Nora the Schnauzer and I hiked along Cummings Creek on a stormy late-October day, during the deer hunting season, when we saw it.
A six-inch-wide brownish pile dotted with shiny red chunks of apple lay in a damp path on the two-tack trail.
The tall pile suggested a black bear.
I looked around for movement.
Everything moved: tall grasses, shrubbery, trees rustled in the wind gusts.
Cloud shadows scooted across the canyon.
I carried my rain jacket and Nora’s Ruff Wear coat in a fanny pack. I walked in shirt sleeves, however, and felt warm during the occasional sun breaks and a bit chilled in the shade of dark clouds.
I looked down for animal sign and saw faint boot and bicycle tire marks.
I watched Nora, who showed no concern for the alternating chill and warmth on the terrain.
She will, of course, perk up and pay attention when she hears, smells or sees another creature nearby, usually a squirrel, a deer or a person.
Hardly ever a bear!
So, she paid scant attention to the pile.
She moved on.
Ignoring the apple trees below the trail and, pondering the pile, I followed.
I’m no scat expert.
Yet I know rabbit, deer, elk, coyote and bear poop.
And I know apples.
In addition, I had heard stories.
Shortly after we started on the trail we met two men. One carried a hunting rifle. One carried binoculars.
The men mentioned seeing another man field-dressing a deer, a man who saw a bear clamber from an apple tree.
So, I tagged the brown pile as bear scat, and with heightened observation of the hillsides and the thickets, I trudged on up the canyon.
We soon met the man, Jeremy Blasdel from Tri-Cities. His mother once lived in Walla Walla.
He had bagged a mule deer buck, dressed it and packed it on a cart with bicycle tires. We visited for some time, swapping stories about animal sightings, and he mentioned the bear rustling from the apple tree.
That settled the brown-pile question: bear scat.
I strained eyes and ears for movements and sounds as we continued up the trail. And I watched Nora, who wouldn’t know a bear from a squirrel.
Once she grunted and rushed to the side of the trail. I hurried to see, and three whitetail deer crashed through the thickets.
A few yards farther on, she dashed forward again and three mule deer bounded away.
We continued all the way past a series of seven or eight springs that ran across the two track. I sank to my boot tops when tip-toeing around one.
After more than three hours, with the light fading and the chill increasing, we headed back.
We met the first man with a rifle without his scout. He asked if I had seen the hunter with the deer, and I had.
“He seemed more interested in the bear he saw than in the deer he bagged,” the man said.
“Probably,’ I said. “I know the feeling.”
Neither bagging a deer nor photographing the vivid fall colors and rugged rim-rock formations along Cummings Creek compares for excitement to bumping into a hungry bear.
Contact Don Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org. More of Don’s photos can be found online at www.tripper.smugmug.com.