Bear Trail Don’t Burn

bear prints tracks santa barbara los padres santa ynez mountains hikesTwo bear footprints worn through dried leaves to the soil beneath in an area burned by the Sherpa Fire along the Gaviota Coast. This print pattern, more distinct in some places than others, continues for some distance along the unburned trail seen in the next photo.

Bears around these parts tend to have a remarkable habit of stepping in the exact same places when walking some sections of their own trails. I’ve seen it all over the forest.

A bear trail will often resemble a human trail. Typically it’s a foot-wide or so single-track path pressed into the leaf mulch of the forest floor.

However, unlike human trails a bear trail through leaf mulch is sometimes also dotted with individual paw impressions that mark the particular places that the bear steps each and every time it walks the path.

These are not distinct paw prints with toe and pad impressions as often seen in mud or silty dirt and which are left by a single footstep, but rather they are roundish holes pressed into the leaves from each foot having been repeatedly placed in the exact same spot.

In areas of heavy oak leaf mulch under forest canopy these paw impressions can become potholes up to six inches deep or more and sometimes push through the leaves entirely to bare soil. To follow in the bear’s footsteps is like taking the sort of measured and precise steps needed when walking on stepping stones.

bear trails santa barbara santa ynez mountains los padresBear trail don’t burn. A burned out understory in an oak grove with brown crispy dry leaves marking the course of a bear trail. The trail continued on to a three-way intersection. The same boulder in the upper right corner beside the oak tree shown here can be seen from the other side in the photo below.

While wandering the woods I came upon a puzzling sight. A trail of dried leaves and grasses led an incredible distance across land blackened by wildfire.

Multiple sections of paw impressions in the leaves, as mentioned above, revealed that a bear had left this trail that did not burn. The golden-brown path wound through a charred oak grove for some fifty yards or more between two creek crossings.

In a few places the unburned trail disappeared into large white patches of powdery ash where large oak trees had fallen and burned away, then it reappeared on the other side as a trail of unburned leaves and grasses surrounded by blackened, baked and crusty soil.

The trail could be seen from across the burned out forest from many yards away. In one location this remarkable trail of brown leaves formed an even more notable feature: a triangular intersection at a point where a path branched off on another route.

The trail had been used after the fire. There were fresh paw prints through ashy sections, which was a good sign to see, because not far away the body of a scorched bear lay dead in an arroyo with it’s head missing; the skull apparently taken for a trophy by some eager scavenger in desperate need of a curio for his shelf.

The forest is open and easy to walk through after the wildfire, but the bear continues along its same trail walking the line that oddly didn’t burn.

bear trail los padres forest santa ynez mountainsA three-way intersection on the bear trail. The trail as seen here leads into the distance through center frame, and disappears there around the oak tree and boulder mentioned in the previous photo. The trail continues in the photo here around the two thin sycamores on the right in the foreground and on out of frame toward the lower right corner. Another branch of the trail leads out of the lower left corner. The untrampled triangular space created by the intersection of the trails had burned, but the trails making the triangle largely did not.

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16 Responses to Bear Trail Don’t Burn

  1. Terry Ferl says:

    I am amazed by your observations of the unburnt, well-traveled bear trail. I am shocked and stunned and saddened by your finding of a scorched, headless bear.

  2. Super interesting post Jack. I would have never associated that ribbon of gold with a bear trail. Appreciate your insights. I always feel much wiser after reading your posts.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Thanks for stopping by! I strive to create original content that inspires educated and informed thought and helps in some small way contribute to our understanding and respect for all that is wild and free. So I really appreciate hearing from you that I sometimes hit that target.

      • gw says:

        I’m saddened by the knowledge that your ‘original content to inspire’ is a last gasp…too little, too late. From what I’ve seen in the world I can only utter ‘the horror, the horror’.
        The prevailing historical force is ignorance; so large that it cannot be overcome.

      • Jack Elliott says:

        I think you very well may be correct.

  3. Sam says:

    Thanks for the great post. I was hoping to go see this, but not anymore; Forest Service just said it’d cost $5,000 and/or six months in jail for getting caught in that area. http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/lpnf/news-events/?cid=FSEPRD509977

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Thanks, Sam, for bringing that to our attention.

      It’s remarkably odd that the Forest Service waited an entire month after the outbreak of the fire to issue this order. One would think that common sense would dictate that if the issues mentioned in the memo you linked to were so crucially important that people needed to be threatened with being arrested, that the policy order would have been declared immediately upon first notice of the fire.

      I would really like to know the factual basis upon which the assertion rests that people need to be kept out in order that the burn area “rehabilitate.” In other words, does it stem from scientific understanding or is it merely the personal whims of the ruling class?

