Tomorrow’s free comic book day. Tomorrow could be free punch me in the face day and I’d be alright with that. We’ve made it back from Shenandoah National Park having faced my biggest fear. No matter what happens for the rest of the week, at least I’m not currently being followed by a black bear.
Now we have a story to tell. This was what my hiking buddy said afterwards. As though there was a shortage on stories and I needed to fear for my life to round things out. Yippee. Would you like to hear about the time I valiantly melted into a puddle of please-don’t-eat-me?
Bears are my biggest fear. I read about them all the time, thinking filling my head with knowledge will chip away at the big bad monsters and all that will remain will be respect for these intelligent wild animals. Maybe one day. I’m not there yet, not even close.
Shenandoah is about a 2-hour drive south of Gettysburg, PA. We thought it’d be fun to go there for some hiking after a weekend of immersing ourselves in Civil War history. A detour to Antietam first. We arrived in Shenandoah National Park around 2 pm eager to find a trail. A park ranger recommended the Fox Hollow/ Dickey Ridge trail located right across from the visitor center. The 5ish-mile loop sounded like a pleasant introduction to the park. We grabbed our walking sticks and packs and headed out. This was our first time carrying bear spray. I figured it’d be nice to have the peace of mind. Just in case. Never gonna actually need it.
Our route started us on the Fox Hollow trail. We passed a few people coming from the opposite direction. Asked them if they saw any bears. They laughed and said no but it’s a lovely trail. Lalala. About a mile in, we reach the old cemetery. More hikers pass from the opposite direction. We ask and they say they saw no bears. The trail, while more brown that I expected, was gentle and peaceful. Some elevation and brush to step over but nothing strenuous. It felt good to stretch our legs after driving. I was starting to calm down about potential bear sightings, but we continued talking loudly just in case.
About 1 3/4 miles into our hike Raj freezes and says the words I never ever want to hear on a hike.
“That’s a bear.”
I vaguely recall the ranger saying something about 50 yards being a safe distance to observe bears from. I look way out into the distance but the bear is not in the distance. Our bear was maybe 5 yards away. In the moment, I do what I’ve always feared I would do. I forget every bear safety precaution. Raj reminds me not to run.
The bear spray is in my hand, safety off. I don’t remember grabbing it but there it is. We wave our arms and start shouting for the bear to go away. It darts a few feet parallel to the trail then darts back to where we first saw it. Raj wants to stand our ground but I’m too scared to continue on for another 3 1/2 miles. We back away slowly, careful not to turn our backs to the bear. Never run. Never make eye contact. Never turn our backs.
Hiking backwards is hard. We start to realize there are gaping holes in our bear knowledge. Aren’t they supposed to be shy and run away? How long do we stay backwards. Where’d it go? Gone? Nope. There it is. We continue to see and hear the bear a few yards off the trail. It seems to be following us. It’s slightly bigger than mid-size. We didn’t see any cubs. The elevation change and roots we’d so easily hiked only moments ago are not fun to trek over backwards with a bear in sight. Torture for me – most of the hikers we’ve met aren’t terrified of bears. Most hikers probably would’ve stood their ground then continued on their way.
This was our first bear encounter on a trail. I don’t know what we did wrong. Maybe we startled him even though we were talking loudly. We were listening for bears but bears don’t listen for us. This wild animal didn’t shyly scurry away. It didn’t hear our shouts, understand we were untasty humans and back off. It didn’t notice our retreat and return to its foraging. It followed us back to the cemetery, past the cemetery, around a bend. All along we either saw or heard it so we kept talk shouting. Kept walking backwards. Kept the bear spray at the ready. It would’ve been a fantastic time to run into other hikers, but it was just us and the bear almost the whole way back.
About a half mile from the trailhead I look down a slope and see another smaller bear about 50 yards away. This one observed us and went back to its log. Finally it felt safe enough to turn around and a few minutes later we were out of the woods.
Our first hike in Shenandoah was one to remember. In a total of about 3 miles we encountered 2 bears. The encounter was difficult because it lasted for so long. We knew we didn’t have far to backtrack, but we were walking backwards. Every time I saw or heard this bear my nerves went deeper into overdrive.
We were going to Hike Mary’s Rock or Old Rag the next morning but I was still too shaken. I saw a bear in every shadow. Instead we hiked a few miles along the Appalachian Trail and checked out the overlooks along Skyline Drive. We ran into some lone thru hikers on the AT. One stopped to chat with us for a bit. The day before, he hiked 38 miles. He’d started in March. Guess how many bears he saw… Zero. Not a single other hiker we talked to, most thru or section hikers, had seen a single bear. We saw four in two days. According to everyone we talked to, seeing so many was lucky.
I didn’t get any bear pictures. Too scared to even consider it that first day. We saw the other two bears from the relative safety of the car. The third was a cub heading towards the section of AT we’d just hiked. The fourth was massive and still. He looked so much like a black bear he had to be fake but then he ran away faster than I ever imagined something so large could possibly run.
While I was hoping our first bear encounter would lessen my fear – because I’d wave my arms and shout and the bear would run away – at least now I know the What Not To Dos are correct. We made it out unscathed. Raj kept his cool. I managed to function while facing my biggest fear. A few days have passed and my heart still races when I think about it.
We’re bound to cross trails with bears again. Now I know I can sort of deal with it. Maybe someday I’ll get over this block of bear fear and be one of those hikers hoping to see a bear from a distance. Probably not. Maybe one day I’ll go back to being one of those hikers who never see them at all.
Still it’s spring and I’m counting down the days till our next Catskills hike. Bear spray: check.