Yesterday, I had the day off and I went for an eight mile hike in Shenandoah National Park, one of my favorites - the Jones Run - Doyle's River Falls circuit. I'll do a more complete post about the hike later, but in this post, I am focused on the wildlife. I had a troubling experience near the end of the hike that got my heart beating and adrenaline pumping for sure.
But earlier in the hike, as I climbed the trail towards Lower Doyle's River Falls, I head the sound of rocks being flipped and so I stopped. Eventually, a young bear - probably out on its own this year for the first time - came into view about 100 feet away. He was flipping rocks in the steam, looking for food. I watched him for five minutes, and don't think he knew I was there. He was too far for a good photo, and there was a lot of vegetation, but I got these shots with my camera on maximum digital zoom.
I moved on, and later, I heard what had to be another bear flipping rocks off in the woods but couldn't see him. Later, I spotted a deer about 50 feet off the trail in thick cover, only because it stepped on a branch and snapped it, which made me stop and look for what animal it was.
So with about a mile and a half left in my hike, I was tired. The trail was finally fairly easy after climbing 1,800 feet, and I was cruising along, deep in thought. I was on the Appalachian Trail, about a tenth of mile from the Doyle's River overlook. As I stepped past a tree, I became aware of a large animal next to the tree literally five feet away from me. It was a bear! I hadn't seen it because the tree screened it from my angle and because I was thinking, not looking as much. But the bear had to have heard me coming, yet it didn't move. It was less than 2 feet from the trail and about 3 feet ahead of the point of the trail I was at.
Luckily for me, it ran away, not towards me. But it only ran about 15 feet and turned to look at me. I yanked out my camera - having come to an immediate stop - and snapped this kind of fuzzy photo. Either my hands were not steady or I rushed the focus.
So then, I was thinking "What next?" The bear was not aggressive, nor was it afraid of me. It was much too close. I was well within its comfort zone of 100 - 200 feet. I put the camera away, and backed slowly down the trail, following my original direction of travel. I am sure that it could smell the apple core, empty peanut butter cracker package, and empty cupcake package in my pack, and the small amount of mixed nuts in my pocket. A bear has a nose that makes a bloodhound look like a little kid with a head cold, and the only thing they think about 95% of the time is food.
The bear stared at me, and neither of us made a sound. I didn't want to turn my back - it was still much too close, by now no more that 25 feet away. But I was afraid I would trip if I kept walking backwards, so I partially turned and continued walking slowly while still having my eyes on the bear. As soon as I partially turned my back, the bear immediately took two steps towards me. Not the reaction I wanted at all! So I turned and faced him head on. We stared at each other for about 30 seconds, then he turned slightly and trotted down the slope and crossed the trail no more than 10 - 15 feet from me! It continued into very thick brush, walking fast but not running. A bear can out-sprint a race horse, by the way, in case you are wondering why one should never run.
At that point, I did something just on impulse. I whacked a tree with my trekking pools, creating a loud sound. I hoped it would scare the bear. But he just stopped down in the brush, maybe 50 feet away now. At that point, I turned and walked slowly away, checking now and again behind me.
There had been signs on the trail a couple of miles in each direction talking about problem bears in the area with reduced fear of humans, and how camping was banned on this part of the trail. I guess this guy was one of them. A bear with this little fear of a human is not good. If I had panicked and run, I think it likely would have charged me. Even staying calm does not guarantee a good outcome, but in this case I had some luck.
My guess is that bears in this area have been getting food from humans, either deliberately or stuff people threw away. The former is a terrible idea, and so is the latter because the food will have the human scent on it. In both cases, the bear will see humans as a source of food, and the outcome can never be good.
I was hyper-alert for the rest of my hike, let me tell you! You would have been too, right?
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