      I’d say that it would take a Herculean, military-style industrial effort to prevent Nature from rehabilitating itself. Fire is elemental to the forest ecosystem. Resilience to fire is part of the biological character of forest flora coded into its DNA through millions of years of evolution. Nature is nothing if not resilient.

      I find the idea that a few hikers who might possibly tramp through the burn area would somehow inflict any real measurable harm and thwart rehabilitation to be ludicrous.

      The Forest Service is a muddle of contradictory policy directives and has zero credibility on this issue. The Service’s assertion here cannot be taken seriously as per its own recent record of allowing logging in a burn area of the Los Padres National Forest, a policy later halted by a federal court in a lawsuit brought by Los Padres Foest Watch.

      The Service allows logging in a burn area, but then threatens a hiker with arrest and a hefty fine for walking in a burn area. That is insane.

      I resent the hell out of being treated like an idiot by the corrupt ruling class! The Service’s policy directives are arbitrary and capricious and are guided by whim rather than reason. I cannot and will not respect a bureaucracy that acts in this manner. And where there is no respect there is no desire to concern myself with their words or abide by their muddled policy directives enforced at gun point. Their threats of arrest and monetary confiscation are of no concern to me whatsoever.

      • Terry Ferl says:

        I had just read on EdHat website about the Forest Service threat of the absurd $5,000 fine. I agree wholeheartedly with your comments on that, Jack. Keep up the good work scouting the mountainous wilds for the beauties and truths that some of us yearn to find but can’t visit first hand!

      • Jack Elliott says:

        Thanks, Terry. I appreciate your kind words and your readership!

      • Sam says:

        I’m most upset that my favorite local dirt road from Refugio Pass to the Winchester Gun Club will remained closed until December. Once the FS has the fire under control, I wonder how a handful of off-road vehicles really impact their work. I’ve driven that road three times, over the past year. Each time I see two or three other vehicles and zero hikers. There are many turn-offs in the Sherpa fire area where I can move over and let FS vehicles pass. If a FS vehicle is blocking the road for work they are doing, then so be it, I can turn around. And the road itself will not rehabilitate, so that point it moot. Then how many hikers want to see a burned out area of the forest? Probably not many! Perhaps if the FS would have provided more complete reasoning, it wouldn’t be so irritating.

      • Jack Elliott says:

        I hear you.

        But I think the call to avoid possibly interfering in the work of fire fighters is the only reasonable part of the Forest Service’s closure order. Although, I walked by two different groups of fire fighters while hiking; one had no more interest in me than to give a casual glance my direction and the others waved hello.

        However, and this is a rather significant point, it’s plainly obvious to anybody with a functioning brain that fire crews will have no need to be in the area for the vast majority of the time comprising the closure period, because the fire will likely have been put out entirely long before December.

        The December date is also remarkably odd for another reason. One would think by way of simple reasoning that the land would rehabilitate most rapidly after the fall of the majority of rain for the season, which the historical record suggests will occur well after December 1. And the idea that the suggested rehab will occur in any appreciable degree within the next five months is asinine.

        The whole thing appears senseless and incoherent and it’s insult to our intelligence.

  4. Anonymous says:

    So, any theories on why the bear trail didn’t burn? Could you kick away the ash and find dry leaves underneath? Wondering if only the top layer of oak leaves burned and that by using the trail the bear pushed that top layer aside thus revealing the unburned oak leaves below? ???

    • Jack Elliott says:

      It’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen in the forest around here. The surrounding area around the trail was completely burned, most everything burned and gone and only fire scorched blackened soil left with some patches of blackened grasses and whatnot. But you couldn’t kick or brush away the ash or blackness to uncover unburned leaves like was found on the trail, only bare black fire hardened soil or charcoaly grass or leaves.

      My only thought was that the bear had pressed down the leaves on the trail and lessened the available oxygen between the layers enough to inhibit the fire, which burned fast enough to sweep across the land before the trail had a chance to burn. That’s my only idea, which seems plausible.

      But I looked closely and the leaves on the trail didn’t seem to be packed down to an extent that they wouldn’t burn. If you look closely at one of the photos you can see how fluffy and loose the dried grass is standing above the leaf layer. It looks like it would have caught fire easily.

      • bryanconant says:

        The truth is out there. Where’s Molder when you need him? I wonder if anyone else, anywhere else, has seen this before……. Queue X Files music.

      • Jack Elliott says:

        I tried to run you off the road on the freeway the other day at Fairview. . .needless to say it didn’t work. . .you didn’t even glance over at the maniac in the minivan. . .

      • bryanconant says:

        Baby Brain. Or is there such thing as Toddler Brain? Leads to long periods of spacing out, especially while driving. I’ve missed two exits over the past year, I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before.

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