Matt Dickerson: Following a beeline through snowy woods

Just 40 yards from my stand, the tracks cut across the lumber trail I was walking along. They were too big to miss even in the dim light of dawn.
Bee thief. Honey stealer.
Black bear.
The tracks, left in three inches of heavy wet snow, were still distinct and fresh. Probably less than an hour old, I thought.
Five subsequent thoughts then crossed my mind, in the following order, I think.
Thought No. 1: This is really cool. It would be even cooler to actually see a bear. I hadn’t seen a bear in Vermont in two years.
Thought No. 2: I’m probably not going to see a deer this morning. I really didn’t imagine a deer wandering past my stand when there was fresh bear scent in the area.
Thought No. 3: I should skip deer hunting and follow the tracks!
Thought No. 4: He (or she) — which is to say, the bruin — had probably been in my bee hives, which were less than 200 yards away through the woods from where I stood, looking at the tracks. This was an even more discouraging thought than Thought No. 2.
Thought No. 5. Really more of an impulse of my imagination than a rational thought. Something that flashed across my mind. I’m really glad that, for the first time this hunting season, I hadn’t set my alarm. I had slept in an hour later than usual and was walking to my stand in the first light of dawn and not in the pitch dark an hour before dawn.
Despite the Thought No. 2 — and maybe with the Thought No. 5 breathing down the back of my neck — I quickly climbed up into my tree stand and sat waiting for a deer to pass by. A deer I was fairly sure was not actually going to pass by. I focused my deer-watching attention on the woods on the opposite side of the stand from the tracks, furthest from the scent of the bear. But my bear-watching attention kept drifting back the other way.
I saw no deer or bear. Nothing but squirrels, chickadees, and nuthatches. I heard nothing but sudden thumps when large heavy clumps of melting snow slid off branches, crashed through other branches, and slammed into the ground.
Three hours after climbing up, I climbed back down from my stand and decided to go with Thought No. 3. I should have gone with Thought No. 3 from the very start. The tracks were now three hours older.
I followed them. Twenty-five yards into the woods, the tracks grew even more distinct. And bigger, I thought, though it wasn’t really possible that the bear had grown. I could see not only individual pads and toes in the prints, but distinct claw marks. They went straight up the north side hill.
I followed.
The tracks did not veer for obstacles or to follow the hill’s contours. They plowed straight up the steepest part of the slope, over fallen trees, and through bushes. They followed a beeline. Or, rather, a bee-thief-line. I occasionally detoured around the obstacles but kept on the tracks.
The tracks continued over the hilltop and down the other side. On the south-facing ledge the snow had melted off in patches. The tracks disappeared. I began to look around me. There were large cracks in the ledges on both sides where a bear could hide. I slowed my pace and went more cautiously, but I walked on. On the far side of the bare patch, where the snow picked up again, the bear tracks continued on still following that beeline.
Another 50 yards ahead they disappeared in another patch of bare ground. I circled around all sides looking carefully at the snow. All sides except for one, which dropped down a very steep slope. The tracks did not emerge on any other side. The bear, I assume, had dropped over the edge and was someplace down below me, probably apartment hunting for a little studio or one-bedroom where she (or he) could cozy up for the winter.
Disappointed, and a little relieved, I turned and headed back down the hill following my own tracks. I checked on my bees, half expecting to find bear tracks leading up to my electric fence, backing up suddenly, and then loping off in another direction. Or to find that my fence was not working and my hives had been torn to pieces.
Both guesses were wrong. The bee thief had kept clear of the bees.
Thought No. 6. I love living where there are wild bears. Especially when they stay away from my honeybees. They are the best possible excuse for not harvesting any venison on a snowy vacation day.

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