Sunday, July 26, 2009

Can We Bear It?

It would have been a nice, albeit hot, weekend for a hike, but I had other things I wanted to do, including resuming some basic working out. Another thing I wanted to do was some writing. I am unhappy in my job and would like to try to start selling some writing and see where that might lead. So I resolved that I would update both of my blogs today, plus start an article I hope to get published in Backpacker about my first real backpacking trip. That misadventure to Isle Royale in Lake Superior was generated by a triumvirate of an ex-girlfriend, a car magazine, and a football, so as you might guess it is a little whacky and will be fun to write about.

Updating “Racing for a Cure” is always easy, but what to write in a hiking blog when I haven’t done a hike since Sleeping Bear Dunes on July 15? I thought about some people I met on my hike to President Hoover’s Retreat a few weeks ago, and decided on the topic of bears. As a bonus, I’ll throw in a few photos at the end.

To me, seeing a black bear in the wild is a thrill. But I guess that to many people, it must be terrifying. On that hike in the Shenandoah, I didn’t see a bear. But I did hear a one horse open sleigh coming through the woods – at least that is what is sounded like. I could hear them for five minute before we passed – a couple hiking along, the woman festooned in large “bear bells.” I was tempted to break into a rousing chorus of “Jingle Bells” as we passed.

A few hours later, I heard an old sort of rhythmic chanting punctuated by what sounded like claps. Minutes later, we passed in opposite directions – three young men chanting in unison and clapping to the beat in order to scare away the bears.

Now I know that in grizzly country, this is a good idea – you don’t want to surprise a griz on the trail. I have made about 8 hikes in grizzly terrain when I went out west, and in each one, we were on full alert and constantly trying to make noise. Black bears can sometimes be aggressive but rarely attack humans. They can, if habituated to humans and having encountered people that will throw their food away to get a bear to leave them alone, sometime approach people assertively looking for food. But normally, from my experience, a black bear is going to run when you encounter them.

I’ve been lucky enough to encounter black bears on about a half dozen hikes in my life, and with one exception, the bears ran with a speed that would have made a world class sprinter weep, or climbed a tree with amazing dexterity. I once encountered two young cubs on a hike – one sprinted up the hill through the woods, and the other shot 40 feet straight up a tree literally in seconds. It was incredible to watch. I made sure that I wasn’t going to blunder into their mom, then left well enough alone and quietly hiked off.

The one exception to fleeing bears was in Grand Teton National Park in 2005. I was returning alone from a short hike into an area where the wildlife was supposed to be great. I had seen nothing on the mile and a half in, and other than an elk, nothing on the way back. Suddenly, less than ¼ mile from the trail head, there was a sow black bear and two cubs. They were 100 feet or less from the trail, calmly eating berries. Sensing that they knew I was not a danger, I stopped and watched them for about five minutes. I didn’t move towards them and just stood still. Of course, they very much knew that I was there, but they calmly kept eating. It was a thrill that I will always remember and expect rarely to see again.

So in black bear country, use common sense. Certainly don’t approach a bear. Don’t bring food into your tent, and hang your food at least 100 yards from camp in a bear-proof container if you are camping out. But if you are lucky enough to see a bear in the wild, enjoy the experience without fear. It is a privilege few people have.

Here are some photos of the mother bear and her cubs in the Tetons:


  1. Great bear pics! The only wild bear I saw was in Yosemite, close to a campsite, with a ranger standing close by keeping an eye. He was digging up some grubs. I've never been in grizzly territory, but it must be frightening!

  2. Thanks Anne. It was a pretty big thrill.

    I still need to get to Yosemite some day. The black bears there can be aggressive because they associate people with food.

    Grizzly's are incredible to see. I have seen them twice, once maybe 1000 yards away, a sow with two cubs. I only saw them because someone let me use their spotting scope. The other time was from the car. We stopped and got our a respectful distance away and watched him as he finished his nap, slowly walked into Yellowstone Lake, and took a dip. That was pretty cool!

    And yes, hiking in grizzly territory is rather unnerving. Very few people are harmed, but the possibility is there from such a powerful and well armed animal if you surprise them.

    you have plenty of black bear in PA, I bet you will run into one on a hike at some point.

  3. I've seen a black bear once at a dump near my moms house when she lived up in NY state.
    I think I would be frightened seeing one when I was out walking.
    I KNOW I'd be terrified of a grizzly!!
    The bear pictures are terrific.
    Good luck with your writing. :-)

  4. Thanks HappyOne. It was quite a thrill to be that close to a mother with cubs. I think I would be frightened if one charged me, but usually they are running away when I see them.

    Grizzlies, yeah, those are more scary. they might run away, they might run towards you.

    Thanks for the well wishes. Art