UNTOLD TALES OF UNEXPECTED ENCOUNTERS (IN APPARENTLY DESERTED PLACES)
Being told not only that our permanent residence passes through a bear territory, but that was also the set of a biologist who tried to confront these mammals, we woke up pretty much every morning thinking about bears. Before letting our dog out on his leash, we make a visual scan of the backyard. While we’ve never seen any of them, the wild canines live in our village occasionally attack local dogs, thus it is prudent to be always vigilant.
Driving in Prespes is not for the easily distracted: A high tolerance for mountainous roads and an ability to focus as an uninterrupted lake unfurls around you, is imperative. It’s not uncommon to brake for a deer sprinting across the freeway. The humidity warps your vision, convincing you that the moist asphalt is indeed vaporizing in the sun.
It is almost the time of year for the annual wild boar hunt in West Macedonia. Very soon the snow will «force» the wildlife to come out to the feeding places. Yet, not everybody can afford to wait.
Today we move quickly, but quietly along an overgrown logging road, pausing occasionally to look and listen to any movements. Soon, right in front of us, a local gang had just finished their early hunting tour with a wild boar of 200 kilograms killed by their dogs (some of them also wounded) and ego-boost rifles. We attempt pass them over, but the leader immediately starts a discussion and to our surprise, he even offers piece of the killed beast as an exchange for our omertà.
We will most likely never forget this trail of blood nor the image of that huge hog with the blazing eyes that stared at us, the way a predator watches its prey.
Most of the days, we end up driving in the dark. During the day, the dodgy roads are challenging enough, but at night they are positively treacherous. So we casually head up and down sloped hillsides, keep our eyes shut as we veer along tiny, winding mountain tracks on a number of moonless nights. Wince at every bump in the road, afraid we’re going to tumble off the edge.
Our dog had just dozed off in the back when two shadowy giants loomed from the bushes, and the occasional bear-crossing sign we had noted with amusement became all too real. A few seconds earlier and we might have gotten a trifle too close for comfort; a few seconds later and we would have missed them entirely. But our timing was perfect. We stared, entranced, as the pair lumbered over a fence, blurring out of focus as quickly as they’d come in. Predictable is one attribute God left out of his Prespian plan.
We co-exist yet we rarely do meet.
Throughout our trip, we have been out trying to learn the art of tracking bears and wolves in the ancient cedar forests and sharp cliff faces, learning that attitudes towards the species are changing, so even nature-lovers are ambivalent about whether the packs’ return to old territories or not.
"Enjoy the opportunity to view, but don't encourage any kind of interaction", the locals always suggested. "Be mindful", they would advice the same thing about a brown bear, deer, or any wildlife species. "Always make noise and stay together". Their recommendations came on the heels of another expedition, in which we trekked on foot to the glades, where bears come to feed, following trails of paw-prints, droppings and bite-marks.
We have also heard about wolves in the area, but never seen any of them either. Yet we scrambled to get a photograph of what we thought was likely a wolf. The animal came right in front of our headlights so we started rolling down a window. Nevertheless the unknown animal turned and walked back into the woods. Unafraid, it stayed for a while within our view. For the remainder of the encounter, our dog, who is well-known to bark at other animals, was just shaking and curled up in his seat. Since, we woke up to the sound of wolves howling. We graphically imagined him pulled down one of the neighborhood deer and is about to have a feast.