I saw him first as a black blob back on the trail I had just come up. A black bear almost defines black — like some cosmic phenomenon that absorbs all light and reflects nothing. I stood motionless at a spot on the side of the trail. I was wearing a dark jacket and a steady wind was in my face. I was downwind of him. He likely had not seen me.
There is an old American Indian saying, “If a leaf falls in the forest, the eagle sees it, the deer hears it, and the bear smells it.” This bear had obviously not smelled me, either.
A cold front had moved through the night before. It brought a few nice showers, but the red and yellow streaks on the TV weather man’s radar broke around to the north and south of us, so our cabin was an island — spared the “lightning, large hail and damaging winds” experienced by others.
The skies next morning were clear and a nice breeze from the southwest made for good hiking weather. I laced up my shoes, holstered my water bottle, stuck some cough drops and a cell phone in my pants pocket, grabbed my sturdy hiking stick and headed up the mountain.
There is a high spot on the trail, about a mile up, that offers good cell phone reception. It’s also nicely located for taking a breather, a drink of water and relieving yourself of anything else that might be getting uncomfortable.
My wife asked me later, “Weren’t you scared?”
It is a funny thing. My principle emotion at the time was excitement. I have seen bears twice before in the wild, but one occasion was from the driver’s seat of my car…another time out the back window of my brother’s house in the Pennsylvania woods. This was different. Now I was sharing the same space with one.
Once on a search and rescue seaplane flight over the North Atlantic, our plane was in that sandwich between the low ceiling – perhaps a thousand feet – and the grey ocean rolling below. Under conditions like that, you have to fly low to spot a life raft in the water. Tall, wispy columns of vapor rose in spirals from eddies in the water below us, and melted into the unbroken cloud cover above. One of the pilots made a comment, “Sea fire…” The simile was apt. These columns looked like the smoke that might rise from embers here and there on the forest floor after the ravages of a fire.
Our plane flew among and through these columns, and I knew I was seeing something that not many people have seen from a plane. It felt something like a blessing – I had been granted a rare privilege.
So it was with the bear. My nephew put it this way: “Unexpected divine appointments with nature are so rare that you must try and enjoy every second.” I think the word “divine” is not misused here.
The black blob puzzled me at first. I didn’t recall seeing any dark mass like that on the side of the road I had just come up. Then the animal turned, and I saw him in profile — a large black bear of around 300 or 400 pounds. I say “him”, as most grown females would be followed by one or two cubs. They are born in winter or early spring – and they will stick with the mother for perhaps the first two years of their lives. Then they are on their own. Black bears are not pack animals, like wolves or coyotes. They are lonely foragers who tolerate each other’s company, but live solitary lives outside of mating season.
I hike this trail – really a narrow gravel road up the mountain – all the time. I didn’t plan on giving up my walks because of this encounter. Once back at the cabin, I looked up bears on the computer. What should I have done?
Someone once told me that a man and a bear could share the same 100 acres of forest, and although the bear would see the man almost every day, the man would only rarely spot the bear. They are – unless a female defending cubs – by and large wary of humans and will avoid contact. I knew my sighting was not a common experience. Of course, old woodland sayings are as thick as – well…ticks on a hound dog – so a little skepticism is advised.
All the advice said to make your presence known to these creatures. They don’t like surprises. Whoop, holler, raise your arms (to appear bigger) and otherwise let them know of your whereabouts.
I hadn’t yet read this advice as the bear continued walking up the trail toward me. I sensed that sooner or later I would have to do something, but he solved the problem for me. At about 50 yards (I paced it off later), he turned to his right and entered the woods. He ambled along in no particular hurry, occasionally raising his brown snout to sniff the air. His walk through the woods went parallel to my path for a bit then quartered away. At his closest, he was perhaps 30 yards from me.
Perhaps I will see him again some day — or perhaps not. Bears are notorious wanderers. They may occupy a territory of up to 100 square miles and travel several miles a day in search of food. I will, however, look for him. My hiking modus has changed. I used to chug up the mountain, staff planted, short steps, head down, trudging steadily for the cardio benefit. Now I take more measured steps, and scan the woods for the beauty there; beauty abundant, and beauty rare.
“I See a Bear” first appeared in Chuck Thurston’s Senior Scribbles Unearthed – available from Amazon and Second Wind.