Latest posts by Bob Ward (see all)
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Bear Cub at Lewis Falls
A Present Moment Narrative from the book, “Hiking With Me,” by Bob Ward.
Here we are again, just you and I, hiking together on a sunny day, blue skies and white clouds above, finally, as seen through the bright green treetops. (We’ve been waterlogged for days, haven’t we?) And now there’s hardly any place else on earth we’d rather be at this moment than on this rock-strewn, steeply graded, boot-scuffing Lewis Falls Trail behind Big Meadows Lodge in Shenandoah National Park.
We’re stepping lively, right?
Imagine the forested Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.
Imagine a trail that descends into a valley.
Do you know what switchbacks are? I’m sure you do. They make hiking steep grades manageable by snaking back and forth in an S-pattern rather than going straight up.
Or down, as we are hiking now. So dry are we! And loving it completely! Right? After being soaked for days, isn’t this better? I can tell by your smile, by your white teeth shining in the forest, a contrast to all the earth-tone colors, when I look over my shoulder at you.
Keep your eyes on your feet here, it’s steep. These rocks are interesting, don’t you think? Some jagged edges, some smoothed by time. The jagged ones feel good under the soles of the boot. At least to me. To me, the edges bend the boot just enough in the arch to give me a comfortable pressure. It’s important because it reminds me to be aware of where I place my feet. Certainly, we can’t–and shouldn’t–step on the sharpest edges, though. The sharp-edged rocks are the rebels and the rascals. They might like to shift beneath us and move and turn a sly, proud eye on us when we stumble. If we twist an ankle, they have a story to tell their friends once we pass.
What do you think about that?
I know, I know. I’m giving life and consciousness to rocks.
Let’s agree, we can do that here. Huh? Rocks think. Rocks chuckle. Rocks wince under the weight of our boots. Small rocks, big rocks, medium-sized rocks. All have life within them.
Okay, you’re following me down this grade, gravel crunching under boots. Hear that? Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. With each step we take, descending. Let’s both listen to the sound of the small stones and gravel crunching under foot. Watch me. My boots. I’m stepping on the rocks that want me to, avoiding the ones that groan. Some are happy to be stepped on. (It makes their day, don’t you think?) Others are grumpy and jagged, and those will throw us if we’re not mindful. Sure, you can crush their heads if you want to–and I see that you’re trying that now, and you’re grinning about it–just be mindful, my friend. We have a long way to go, and a lot yet to see. Try doing what I do…step to the side of the jagged ones, and onto the tops of the flatter ones. The wider, flatter ones are stable. Because they like you, and welcome you, and miss you once you’ve gone.
We must keep hiking down, winding around this switchback here. Around to the right. I’ll stop to let you pass. I’d like to watch you hike awhile, instead of you watching me all the time.
There. Now you’re in front and I see you stepping deliberately–almost marching–on the rocky trail as we descend toward the falls, and together we’re a pair. I appreciate you. You’re the one I like hiking with the most. Because we see the same things. And we share thoughts and feelings via the power of telepathy. And, quite honestly, I don’t have this relationship with very many people. But you like this, don’t you? As much as I do. I know because I can see how your body moves with such liveliness and vigor!
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
Here. Stop. The Shenandoah valley opens up to the west between these trees along the trail. Look at that! Let’s breathe in the green. The rolling hills with endless masses of fragrant green trees. Forest green. And majestic skies above, blue and wispy, for miles and miles, unlike yesterday, when fog and mountain mist shrouded all the green of the valley and the sky was gray. Not today! Greens and blues, brightness, breeze rolling at us. Rustling leaves beside our faces now. And the valley opens up forever, and here we are up high. Mountain high. Looking down into the valley.
Look at me. Turn your back to the distant valley.
Thank you. I need to capture your image in this place against the backdrop of the valley.
Now let’s hike on, shall we? Are you ready? Or we can stay if you want to. Let me know. Use your powers of telepathy.
I agree. Let’s hike on to the waterfall. I want to show you something really neat, then we can hike back up and see the bear cub.
Follow me closely now. Around this bend. These rocks here are stable, but along the right-hand side of the trail, the ground drops away steeply. This cliff once sucked a hiker over, a long time ago. I’m telling you this so you know to be careful. Here. I’m going to install a railing on the right side of the trail. Grab hold of it. It’s okay. You won’t fall. Hold your staff in your left hand, until we’ve crossed this short stretch of dicey trail. There, when you look over the rail, do you see how steep that drop is?
Blink your eyes three times.
I like this trick of blinking. Blinking is the magic we need to move us along when the going gets tough.
There. Okay. We’re across the narrow part of the trail that was iffy. I won’t make us cross that going back up. I’ll guide us a different way. Unless you liked it. Maybe you did. I sort of did, I guess. Let’s keep going and maybe we’ll cross here again beside the cliff, and maybe we won’t. Either way, we’ll make the trail as interesting as possible.
Should we ever imagine it otherwise?
I sense we agree.
I’m also sensing you want to move along.
