IT WAS MID-DAY AND WE HAD HIKED just a few minutes passed Rattle River Shelter on the Appalachian Trail, several miles south of Route 2 in New Hampshire. I noticed a black shape moving near the trail barely a hundred feet in front of me. I motioned to my hiking partner to stop. We both stood there with a nervous calmness, watching a black bear casually walking along the trail. The bear started to move away from us, then stopped and began walking towards us for a brief moment. I raised my voice, hoping to let the bear know of our presence. The bear soon wandered off towards the stream to our left. We watched the bear for maybe half a minute, though it seemed much longer. This was my fourth and closest encounter with a black bear on my 2006 Appalachian Trail (AT) thru hike. As it turned out we were in no danger, but I did manage to snap several great pictures.
As much as any other animal in the eastern United States, it is the black bear that has been and is most symbolic of wilderness. The black bear is strong and untamed. It is also shy and elusive. To actually see a bear in the woods is, therefore, an uncommon and exciting experience.
Not only do bears strike interest and excitement in people, but they also strike fear. Bears are predators and as such do not fear other animals, humans excepted. For the most part bears just want to be left alone. I find it curious that while many seek to experience wildness in their recreational pursuits, they become frightened and very uncomfortable when they actually find this wildness that they supposedly are seeking.
When I began my hike of the AT, for hundreds of miles I heard frightening stories about bears. “Hang your food outside,” people would say. Even if a shelter was full and there were mouse hangs — string tied to the eve of a shelter roof with a tin can at the bottom — many were still nervous about the possibility of a bear encounter. I tried hanging my food bag at one such mouse hang in a shelter and was roundly criticized by a hiker for doing so. I tried to calmly explain that bears have no interest in being around people (the shelter was filled with at least eight people and more camped around it) but she was not assuaged. I hung my food bag outside just to keep the peace. Yet one would wonder: How secure were the food bags that were hung outside and away from the shelter? If the food was hung close to a tree trunk, or less than 10 feet above the ground, as was usually the case, they weren’t safe at all. Such is a minor challenge to a bear. Bears are smart, or at least they can learn fast. If food is within reach, they most likely will find a way to get it.
As it turned out, I did not see a single bear until central Virginia. I met a young man at a hostel in Tennessee who was a rafting guide who also spent lots of time in the woods. He told me that he uses his food bag as a pillow when he sleeps in his tent. No hanging of food at all for him. Here we have a fellow experienced with the back woods who doesn’t fear bears. I started to feel much more comfortable at this point. Perhaps many of the hikers were not aware that bears are not active during winter and early spring? Even if they do not hibernate, they do go into a torpor where their body metabolism slows down and they become inactive. That would explain why no bears were seen in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.
I had my first sighting of bears in central Virginia. It was just south of Tinker Cliffs, and there was a female and three cubs walking left to right across the trail, perhaps a hundred or so feet in front of me. It does get one’s nerves up and I started making a little noise as I have heard that is what one is supposed to do when near bears. A cub scampered up a pine tree as I walked by. Zip! In maybe 10 seconds it had climbed a good 30 or 40 feet up the tree. No mother is ever far from its family, so when a cub is seen close by it is best to keep moving which is just what I did. In all of this, there was not even time for me to reach my camera. I had additional bear sightings in Shenandoah National Park and in New Jersey. The bears in Shenandoah National Park were already walking away when I spotted them. The one in New Jersey was having an early morning snack of berries. I stopped in my tracks and observed the bear and snapped a picture. After a minute or so, the bear meandered away and I continued my way northward along the trail.
Having hiked by now over half the trail, and walked through bear country much of the way, I had increased my comfort level with bears. They are actually quite docile creatures with little interest in people. Many of the thru hikers on the trail only saw bears in the New York State Bear Mountain Zoo, where there is a Black Bear exhibit. My next and final close encounter with a bear was in New Hampshire, just south of Route 2 near Gorham. I had just hiked by a shelter and a bear was right there on the trail. The bear showed little fear and I had the presence of mind to have my camera close by so I got several very good close-up pictures using my telephoto lens. After a couple minutes checking each other out, the bear moseyed on its way. Like all the other bears I saw on this six-month journey through the Appalachian mountains, the bear just wanted to forage and be left alone.
