Pagosa's Past: Going on a bear-sighting expedition

2020/05/oldtimer-AAAAwirt2-284x300.gif Photo courtesy John M. Motter
This photo well represents the Pagosa Country frontier circa 1920. On the left is Emmet Wirt, a cattleman who operated the trading post on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in New Mexico just south of Pagosa Springs. The other hombre in this picture is Felix (?) Gomez, an Apache leader probably trading with Wirt. The cattle provide a perfect background.

By John M. Motter

PREVIEW Columnist

Back in the days when these legs were younger and mountain trails seemed shorter, I spent a lot of time navigating those trails. Seeing wildlife was a big part of the attraction. Former Colorado Game Warden Herb Browning and I were palavering over a cup of black coffee one morning down at the Chimney Rock Café when the subject drifted onto bears. You have to know Herb knew more about the northwestern part of this county than almost anybody. He also knew more about bears.

“Seen any bears lately?” I queried. 

“Ya know, I was up the Piedra last week. Got as far as Fish Creek. Bears? That whole valley must’a been full of bears. Ya could smell ‘em.”

That was good enough for me. I was going on a bear-sighting expedition. After checking my San Juan National Forest map, cramming some grub and fishing gear into my backpack and cinching up my hiking boots, I started up the Middle Mountain trail. Sooner than I expected, the legs started complaining. After a cursory examination of a sizable bear dollop in the middle of the trail and not seeing any cuff links or other obvious evidence of a candidate for a missing person’s report, I slavered down a small can of beans, doffed the backpack, and sacked out, soon matching my snores against the vocal efforts of a nearby screech owl.

The gobbling of a flock of turkeys deserting their perch in search of breakfast informed me that daylight was spreading across the mountains. A can of beans accompanied by a biscuit satisfied my early morning culinary cravings and, with the pack straps draped across my shoulders, down the trail I went, slipping and sliding. The trail was covered with small, marble-like rocks. Maintaining balance required serious effort, but a fall down that slope would have been disastrous.

Finally, I reached the bottom, dropped the pack to the ground, sat down on a nearby log and opened another can of beans. Have you ever noticed how a can of beans sharpens your thinking apparatus?

As I ate, I eyed the nearby bridge carrying the trail across to the north side of the Piedra. On the other side of the bridge and a short distance downstream, Fish Creek dumped into the river. The objective of this hike wasn’t far off. And I was already getting leg cramps.

I’d learned a long time ago that on any trail, it was just as far coming home as it was going away. The mental map in my brain showed a dashed line to my right pointing upstream to where the Piedra Road crossed the Piedra River. I knew folks regularly stopped at a parking lot near that bridge and got out of their cars to play in the water.

Pinto bean brainstorm! I found a 6-foot hiking stick, returned the pack to my back and headed upstream against a current pushing hard against my belt buckle. Finally, after sloshing along with legs protesting every step, I reached the parking lot and caught a ride to town. Looking up as I entered the front door, the wife asked, “How’d it go?”

“OOOH, words fail me,” I mumbled on my way into the bedroom.