What was I thinking? Be careful what you wish for is my advice. My secret desire, while travelling in Canada, was to meet a bear. I’m talking about in the wild, not behind bars. I love seeing animals frolicking in their natural environment wild and free. Little did I know that my wish would come true with a black bear encounter.
I do a lot of hiking. My eyes love the amazing scenery from mountain tops. To view the craggy peaks of mountain ranges that continue as fare as the eye can see. Or hover over icy lakes shining in every shade of blue possible. I also love to discover hidden gems, like secret waterfalls and ponds, like I did in Albania.
But sometimes I yearn for something exciting. So I wondered what it would be like if I encountered a bear. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Well it is to a crazy Aussie, until it actually happened.
I did a few hikes around The Rockies in Canada, which is brown bear country. We followed all the right protocols to ensure we scared the bears away rather than attract them. One time we didn’t have a whistle but it wasn’t going to be a problem. Me and my three friends were so noisy in laughter that I think we scared everyone. Didn’t see another soul on that trail. Secretly, deep down, I was hoping we would see a bear. I thought it would be exciting and a fun story to tell. But, it never eventuated in Canada.
The Opportunity Arises
A year later I was on a Suntrek camping tour (now acquired by Intrepid) on the east coast of USA. One day we pulled into Big Meadows campground in Shenandoah National Park for an overnight stop. After we set up our tents, we had the rest of the day to explore. To my delight, while chatting with the camp owner, I discovered that this camp site lies on the Appalachian Trail. Then he pointed towards the woods to show where the hikers emerge from.
My eyes widened with the excitement of standing on the AT (the common name for Appalachian Trail). I learnt about this trail when I read Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods’. Its’ his funny account of when he attempted to walk the trail himself. What made it funnier was the inclusion of an unexpected hiking companion.
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At the same time, the novel was also informative. I learnt how the 2190 miles (3524km) trail came into existence. How national parks formed around it which helped preserve nature and animals. And how they all co-ordinated with each to make the longest hiking trail in the world. I loved Bryson’s vivid description of the trail and its views. It inspired me to one day hike the mammoth trail too.
Now here I was on the mighty AT, almost at the halfway point. It was not enough for me to simply camp on the trail. I wanted to be able to say that I ‘hiked’ it too. Even though it was for an afternoon only. So I convinced my tour guide to drop me off about 5 miles down the road at Bootens Gap. There was a little side entrance onto the trail which I could follow all the way back to the campground.
The man and his dog
I was only on the chestnut and red oak lined trail for about 30 minutes when I met a hike walking from the opposite direction. ‘Hi, my name is Cool Breeze and this my trusty dog’ he greeted me. Apparently the AT hikers give themselves a hiking name. He was a tall elderly man, looking about 70 years but very fit.
They left Connecticut on April 18 and it was now June 8th. The AT actually starts in Maine, meanders through 14 states along the Appalachian Mountain range and finishes in Georgia. It typically takes about 5-7 months to hike the whole length. But Cool Breeze has already hiked this trail twice before, so he is taking it easier this time. I was in awe of these two hikers. If they can do it, so can I….one day!
Of course I had to ask ‘Have you seen any bears?’ To my disappointment, they haven’t come close to one at all. Even on the previous hikes. I sensed he seemed a little disappointed too. However, he reassured me ‘We have the black bears here and they usually remain hidden deep in the forest. You’ll be ok on your short walk’. After our five minute chat, we wished each other well and went on our separate ways.
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The Black Bear Encounter Wish
Literally ten minutes after saying goodbye to Cool Breeze, the unthinkable happened. About 30m down the track in front of me a black bear started crossing my path. I went into shock as I quickly froze while taking in a huge gasp of air. My actions startled the bear and he too froze in mid step. The bear turned its head to face me and our eyes locked.
I wanted to yell to Cool Breeze to come back and see the bear but I don’t think he would have heard me. For what seemed like five minutes, neither of us moved an inch or a muscle. The birds stopped singing and the trees stopped swaying. It was deadly silent, as if the whole world stood still. I couldn’t even hear my pounding hear. Only our glare penetrating each other. As if deciding who is going to make the first move.