Lewis Falls is to the right and below us. You can’t see it from this vantage point, but you can hear it, listening closely. It’s a faint sound of water moving, rushing over the rocks. Hike with me. Closer. Move down over these jagged rocks on this part of the trail, going down to the flat outcropping of rock. Massive flat outcropping that juts out over the valley.
We’ve seen the valley already.
Back this way, the trail leads along this inverted wedge, this contour from the steep hillside above, and this is the source of the waterfall.
Hear the sound? Babbling. Percolating. Trickling. Water flowing over rocks. Rounded wet rocks now, their jags softened by time and the never-ending flow of the water filtering from the mountain.
Where does that water come from?
On this trail, where we’re standing now, the water flows over the rocks, all disjointed and heaped at random places along the descending slope of the mountain, although generally in a staggering staircase running perpendicular to our trail. And here is the intersection, the place where our dry trail crosses the wet path of the water flowing downward toward the falls. Yes, we must cross it. We must get to the other side to see the view of the falls from the vantage point of the overlook.
We can cross this easily, sure. Step from stone to stone. Avoid the wet stones and stay on the dry.
But why are you stopping?
Oh, I see.
You’re listening to the water babble over the rocks.
I like that, too.
I like that so much, in fact, that I’m going to show you a trick to save that sound forever. Look. Unzip my backpack for me. The small front pouch on the back. Got it? Okay, now inside that pouch is a digital voice recorder. Grab that.
Are you holding it? It’s small, fits right in the palm of your hand. Like it? There’s a record button on the front. The microphone is on the top, just like you’d expect from a handy field recorder.
First, though, re-zip that pouch on the back of my pack.
So, here’s how you do this, at least, what I recommend…
Walk to the babbling edge. Like this. Here, come beside me. Now squat down, bending your knees. Okay, do you hear the sound of the water in this spot? It’s fairly well louder than a trickle because of this ledge of rock here, with slimy green algae on top, and this fat rock about the size of a helmet where the water from the mountain is sluicing down around the fat rock and over the ledge and dropping a foot onto this other slippery rock, and that’s what’s making the sound. The water trickling around and then over and then pouring down onto this last water-spattered rock before flowing away toward the falls.
Hit the record button and hold the microphone close to that sound of trickling, babbling, splashing water for about a dozen seconds. That saves the sound for you, and you can listen to it again anytime you want.
But what’s neat is after we cross…
Here, my friend. Get up now and follow me across. Step carefully. It’s an easy crossing. Follow me a second. I’ll show you the neat part. Down here. Crouch down on this side of the babbling brook. Work yourself close by going under those tree leaves there, between those two small trees shading the water. Rest assured, there are no snakes, so crouch in and get close to the water.
See? Different structure of rocks. Different lay of land and thus a different sound. Right there at that spot, the sound is deeper, isn’t it? Right there where you’re crouched down, can you see how much more water is flowing? And there are several more steps of rock the water must flow around and over and down. It’s a louder sound, with a different cadence to the music. And part of the difference, if I recall correctly, is that little basin that catches the water in a pool before it overflows and drains down and on its way, on toward the big, big drop to come.
Do you know that the water spilling down into the pool in front of the microphone you’re extending has no knowledge of what lies ahead? It’s splashing happily into the pool and unaware of what’s to come.
I know, that’s weird. Like the rocks, I’m giving feelings and awareness to the water. But isn’t it possible that water is alive? Isn’t that gurgling, flowing, splattering, trickling, pouring sound you’re hearing now some indication of life?
It’s fun to imagine, I think.
We can stay here longer, if you wish, and record the different sounds that water makes coming over rocks, but I vote for moving along.
Nod your head, if you agreed.
Great. I see it. I see your nodding.
And your smile.
The magic truly works when both of us are trying, and wanting of the same experience. We are together, after all. Just the two of us.
How badly do you really want to see the falls?
Personally, I’m running low on brain power, and all this telepathic communication is wearing me out. And to be honest with you, I’ve seen waterfalls before. It’s not why I’m hiking today, not why I’ve lead you all the way down this rocky descending trail in the first place. But still…
Yes, the waterfall–Lewis Falls, specifically, here at Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park, is the turnaround point of our hike. Nothing more. So we need to get there, turn around, and start hiking backup to see what there is to see going up.
Blink three times. I just did myself.
So here we are now, fully transported to the overview that is a circular area wrapped by a stone wall. And this stone wall is where we sit to view the falls. Sit down. No, please. We must. We must sit briefly, if only to say we’ve done it. Anyway, to sit on a stone wall, two feet high, is fun enough on its own. Now though, turn your neck to the left. More. More. Feel the stretch in your neck as you turn it toward the falls.
Lewis Falls is 81 feet high. It plunges from the mountain in three or four different spots, unlike most water falls that simply rush over the top lip of the cliff wall and plunge straight down. Well, those are what we normally imagine.
No, Lewis Falls spurts out of the rocky face of the mountain in three or four spots, then drops down into the forest where you can’t see it land. Don’t try seeing it land. You can’t. The water falls down into the trees, and no matter how far over the stone wall you lean, you can’t see it splash into a pool. What you see is raining down onto the dark green trees.
