the Cascade–Siskiyou National Monument. The Monument, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, is noted for its biodiversity of rare plants, dense forests and varieties of wildflowers, along with wildlife and raptors, including falcons, goshawks, golden and bald eagles, Roosevelt elk, cougars and, of course, black bears.
And speaking of black bears, what about those menacing whatever they were?
Bear with me.
As the sounds continued, and as Diana and I regained our bearings, we noticed a section of a tall, creaky, fractured tree not far off the trail was being pushed by gusting winds against a split-off section of the same tree. Depending on the power of the push and the resulting grinding, the tree made growl-grunt-groan sounds that, truly, sounded like a bear.
Realizing the source, Diana and I could only grin and bear it, feeling slightly — excuse the spelling — embearassed.
Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at email@example.com or 541-880-4139.
IF YOU GO
From Ashland, drive east on the Greensprings Highway (Highway 66). Just before the Greensprings Summit and parking area, turn right onto Soda Mountain Road and drive 3.8 miles to the Powerline Trailhead, which has a gravel parking lot and pit toilet. Follow the Pacific Crest Trail south toward Little Pilot Rock and Boccard Point.
UNDERSTANDING BEAR TALK
The noises bears make, according to bearsmart.com, are usually a method of communicating within their species.
Mother bears communicate with their cubs using grunts. Bears also use noises to find mates, socialize and as a defensive measure. Bears use body language to communicate and are more likely to use body and facial movements to get their message across. They rarely vocalize, but black bears tend to be more vocal than brown bears.
When a bear does vocalize, it’s often an attempt to handle a tense situation. Bears will use the same vocalizations when interacting with humans as they do with each other. When a bear crosses paths with a human, their vocalizations are more likely a response to stress or fear than aggression or intimidation.
Black bear noises vary in intensity, ranging from mild grunts to intense roars. Grunts and clicking of the tongue are used to communicate during play and other friendly situations. Chomping of the teeth is often misinterpreted as a threat when it is actually done out of fear. Bears also blow out air while exposing their teeth to communicate fear. If a black bear is blowing or chomping, it is likely preparing to retreat.