Wednesday, February 5, 2014

143. Bears

I don't have any photographs of bears from my thru-hike. I like to think that means that I am an ecologically-minded, conservation-oriented and overly-hyphenated woods-woman. In my mind I am a superhero for nature, a respectful steward of the forest who needs not take photographs of the wildlife because I can appreciate it in the moment. That's absolutely the reason I don't have any photographs of bears. It's definitely not because seeing a bear makes me freeze quicker than Han Solo in carbonite. I absolutely don't get that same open-mouthed look of horror with my hands flapping around up in front of me, stunned forever in an expression of silliness.

Yes. Bears are Jabba the Hut in my brain. Except they're a little fuzzier and 100% more adorable.

Actually, I don't want to lie to you. Along the Appalachian Trail, there are only black bears, which really aren't that scary. I like thinking that I am totally spineless because it's more fun to write about it that way, but I'm not really a wimp (yes I am). I'm super brave and I've never felt my blood run like ice through my veins when I've come around a corner to see a gigantic black bear standing in the middle of the trail less than 5 feet away from me (yes I have). I am a force to be reckoned gently reasoned with!

In reality, in the several interactions I had with black bears, I reacted in the appropriate way. I clacked my hiking poles together and yelled some vaguely offensive rabble about bear politics and my opinions about the bear mayor doing a bad job with bear school tax levies. And then they would run away. It wasn't until later that I would realize that I had been in close proximity to a gigantic toothy mammal, and then I would feel a little faint.

I think the biggest reason that black bears weren't all that scary in the moment is that they're really not that dangerous, so long as they are respected and left alone. I knew the right way to react, so I felt safe, and we never had a negative interaction. Meanwhile, I had heard tale of the innumerable grizzly bears out in the West that Whistle had to encounter during her solo hikes through Glacier National Park. She once had to slowly hike backwards for a mile, pointedly avoiding eye contact while a gigantic mama grizzly bear paced toward her, huffing and snorting. When you encounter a grizzly bear and it decides that you would look better as a dead person, there's not a whole lot you can do.

Thus, by comparison, the black bears of Appalachia aren't quite as terrifying. They are wild animals that shouldn't be trifled with, and you should under no circumstances ever feed them, but they aren't looking for trouble, so if you are a respectful hiker you'll be alright. The reason I really wanted to write about bears is that they are, in a word, cool. There's not a lot of times that we as civilized humans get to see wild animals up close. But now I've gotten to see bears up close. Not by my choice (or theirs), but just by coincidence of being mammals sharing a habitat.

Bears have a very grounded, solid presence. Watching them walk feels like watching a roving mossy boulder gently padding its way through the piney landscape. They have bright, intelligent dark eyes that can probably see and understand way more than I could possibly describe without toppling into blatant anthropomorphism. Being eye-to-eye with a bear feels like being given a momentary window into the spirit of the forest. There is a truth to it, and it smells of dirt and earth and autumn.

That fraction of a second that you might spend with a bear is timeless, especially because it will quickly be followed by some explosive type of energy involving either you or the bear sprinting very briskly away from one another.

Clever Girl

If your long distance hike involves going through any type of bear country, you should always be prepared and know how to react to the types of bears you might encounter! Have your deck of cards handy, because most bear disputes can be solved with a quick hand of Black Jack.


  1. I was charged by a sow with cubs in Alaska. My worst fear, yet somehow as it was happening, i thought, this is pretty cool! oNot the charge, but hearing the growls, seeing muscles ripple.

    1. Who, super scary! But also so cool to be able to see that. I'm glad you were alright, what an incredible experience!