People fear black bears so much, yet there seems to be so little aggressiveness on the bear’s part. I saw bears just a few times during the six months and 2,200 miles of hiking I did on this trail through some of the wildest and most remote parts of the Eastern United States. At first along the AT, everyone was hanging their food outside of shelters; 1,000 miles or so later, almost no one. Food bags just go up on the mouse hangs under the shelter roof. So one must wonder: Just how concerned should the hiker be about bears? And is losing food or being attacked a real worry?
There is no question that bears can be dangerous and humans have been attacked and killed by bears. But this is an exceedingly rare event. One example is from a story in the April 14, 2006 issue of the newspaper USA Today. This article speaks of a bear that killed a six-year-old girl and mauled her mother and two-month-old brother. The attack occurred near a campground in Tennessee 10 miles from the nearest highway after several adult visitors tried to drive it from the trail. Rangers believe that a disease, tumor or parasite may have caused the bear to be more aggressive than normal, according to the article. This attack was only the second documented bear attack in modern Tennessee history. Lynn Rogers, a bear expert from the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota, was quoted in the article saying that there has only been about 56 killings of humans by black bears in the past 100 years in all of North America, which has a population of around 750,000 black bears.
If you are to hike in the woods often enough and in enough places, chances are you will eventually encounter a bear. What to do in that instance? If you do nothing else, remain calm. Do not try to run. Running away may seem sensible, but it is completely counter-productive. In the first place, the bear may give chase thinking you are prey. Secondly, you will not be able to run faster than the bear, no matter how fast you run. Bears are known to be able to run as fast as 35- to 40-miles-per-hour for short distances, about twice the speed of the fastest human being. More than likely, remaining calm, staying put, and waiting for the bear to walk away will allow you to proceed along the trail.
Some hikers have a strong fear of bears, probably more than is justified. I have seen some carrying bear bells, others banging pots and pans, or yelling relentlessly. This won’t deter bears as they have already heard and smelled you long before you’ve seen them. What excessive noise will do is drive other hikers crazy, especially those of us who go into the woods for peace and quiet. Still others may think they are safer bringing their dog with them. If you do bring your dog, be sure to keep it leashed at all times. Otherwise, the free roaming dog may simply run back to you for protection with the bear in very close pursuit!
While a healthy caution is certainly a good idea, unrestrained fear is unnecessary and counter-productive. It is a matter of simply following basic common sense. Don’t surprise bears by sneaking up on them. Make some noise, preferably by speaking occasionally in normal voice so bears know you are coming. Control odors. Keep meals simple and hang food bags or use any food storage device that is provided at your campsite. Maintain a clean camp. There is also safety in numbers.
Finally, do not rely on guns or pets. Both will aggravate the bear. If you carry and use a gun, you had better be an expert marksmen. A miss or non-lethal shot will surely enrage a bear and quite possibly cause him to charge towards you, at which point your options are slim indeed. It would be far preferable to use bear spray, which can immobilize the bear long enough for you to get away.
Traveling through untamed wilderness is one of the real treats of backpacking. Since you carry everything you need on your back, you can go into very remote areas. We must realize that part of the wilderness experience is walking among and possibly encountering wild animals, and that includes bears. If you do happen to see a bear, it is best to proceed with caution and patience, not panic. Above all, though, you will want to have your camera within easy reach. A memory as uncommon and exciting as a black bear encounter should be preserved for posterity’s sake. Just remember to use your camera’s telephoto lens so you maintain a safe distance.
David Mills has hiked throughout New England, as well as in the Alps and Rocky Mountains.