The news as told by hairs on trees

The rubbing trees can take a break from the bears now, from having furry backs pushed up against their trunks and crinkly hairs stuck in their sap.

The rubbing trees can take a break from the bears now, from having furry backs pushed up against their trunks and crinkly hairs stuck in their sap. With the bears disappearing into hibernation, there is not much news on these trees anymore, only old headlines in brown, blonde and black.

Sam and I pass by four rubbing trees on our walks, as well as three bear-bitten trees. The chewed trees are all skinny poplars here. If a bear would lean against it, hair would get caught in the splintered wood as it does in the sap of rubbing trees (all spruces and pines in our neck of the woods), but there is never anything on them. Only the tooth and claw marks, applied just a few times. I find these bitten trees intriguing. To me, they smack of testosterone-inspired vandalism although for all I know, it might have been female bears who were overcome by the urge to sink their teeth into a tree and pull out a mouthful of splinters. Why?

Our dog Nooka, on the other hand, is more awed by the rubbing trees. Her nose vibrates up and down the trunk, her eyes start to bulge slightly and her tail meekly gives in to the pull of gravity. Since she’s had enough bear encounters to put a visual image to the smell, the scent smeared up high into the bark of these trees might suggest a giant of a bear to her with a shoulder height of well over 1.6 metres. She sniffs as far as her neck will stretch, then looks at me for reassurance.

During the summer, I harvest some of the hair on the trees. I don’t really know why or what for. It tends to end up in odd places inside our cabin, sprouting like little antennas from between the pretty rocks and driftwood pieces that I’ve also picked up over time, driven by some gatherer instinct. Or else I encounter it again unexpectedly, when I reach into a seldom-used pocket and find a tuft of bear fur instead of whatever it is that I was looking for.

Sam is more methodical. He spikes a small leaf on protrusions of the tree trunk, the side that the bears rub against, to indicate how often one comes by. It’s not a surefire way of telling since a squirrel might also brush the leaf off, but our interest in the usage of the trees is purely curiosity-driven in a neighbourly, unscientific way. There doesn’t seem to be much regularity to it: sometimes, a tree is marked a few times in the course of weeks, and then an entire month or more will go by without anything happening.

Just as I had resigned myself to no bear news until spring, Nooka made a discovery. Not far from the most popular rubbing tree that is adorned with brown and blonde hair, her nose twitched up a puny spruce sapling. Sam and I looked at the tree, barely two metres tall and its trunk just a few centimetres in diameter, and were about to dismiss it if it hadn’t been for Nooka clearly stating “rubbing tree” with her eyes and tail.

It turned out to be the hairiest tree of them all, with a thick wad of black fur caught in a broken-off branch and more black hairs stuck against the spindly trunk that seemed to still be leaning backwards from the bear treatment. I pulled the handful of fur off and shoved it into my jacket, searching for tracks in the snow. There were none, so it was an older news item we just hadn’t noticed before. Sam and I wondered why this bear had chosen not to use the rubbing tree a few metres further down the trail and why he or she had picked such a tiny spruce when there were much bigger ones all around.

As we walked back, Sam suggested that one of those trail cameras would be fun to have. One of those gadgets you strap to a tree next to a game trail, enabling you to see what’s going on. We could mount one opposite the popular rubbing tree and get photos of the different bears. Now there’s one item for our Christmas wish list – a newscast with pictures.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.

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