I’ve been seeing a lot of these big fuzzy creatures lately. I’ve lived, walked and driven in this county for 11 years, and during that time I would see a bear here and there with big spans of time in between sightings.Occasionally one will stroll through my yard, (by occasionally I mean once every one or two years) and my dogs will scare it away with their barks and yelps. Since last October the amount of bear sightings I’ve experienced has increased drastically. It’s probably due to my increase in hiking, excursions into the Shenandoah National Park, and the times of day I have been out and about. Whatever the reason, it’s becoming more common place for me to see one, two or even five in one short hike.
A few days ago I decided to head out to complete a short section of the Appalachian Trail along Skyline Drive that I had yet to do. While driving to the parking area I spotted the two in the photo above, heading straight for a trailhead along my path. I was a little concerned that rather than running from my car, they turned and walked toward me. Weird. I figured they’d be long gone by the time I reached that trailhead. And if they weren’t, I would have my pepper spray in hand and dogs by my side. Flash forward about ten minutes, I park the car and the dogs and I begin our hike. Within steps we pass a couple of thru hikers who quietly exclaim, as if to not startle too many other forest creatures, that there is a momma and cub on the trail just around the corner. My first reaction is “Hike Canceled!” Then I get ahold of myself and tell them that my dogs will likely scare them off, but it’s startling none the less. So we march on. I touch my pepper spray a couple times to remind myself where it is, and I dart my eyes around with each cautious step. I start messing with my camera settings just as something moves in my peripheral vision. I turn to the right, and there she is, about 20 feet away, standing in waste high shrubs with one arm down and one bent up as if she had just used it to place food in her mouth. She’s watching me. We make eye contact. I think, “Camera,” then “Get the dogs out of here before they startle her and she comes at us.” The dogs never saw her, though they did smell her. We never saw her cub. I squeaked out a few commands to my dogs to get them to move along faster as I gripped their leashes a little tighter. Momma bear never moved.
Later we reached the stretch at the trailhead where we saw the two crossing the street. The dogs could smell them, and I could certainly hear them. They were lost in the tall shrubbery, but they were there. They hadn’t made it far from where we had seen them some time ago. Continuing to hustle along, we reached the end of the section that I intended to complete, and I decided we should continue on. There are some beautiful overlooks up ahead, and I wouldn’t mind staring off into the vastness of the Shenandoah for a bit. Within a tenth of a mile we round a bend and there is another one right on the trail. What is going on? We made eye contact. I made lots of high pitched noises to try to scare him off (I say him because it looked huge). He did not budge. So we turned around. I can only tempt fait so much in one day.
These animals are in the middle of foraging and putting on weight, and it seems no human is going to stop them from doing so. Today, several days later, I went on a 10 mile hike in the George Washington Forest. Not a single bear or human was spotted. It seems there is plenty of room for them to roam here, and a lack of human activity and trash to invite them away from their natural comfort zone. I prefer my bear sightings from the car, far and few between. I hope the bears in the Shenandoah National Park aren’t being purposefully fed by people, but it would explain their lack of concern with my moving vehicle, hiking approach, and dogs. No matter how often we cross paths, I will never feel unafraid, but I will always feel like I won the lottery when I make it safely back to my car.
Have you had an experience with a bear? I’d love to hear about it.