Bears. We don’t like to admit it, but they’re out there. Personally I prefer to think of bears the least amount as possible. I know that they exist and I always hang a bear-bag whenever I overnight in the backcountry, but more because it’s just what you do than out of actual fear. I like to solo hike whenever I have a free weekend, and occasionally I get inside my own head at night when the woods seem to really come alive, but I’ve never seen anything even remotely close to a bear. Until recently.
A few weekends ago I was overnighting in Eastern Tennessee’s beautiful Frozen Head State Park. If you’ve not been before I highly suggest a trip down that way. I arrived late and was only intending to hike in 3.7 miles, so I checked the weather and hastily started shedding some extra weight from my pack. The ranger I registered my car with told me it was a pretty intense hike up, so I decided it would be best to lose any extra weight I could spare.
There were not any water sources to speak of along the trail, so dropping a water bottle was out of the question. Since the temperature was only supposed to get down into the high 50’s with no chance of rain, I decided to shed the weight of my cold-weather gear and my rain gear. The sleeping bag I had with me was rated to 40 degrees so I felt confident that I would be comfortable for a single night in the woods. All together I probably only saved myself 6 to 7 lbs of weight.
Stephen Beach in Frozen Head State Park
The hike in was beautiful, but as the ranger had promised it was a tough 3.6 miles, gaining me 3,600 feet in elevation. I made it to the top of the mountain and found a fire tower that was open to hikers. I climbed up, rolled out my sleeping pad, and fell asleep in the warm afternoon sun. When I woke up an hour later it was to the sound of thunder off in the distance. I decided to keep an eye on the storm and make my freeze-dried dinner of curried chickpeas while I had the chance to enjoy the sweeping view of the valley below.
My phone reception was pretty poor up on the mountain so I abandoned trying to look up the weather myself and called a friend to have him check it for me. Surprise! The forecast had changed dramatically. There was now a 60% chance of rain and a low for the evening dipping down into the mid 40’s.
This was distressing news as I had left anything that could be useful to me in less than perfect weather back at the car. After talking it through with my friend on the phone I decided staying on the mountain and risking hypothermia wasn’t worth it. I finished my dinner, said one last goodbye to my panoramic view of the eastern Tennessee mountains, and picked up my pack to start my trek back to the car.
Before I even hit the trailhead it started raining. I pulled out my map to see if there might be a quicker way back to the car, and to my astonishment, there was! Instead of walking around the outside of the mountain on my way down, I could hug the inside and cut my trip down to 2.7 miles, almost a full mile less than my hike in. So I dug out my headlamp and hung it casually around my neck before starting my way down the trail.
By this point it was already around 7:45pm and it was getting dark. Scratch that, it was already dark. Any light I had been enjoying on top of the fire tower was long gone.
I made another regrettable decision at this point, and that was to NOT use my headlamp just yet. I could still see enough to be safe and I knew that if I used my headlamp I would give myself night blindness to everything else around me. I wanted to be able to see the woods on either side of me as much as possible.
After about 45 minutes of quick paced and aggressive hiking I came to a very steep point in the trail. It was enough of a grade that I decided to lean back and let myself slide down rather than tackle it upright and risk a fall. I sat down with my butt on my heels and started to scoot forward, focusing all my attention on my precarious balance. When my controlled fall through the dark came to an end and I hadn’t ended up with a mouthful of mud, I felt quite proud of myself and even started to self congratulate until I noticed I wasn’t alone. There, at the bottom of the hill, maybe 4 feet away and looking directly at me, was a black bear.
Let’s pause here and take a momentary side trip. Imagine, if you can, the biggest dog that you have ever seen. Now imagine you’ve found yourself accidentally trapped in that dog’s backyard, where it feels well at home and you have never stepped foot before. It might sit there for a moment, sizing you up and decided which limb would be the easiest to rip from our body. It might hop right up and bound over, teeth bared, happily ready to disembowel you. Whatever this imaginary dog’s response might be to your intrusion, we can all agree that the end result would probably be the same: severe bodily harm, if not death.
Now throw out that image because WE ARE TALKING ABOUT A BEAR! A wild bear, on a scale much larger than any dog I have ever seen, sitting on it’s haunches in the middle or the trail just looking at me. I assessed the situation, taking note of its claws and open mouth. The bear also assessed our predicament, noticing my quivering chin and aroma of sweat mixed with curry. Then in a familiar way, much like a dog, it tilted its mammoth head to the side, universal sign language for, What’cha doing?
