The Bear Behind the Rocks | Jose Knighton

The delicacy of the bear’s tracks in silty pink sand, where I can detect the finest creases of its pad like a palm reader, so distracts me that I don’t, at first, consider the oddity of their location. I have just climbed over the southwest rim of Moab Valley into the heart of one of the most formidable patches of erosional earth art on the planet. Behind the Rocks is a maze of towering, east-to- west, Navajo sandstone fins and bone dry fin valleys where no minotaur could survive. “What are you doing here you crazy bear?” I blurt out, knowing no one without wings can hear me. 

Finding tracks of any kind on the few hard-won routes into and through Behind the Rocks is rare. When I come upon human sign, I can usually recognize, by tread pattern and size, one of the dedicated cadre of local explorers driven by equal parts curiosity, determination and madness. I assume this bear travels with a different equation of motivation and intent. 

Glancing eastward at the distant La Sal Mountains that the southeastern extremity of Behind the Rocks stretches toward, I think, “Why did you leave that sky haven, where you etched crescent bear-glyphs when climbing soft white aspen trees as a cub?” I’ll never know. 

I decide to spend the rest of my hike following bear. Its tracks lead like a compass through familiar convolutions of smoothly eroded, flesh-colored fins. Approaching a crucial, counterintuitive route up one fin’s slope and down into the hollow of another and where all the obvious routes play out at distant dryfalls or deadend ledges, the bear’s tracks disappear on slickrock at the passage’s beginning, as if it had a map. Damn!

On subsequent hikes I ascend routes into Behind the Rocks farther northwest, on the bears heading. This direction eventually, though not easily, leads toward the Colorado River. It’s a rainless early summer, good for tracking, bad for a thirsty bear. Traveling south to north in Behind the Rocks cuts across the grain of the fins, exaggerates the difficulty and diminishes potential passages. As I approach a critical break in a wall of fins that gradually descend westward, I know that if the bear found its way through this sensuous cluster of rocks, it must have come out in this dry wash. 

Bingo! Bear’s tracks exit along the wash and follow its winding path below a relatively open zone of worn down fins and sand dune slopes scattered with a dwarf forest of pinyon pines and Utah junipers. One of the rare, reliable waterholes in Behind the Rocks is not far ahead. Bear’s tracks vanish on slickrock as the drainage narrows and ramps sharply downward. Then they reappear, pressed deeply into the waterhole’s mud, where a soup bowl-sized puddle remains. 

My next hike takes a more direct route to the waterhole. The dry drainage bear has been following carves a winding path through steep buttresses of fins, dropping in descendable increments that promise, then deny more waterpockets. However, I know from experience that this wash is, emphatically, a dead end. It terminates at a vast vertical dryfall plummeting into a short side canyon. 

At a bend of the wash, not far from the waterhole, though, an innocuous slope ascends to the right between two unpromisingly crowded fins. Its far side descends, in a steep rubble-strewn gutter, all the way to an easily negotiable bench overlooking the Colorado river. All other climbs from that side of the wash lead only to fabulous views of the river’s sinuous, cliff-walled entrenchment. The pugmarks of bear tracks in dry sand suddenly veer toward that unlikely passage as if the bear had been reading my mind in advance. At the apex of the route the brilliant green miracle of river-lining cottonwoods is suddenly framed by shadowed fins. 

Across the river from the descending crevice is a large and distinct petroglyph of a bear etched into the wall’s contrasting desert varnish. On this side, not far from the climactic exit to the bench above the river, is another ancient petroglyph of a quadruped, with clawed toes, a stubby tail, a grizzly’s distinctive shoulder-hump and with an elegantly flexed fish in its mouth (head down, tail up). In a dismal failure of parsimony, this bear is often referred to as the Moab Mastodon. It’s all a matter of perception. When I cross the ribbon of private property bottomland and the paved road that separates Behind the Rocks from the river, I see glaring discontinuity. I’m still struggling to discern just what the third bear saw.