May 03 2017
By Clay Newcomb
I found a bear track yesterday in the Ozark National Forest while riding mules with my daughter. It was in some red clay in the middle of an old road, or what I’d call a “pig trail.” I’ve always been fascinated by bear tracks. If it was up to the bears and if the real world configured to their nature, I think they’d float over the surface of the earth and leave no tracks at all. They’re ghostly animals. I’m amazed at how a large carnivore can be so quiet. While walking at full speed it’s almost like they go into slow motion just before the pad of their foot touches the ground effectively canceling the noise.
Just a bear track? There are no such words in my vocabulary. Seeing a bear track is a big deal and I'll make sure that it always is. I spotted this track from atop my mule yesterday evening just before dark. I'd guess this bear to weigh around 100 pounds.
There was a time when the footprint of an Arkansas bruin was a bigger deal than it is today. My dad once brought home a bear track for me. He found the print of big male in a red-clay ditch. Using a shovel, he extracted the chunk of Ouachita-mountain earth with the track imprinted right on top. He plopped in the back of his Jeep and brought it home. The only time I was more proud was he brought home a dried pile of bear scat. #gooddad
Bears are an indicator species. Their presence gives an indication of the overall health of the ecosystem. Apex predators only thrive when their subjects below them are healthy. The restoration of the Arkansas black bear from near extirpation (local extinction) is my favorite wildlife conservation story. After bears were wiped out by human-related activities, people with a hunting-dominated hegemon reintroduced them. 254 reintroduced bears expanded into the population of over 7,000 bears we have regionally (5,000 in Arkansas, 2,000 in SE Oklahoma).
Anytime I see a bear track it makes my day. There was a stretch of about 80 years when no one in these hills saw a bear track. In the realm of geologic time, this was the blink of eye. In the realm of man-time this was a lifetime. I’m grateful my life aligns with the resurgence of these iconic beasts. Anybody that doesn’t see the passion hunters have for thriving ecosystem with robust animal populations hasn’t been paying attention to shift of the hunting culture in the last 80 years. We are the good guys and truly are the ambassadors for wildlife. Bad eggs exist and their smell still permeates the figurative “nostrils” of the non-hunting public. But if they’d just pay attention to the good eggs, which most are, they’d have a more accurate picture of today’s hunters. #beagoodegg
The last two evenings, my 13-year old daughter and I have gone to the National Forest and put on about four miles each trip atop the mules. We traversed into a big hollow and found some secluded access to a beautiful creek. We couldn’t photograph it, but the mules forded it without hesitation. We weren’t hunting, but were training for when we do. If you’ve read the last blog you know that I’ve borrowed an older, broke mule from a friend. We’re using it as a “pilot mule” to help train my younger mules. We plan to put a lot of miles on Parker (old mule) with Ellie Mae (my four-year old mule) behind him. At some point we’ll get Izzy out here (see Project: Hunting Mule).
The only reason I ride mules is so I can get deeper and stay longer in wild places. Bears are reclusive critters that don’t come to the easy places often. The older I get the more I want to craft the story around each hunt. I’m less interested in just bringing home game and more interested where and how I got it. I want the buck or bear that came from the hard place. This was the genesis of why I first got mules. However, while in pursuit of this hunting doctrine, I’ve fallen in love with mules.
Mules are extremely intelligent, durable, surefooted and safe in rough places. They have more endurance than a horse and live much longer. But they’re unforgiving and are the hardest equine animal to train. I think that’s why I like the idea of a “muleskinner.” You can’t really become one by accident. I’m no muleskinner yet. Mules and wild places have something in common - you can’t do either half-heartedly. There might be easier animals to train and ride, but there’s not a better vehicle in the wilderness. They’re amazing animals.
Just before dark yesterday, from atop the mule, I spotted a bear track in the mud. I knew we were in bear country, but I wasn’t expecting to see a track. Heavy rains two days prior indicated its freshness. We stopped and admired it. The rest of the trip I scanned the woods for black fur, taking a second glance at every distant stump hoping it would glide away into the hills.
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Parker and Ellie Mae did good in this rough country.
My daughter and I have been riding in the Ozark National Forest the last couple of evenings. We're training a younger mule. They both forded this creek without any problem.