I took this slight movement as a cue of some kind. In the manliest fashion possible I opened mouth and let out a scream that sounded remarkably like a wild turkey, turned on the spot, and scrambled on all fours back up the embankment I had just slid down. I felt as if the forest around me was closing in, grabbing my pack and clothes, making it all the easier for the wild beast behind me to close the gap. I just knew that the bear was following me, licking its lips at the thought of how wonderful a curry-flavored hiker might taste.
At the top of the hill I started running, my hands outstretched in the dark to protect my nose and teeth from potential offending trees. I don’t know how far I ran back up the trail, but when I finally stopped and turned around, there was no bear. The forest around me was silent and now menacingly dark. I stood there, leaning against a tree, panting and whimpering exactly like a person should after meeting a bear unexpectedly in the woods.
It was at this point that I finally decided it was time to use my headlamp. I turned it on and started scanning the woods around me, sure I would see that I had run into a den of sleeping bears like a cartoon character. There was nothing. Nothing but the trail and some trees - no bears. I was still breathing quite heavily, and even tried holding my breath to listen for the sounds of a large animal crashing through the woods on its way to eat me, but all I could hear was the wind and the still falling rain.
After a few minutes it finally dawned on me that I either had to walk back down the trail to where I had just seen a bear, or turn around and go up the mountain and around to the other side. I was already wet and cold and decided to trust that my turkey-call-sounding scream probably scared away the bear since it didn’t follow me, so back down the trail I decided to go.
I started very slowly, tiptoeing in the dark. My fists raised and ready to fight (because I handled myself so well the first time and was clearly ready to go Muhammad-Ali style for round two). I vaguely remembered reading somewhere that you were supposed to be loud and make your presence known when you think there might be a wild animal nearby. So with my arms at the ready, I started yelling, “Hey, Bear!” as if I were trying to get the attention of a friend who had somehow fallen out of sight. Nothing happened.
“Hey! You, bear!” I yelled again. I kept creeping along and yelling like this until I came back to the place where the trail sloped down again. Angling my light back down the slope, I tried to catch sight of where the bear had been. It was just too dark. The rain was starting to pick up though and I really was starting to shiver, so I knew I had to slide down again.
I crouched down and began to rock myself into readiness. Like a kid getting ready to jump in a pool I rocked three times, took three big breaths, and started sliding. “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” I yelled as I slid down the hill. Luckily the bear wasn’t waiting for me this time, but I was still on edge. I was also starting to recognize how ludicrously silly my yelling had become so I decided to change it up a bit. I experimented with “I saw a bear!” and “Hey! There might be a bear around here!” Eventually, after a bit more walking and yelling into the forest, I landed on “I feel ridiculous now, but I’m going to keep yelling!”
It was a few minutes before I stopped screaming into the woods altogether and just started hiking. I felt sure that wild animals were everywhere, and that they all wanted to eat me, but there was nothing to do about it so I just walked. There was still another hour's hike ahead of me to make it back to the car, and I can tell you with certainty that it was the most terrified hour I have ever spent in the woods.
Looking back it’s funny, but in the moment I genuinely feared for my life. Apart from the horror stories involving maulings and lots of screaming, I couldn’t remember anything solidly helpful while stuck in the woods with a real life bear. My mind seemed to vacate itself of reason and in its place substituted panic and buffoonery. Once I was safely back in the car I looked up what you are actually supposed to do in the unlikely event that you encounter a bear in the woods. I took the following quote from BearSmart.com:
“If you encounter a bear on the trail, or in your campsite, stop what you are doing and evaluate the situation. Identify yourself by speaking in a calm, appeasing tone. Back away slowly, preferably in the direction you came. Walk, don’t run, and keep your eye on the bear so you can see how it will react.”
I did so much of this wrong. I didn’t speak calmly, I didn’t back away, I ran, and I certainly didn’t keep my eyes on the bear. I basically gave a masterclass in how not to handle yourself during a bear encounter. So as funny as this story is to recount, I hope you take a few minutes to read up on how you should handle yourself when you meet a bear in the woods. I certainly have.
One final thought; Don’t let the possibility of seeing wildlife be a deterrent that keeps you out of the woods. It’s their home, yes, but if you are respectful and reasonably cautious you should not have any problems with bears or any other woodland creature. I’ll include a link to the BearSmart page that I cited above and also a link to the Leave No Trace webpage if you would like to read up on how else to stay respectful of the woods while you are out on the trail.