If you go down to the woods today

Trip Start Sep 08, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Russia  , Irkutsk,
Thursday, September 23, 2010

After a day of being pampered Siberian style - stripped naked, sweated into an extreme sauna and then thwacked by a Russian brandishing birch branches - we all feel surprisingly better and set out for a series of walks once the sun has taken the sting out of the nights cold.
For the first walk we find ourselves scrambling along the shoreline of the silver lake, working our way around sheer cliffs - the heights exhilarating for some, terrifying for others. The decision is made to curtail this walk so we head back to town, pick up some fish pies (the fish being one of the 2/3rds of the lake's1700 species that can be found nowhere else on earth) and head into the woods.
During the long winters the lake is entirely frozen over - apart from the breathing holes which the seals maintain for themselves - and cars and lorries drive over the meter-thick ice. Up on the slopes a brief patch of forest has been cleared to make way for a small ski slope and it is this meadowed piste that we walk up, joining Koster & Sophie who have taken the chair lift to the beauty spot at the top. The views are spectacular, the covering of golden yellow birch covering all visible topography except for where the scar of the lake cuts the hills open.
Feeling adventurous we decide to take a new route back to the guesthouse, walking through the forest and trusting the orienteering skills of our guide who is obviously enjoying the spirit of our group and the chance to try something different. As we walk through the dappled light much joking rattles up and down the line about it being 'bear country' and who, if this were a movie would die first.
The woodland is absolutely stunning and it is great to be exploring off-piste. We come to a little worn track and following it up into the hills we venture deeper into the forest. Koster has assured us that bears don't come close to human settlements - and in his twenty-five years of living round these parts he has never seen one. His grandfather, he tells me and Carl, had been an experienced hunter and had taken him up into the forests many times, showing him how to read for signs of bears and how to avoid them. We passed a large pile of speckled poo - Bear shit - Koster jokes (?) and walks on leaving a heightened sense of nerves tickling through his followers. I feel pretty confident that even if there were a bear, it would be unlikely to want to confront us - unless of course it were particularly hungry or if it were a mother protecting a cub which are, Koster tells us, the worst type of bear.
We walk on. Koster up front. Then me and Carl, then Beth. Whilst Tom & Sophie lag a little behind a slight bend. The earth is a soft mud from last night's rain but it is good footing and great walking.
Carl looks down and points to a large imprint in the mud by his feet - Koster, what's that?
One great pad has concaved the soft earth, with five clean ovals to the fore and sharp puncturing holes arching above these. Surely that can only have been made by the foot of a bear, by the foot of a large bear. What else could it be? We stand around it inspecting. Sophie comes around the bend and asks what were all looking at - Oh nothing - someone says unconvincingly.
Come on - Koster says - Let's keep going - but the print is definitely pointing in the direction of our travel and there is less confidence in his speech.
As we walk on there is clear evidence of other prints, large ovals with five outliers and the terrifying holes where claws have pierced mud. Less than a hundred yards on Koster crouches down again and inspects the ground.
This one's fresh - he tells me - definitely within the last eight hours - and the prints that on closer inspection now surround us are pointing in both directions. Are we about to be ambushed? Sophie has cottoned on to what is happening and is beginning to freak. Carl follows her fears. The prints are both large and small - a mother and cub? Koster, keeping calm, suggests that maybe we should think about turning round and there is not much debate on our part.
When I hang around trying to take photos of the prints the others shout without raising their voices for me to hurry the f**k up. At this moment my memory card decides it is full and, not wanting to miss this opportunity I start scrolling back through old photos to delete the duds and create more space. When I look up I find myself alone on the track and this is enough incentive for me to get my act together, take the snap and scurry back down the track to join the group.
Sophie is in tears. Tom is trying his best to calm her but is clearly not comfortable himself. Beth spots a hawk in the sky and we stop to admire its lazy circles sending Sophie into almost having Hello Kitties.
We pass the pile of poo again and inspect it closer this time - a stack of fist-sized pellets, studded with cherry stones. Another scroll, delete and snap delay.
As we walk back down the hill we spot more prints and the tension in the group swells as we all imagine eyes upon us. Don't look into the woods, don't look into the woods, Beth silently chants to herself.
We pass a hunched old woman walking up into the woods to collect berries (whom Koster does not warn of her impending mauling) and then we notice the cherry bushes that line the path to our left have been stripped clean apart from the very top branches.
Humans? we ask Koster hopefully.
He shakes his head.
More clear evidence of bears, he says. Humans only pick the ripe ones. These ones have been completely stripped. They must be coming close to humans to get their final fill of food before hibernation.
Oh, great!
We reach a clearing near the base of the chair lift but even here there are more prints but by now, within the sight of man-made structures a greater bravado inspires us and we all stop to inspect the imprints in the mud.
As we walk back down the tarmac track towards the road a sigh of relief passes though the group and at this point Koster admits he has never seen a bear's paw-print before and he will definitely be emailing our photos to his father the moment he gets back to town. This he duly does and confirms what we all already knew.


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