It suddenly occurred to me that if this bear is a mother, she will attack me to protect her cubs. Without moving my head, my eyes slowly scanned the ground around me looking for a broken log that I could use to protect me. All I could see was twigs. I then scanned the shrubs around the trees but couldn’t see any cubs playfully bouncing around.
Another minute passed and we were both still in a stare lock. So I came to the conclusion that there are no cubs around. But I also had another thought directed to the bear. ‘Well if you’re not going to move, then I’m going to take a photo because no one is ever going to believe me’. I had an overwhelming desire to get proof. If Cool Breeze didn’t see a bear in two months of hiking but I see one within 30 minutes of stepping onto the track, I really needed evidence.
Ever so slowly, my hand reached for the side pocket of my hiking pants and pulled out my compact camera. The whole time our eyes were still locked. My confidence grew when I noticed that the bear still didn’t move. So I proceeded with my plan and carefully pulled the camera out of its pouch. The bear still didn’t move. But as soon as I switched the camera on, the lens noise startled the bear and began to run into the woods.
My mind went into panic mode and said ‘Hey, where are you going? I need a photo first’. And so, without any regard to my safety, I started running after the bear. The trees started to hide the bear so I left the track and I delved deeper into the woods. But the bear kept running away. I didn’t want to venture too far off the track, so I stopped to take a photo before the bear completely disappeared into the forest.
With the click of the camera button, the bear stopped in its tracks and twisted its face towards me. Once again we were locked into a stare. ‘Ok’ I thought, ‘I’ve gone too far – into the woods and annoying the bear. I better stop now’. So I slowly started walking backwards. I remember reading that if a black bear is a close to you, move away slowly but don’t turn your back to the bear. Thank goodness it wasn’t a brown bear as they are more unforgiving. As soon as my feet landed back on the track, I turned and ran. I ran and ran for about 5 minutes, hoping the whole time that the ‘cute’ bear decided not to chase me! Absolutely too scared to look behind me. I didn’t want my last vision on this planet to be a bear diving onto me.
Eventually I stopped running. What a relief when I looked back and there was no bear on my tail. I couldn’t help feeling proud that I met and escaped a bear encounter. Easy to feel confidence when you’re not in danger anymore.
So I relaxed and began to casually meander through the forested trail. I wanted to soak in every moment of my short time on the AT.
Then about an hour later, I could hear the rustling of leaves behind me. I stopped and the rustling stopped. I began walking and the rustling of leaves began again. ‘Oh no’ I gasped in fear. ‘The bear has returned to seek revenge on me’. Now I was in panic mode. What was I thinking chasing a bear? I’m going to lose my life all for the sake of a photo. This is the price I will now have to pay for being a reckless hiker.
I stopped again and the rustling of leaves behind me stopped. It confirmed that I’m not losing my mind or hearing things. I now have to face my fate. I gently turned around to look behind me and to my surprise I saw a white tailed deer about 20m away. It looked like Bambi, complete with white dots on its body. What a relief it wasn’t a bear. Bambi wasn't camera shy either so I took a photo. However, if Bambi had started to run away, I wasn't going to chase it. I would just have to savour the moment in memory instead.
So I continued walking and could hear Bambi still following me. I felt like he/she was the barrier between me and any danger out there. It really felt that this kind fawn was here to ensure that that I made it all the way back to the campground. I found out later that fawns are born with white spots to help camouflage them from predators. Perhaps Bambi was here to help camouflage me too. Before I left the woods to enter the wide open space of the campground, I turned around and with a nod of my head I thanked Bambi for making sure I got back safe.
I quickly ran to my tour group who were chatting in front of our tents. And just as I thought they would, they did not believe me that I saw a bear. Worse still that I chased one! ‘Wait ‘til I develop my photos, you’ll see’ I said smugly. Now that the fear was out of my system, I was glad I got the photo of proof.
That evening as we sat around the campfire roasting marshmallows, I reflected upon my afternoon. I had such an eventual 2.5 hours on the AT. I met a seasoned hiker and a dog, had a Mexican stand-off with a black bear, played with death and felt safe as Bambi kept me company. The realisation sunk in that I experienced more excitement in one afternoon than Cool Breeze did for the last two months.
I was so satisfied with my short time on the AT, that I won’t have regrets if I don’t make it back to walk the whole trail. And I definitely won’t be wishing for a black bear encounter!