I suppose from a different vantage point, we could see a different wonderment. But here, we see what we see. Only water flowing out the mountain’s face in three or four places, and showering down on the trees below us.
It’s a unique view from above, don’t you think? Looking down at trees being showered upon by the falling water of Lewis Falls?
This view belongs to us. You and me. No one else. Another day, the view would be different, I’m sure.
Alas. So it goes.
Do you want to see the bear cub now?
Let’s move quickly, let’s float over the falls. We can do it with a bit of magic. I’ll show you. Take a hold of your hiking staff. Got it. Yes. I see that you do. You’re holding it at the right place. Fine. Well and good. Now, put your left hand on my shoulder. Okay. Now, my hand is on your shoulder. We are chums, eh? Hang on, chum. I’m lifting us up and over the waterfall, floating us over, feet lifting off solid ground. Through the air we go, the green Shenandoah valley off to our left and we can see it all. For miles, now, but only briefly. Magnificently. Glance back now to where I’m setting us down on the trail above the falls. Do you see your feet coming down onto the trail? It’s easier to imagine your feet now plunking down onto the solid ground again, certainly. Flying doesn’t translate as well, I know. But your boots are down on the rocky trail again, and so are mine.
Perhaps three times, thump your hiking staff onto solid ground.
I’m thumping mine now.
No more magic like that, I promise. Nothing but reality from this point on. The trail is real. Let’s hike up it a ways, to where I’ll show you the best part of our day’s hike.
Up. Huff. Huff.
Up. And feel the muscles in your thighs working. More and more huffing and pumping upward along the curvy trail will get us the final reward we’ve been seeking.
The bear cub.
But where is it?
Do you know anything about bear cubs?
What do you think they’re after?
Keep hiking up with me. Get in front. I want you to see this.
Keep your eyes peeled on the trail ahead, where it curves up and over a rise, and around a corner. This rocky trail always curves, always goes up and over, always runs between the channel of small trees that grow on the hillside.
When you want to see a bear, you must look for a bear. That’s what I’ve learned over the years, what I’ve come to know as a truth. If you don’t keep looking, you won’t see a bear. So keep looking. Keep looking right at the farthest edge of the trail, just before it goes around each corner. And keep hiking, hiking. Keep making the scuffing noises of boots over rocks and stones.
Look up at the trail!
See what I see?
A fat black rump, not two feet high, furry. So black and furry that it looks like nothing but a ball of fur. Nothing but a hustling rump. See the ball scramble? Up the ball scrambles toward the curve on the trail ahead. Look at the ground beneath the furry ball. The ground is coming loose on both sides of the scrambling fur-ball, and that’s the little bear cub’s digging, padded, short-clawed feet throwing rocks as he scrambles away from the sound of us coming. The sound of us coming is lighting a fire under the little guy’s fuzzy butt, and he’s taking off! Dang! He’s taking off so fast, and we can’t really even get a good look at him. We can’t even see anything but his fuzzy, black, lumbering, scrambling butt hauling over the rocky trail, and then tearing for traction and disappearing around the corner.
What kind of sighting was that?
Barely one, I know.
It was a male cub, I’m telling you.
Let’s stop a second, catch our breath. We’ve been pumping thighs up this trail to see a bear cub, and now I’m winded. By the looks of you, you’re winded, too, although considerably less. Mostly, I see frustration in your face. You’re upset. You feel cheated. You feel I’ve cheated you. But don’t. Please don’t blame me for what is real.
Listen. I’ll tell you something that’s true. Just stand here with me on the steep, rocky trail under the canopy of small, green trees a moment and let me clear something up for you. You may not want to hear this, but you need to hear it.
A bear cub is frightened.
A bear cub finds himself on a trail, wandering about without his mama, looking for berries, something to eat, anything, because he might be on his own now in August, making his own way in life, trying to figure out what to do hour by hour, and here we come hiking up from the falls, making lots of noise, the way humans do, and what the bear cub does is turn around and blast off as fast as possible into the forest to escape.
If fact, you and I got lucky. We caught him on the trail, along the cliff’s edge, and he had nowhere to run but straight back up the trail. Poor little guy. Heck, we probably scared the berries out of him! Right now, I’ll bet he’s up there ahead, up there in the forest now, shaking in his black fur coat.
Do you feel bad to know he might be scared?
Let me do one last thing with you today, so that your mind is at ease. Let me show you one last thing.
And this is true, I swear.
Blink three times.
I have just blinked three times as well.
We are up at the top of the rise now, and the forest is all around us. It’s a fairly open forest, and we can see far into the trees. We are safe. There is no mama bear near.
Look to the left.
Look deep into the forest.
That furry black bear cub is standing up on his hind legs now. His short forearms are dangling at his sides. His head is held high. He’s looking in our direction. I can see the brown coloring of his face around his black tipped nose. Can you?
He’s a curious bear, for sure.
He feels safe now to study us, at this distance of perhaps a hundred feet.
Don’t move. Take a good look. Take a close look at the black bear cub standing upright with the earth-tone colors of the forest around him and behind him.
Do you have your look?
Now here’s the truth, for his sake and yours.
See his butt as he runs?