At the end of April I visited Romania.
They were close by, perhaps watching us through the trees, through the dim blue morning twilight – bears!
On the first morning we set off early, leaving our hostel at 5.30am. The streets were dark and wet with snow piled up the kerbs and covering the pavements in the town of Zarnesti. Romania was experiencing freak April weather – below zero temperatures and snowfall. Ramon, our expert guide and tracker, drove quickly and effortlessly into the white landscape on the edge of Piatra Mare Mountains, winter tyres proving their worth.
The bears had returned to their dens – so we searched for wolves instead as wolves don’t mind the cold and snow. But the blanketed slopes and meadows were empty.
Come dusk we went out again. The temperature was minus 4 and the breeze was coming from the north so Ramon took us up the side of the valley into the forest to stay downwind. The snow was two feet thick in places and as we walked in single file, I stepped in the footprints of Ramon and Kevin who were ahead of me. This made it easier to walk. Every-so-often Ramon pointed out tracks – a trough in the snow where bears had dragged their bellies or the arched prints of red deer.
We came to a stream, a dark, trickling ribbon flowing through banks of snow and beneath omenous windows of ice.
Then the valley slopes steepened and we climbed a snowy corridor up through the trees – Norway spruce, beech and silver birch. My heart felt as if it would burst with the exertion as I sweated beneath my numerous coats and jumpers. At last we reached a viewpoint from where we could see the opposite side of the valley, a rock ridge of mountain with a belt of forest on it’s lower slopes above open fields of snow. There we waited and watched, waited and watched scanning the fields with binoculars or with just the naked eye.
Some animal was moving on the edge of the trees far off. It was not a bear but a red deer, identifiable by its fawn rump. Then we saw three of them. One kept a lookout while the others browsed on tree buds. I have only glimpsed red deer in Scotland so it was good to see them.
On our way back down we saw fresh tracks of a family of boar that had crossed our own. We looked about and listened but the animals themselves remained elusive. Further on Ramon stopped and whispered that a bear was close by; there was a change in the smell of the forest and even I noticed a slight hint of animal nearby – not like fox, but a dense, animal smell.
On our second morning we returned to our valley viewpoint. Dawn broke with a wonderful rosy light illuminating the mountain before us. The air was crisp, cold and clear. Ramon pointed out a scratched triangle of trees, the territory of the only lynx in the valley.
Up the hillside again Ramon noticed fresh bear tracks disappearing into an enclave of rocks and bushes. He said that he saw a bear there and told us to move further down the slope as a bear cornered in the area could be dangerous. Earlier he had told us that a bear on its hind legs was looking about to assess the situation. A bear crouching close to the ground was a dangerous bear, an animal ready to charge. We trusted he knew what he was doing as he’d spent years tracking and researching bear behaviour. From a distance Ramon clapped in the hope that the bear would show itself, but no bear emerged.
Wildlife was so close and nowhere to be seen; it was as though the bears were teasing us. The snowy hillside remained full of their presence and absence at the same time. Despite not seeing bears it was a wonderful experience being out in the snowy wilds at dawn and dusk and knowing that we were so close to some of the top predators in Europe.
The photos above – apart from the last – were taken by our bear tracker and expert, Jurj Ramon.
I can’t help thinking about Spirit bears. I’ve drawn a bear image. Perhaps this is a Spirit Bear drawn to evoke the wild bears when we return to Romania in the future.