Outward bound

Blueberries, bears, and the autumn trail.

Fall is the best time to hit the trail. Wait! This isn't a stultifying hike-description article; those are much better left to the guidebooks. First and foremost, good hikes beget good stories.

It was a bring-your-own-food hiking trip. My out-of-town friends couldn't be persuaded to leave behind their bacon, even when I warned them about bears. In September, Olympic National Park is literally awash in blueberries—and bears eating them. It's the best time to bear watch, because the roly-poly beasts are intent on gulping down as many of the little sapphire-colored berries as possible before winter. People are of little interest. But fried bacon, beyond any shadow of a doubt, would change a bear's mind in a hurry. I was nervous.

The show from our lakeside campground relaxed me. At least a dozen bears perched around the steep alpine lake bowl, slurping their way through acres of waist-high blueberry bushes, napping, diving into the lake, and slurping some more. We stared. They ignored us (just as long, I imagined, as we didn't wander into their blueberry patches). It was like a PBS wildlife special; the crew could have filmed from my tent door.

Last weekend, I climbed upward through jagged stumps of a Snoqualmie Pass clear-cut; the scarred hillside gave rise to thriving blueberry bushes. Cousins to azaleas and rhododendrons, Brunswick Dwarf low blueberry bushes flourish in open mountain sunlight, producing millions of blueberries every fall. So we picked (and slurped) blueberries, hiked a little, and picked some more.

Picking berries, combined with memories of the hungry, docile bears from the idyllic Olympics scene, reminded me of the classic kids' book Blueberries for Sal, an endearing tale of a little girl and a black bear cub that swap mothers while picking (and slurping) blueberries. I laughed when my dog unwittingly did her best imitation of the book, delicately leaning in to slurp blueberries off the branch, just like the bear cub, and then poking her nose into my picking pail, just like Sal.

And the bacon? The out-of-towners fried it a mile away from our campsite. A bear rustling in the bushes woke us up in the middle of the night, following the owners of the bacon grease, no doubt. It made them believers in no-bacon hiking. Blueberries? A guidebook will point you in the right direction. Go soon, because when blueberry bush leaves turn scarlet, the berries are too late for picking—or bear watching. Which ruins any story.


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