16 Bears Fill Up a Week in the Shennies
Other than the fact that many hikers aqua blaze through Shenandoah National Park, I didn’t know much about the Shennies before I entered the park near Rockfish Gap.
I was coming off a long break: six days spent resting an injured foot and spending time with my husband exploring Staunton (pronounced Stanton), Waynesboro’s westerly neighbor.
After limping everywhere for a week, I wasn’t sure how my foot would do and if I’d even be able to hike more than a handful of miles. I was hesitant yet determined to get back on the trail.
I was also feeling a bit alone, as if I could quite possibly be the last NOBO. With nearly four months on the trail and a month of zeros under my belt thanks to injuries, sickness, and family commitments, nearly all my trail buddies have either moved on or gotten off the trail.
My mood was a little “meh” on that first day when I came to a rock scramble that made me pause, thinking, “What’s the best way down?” I turned around to let another hiker pass (yay, another hiker) and saw Freebird, who I first met back at Woods Hole Hostel. He told me Walkabout was somewhere behind him, and I felt a little less alone.
I forged on that day, eventually making the seven-something miles to Calf Mountain Shelter (not technically in the SNP, but the first shelter you reach after coming into the park.) Freebird and Walkabout had long since passed me, and their tents were set up when I walked in to claim my spot.
A little while later, Grateful showed up. My husband and I met her when we stopped at the Rockfish Gap Information Center that morning. She had an exciting encounter with a stubborn rattlesnake occupying the trail in front of her for about 20 minutes, delaying her arrival. She caught it on video and when she showed me I was thrilled to have missed that experience.
The next day I hiked out early and was quickly passed by Freebird, a much faster hiker than I am. A few minutes later I stopped for a moment to wolf down a Starburst and heard a rustling over my left shoulder. I turned to see a really large bear heading my way.
Thankfully it wasn’t my first bear, and I successfully convinced him to detour a bit before I continued down the trail. Even so, he was big enough that I felt a little anxious and was eager to move along at a faster-than-usual pace.
Later that day when I caught up with Freebird and Walkabout, neither had seen a bear. Lucky me. From that point on, I tried to make more noise while hiking.
Two days later, I was still anxious about more bear encounters. A section-hiking father and son came into camp at the Pinefield Shelter in the evening and said they’d seen a mother with two cubs cross the AT right before they started down the shelter trail. I departed the next morning telling Walkabout, “I hope momma and her cubs aren’t waiting to greet me.”
They were, barely 100 yards up the trail. I hollered and waved my poles to no avail. Momma would move away a few yards and stop, then a few more, but not enough to clear the several switchbacks I needed to hike uphill to get back to the AT.
Giving up, I backtracked to get reinforcement. Walkabout was a good sport and packed up quickly to head out with me. By the time we started out again, Momma and her cubs were gone. My bear count stood at four; his was zero.
Again, I embraced my pattern of whistling, clicking my sticks, and talking to the bears I couldn’t see. “Good morning bears, make room for me!” “Move along bears, move along!” I shouted. “Go find your friends and play somewhere else,” or “You’re not on my agenda today!”
Unfortunately, I was soon lost in my thoughts. I stopped at the store at Lost Mountain campground for lunch, where I enjoyed a fresh chicken salad sandwich and an ice cream treat.
Camp stores and waysides where you can get beer, sodas and “real food” are perks of hiking the Shenandoahs. I was probably contemplating a blackberry milkshake as I came down the rocky trail with steep slopes on either side. I looked up to see a dark stump – no wait, that’s a bear – just around a blind curve.
The bear was as startled as I was and with only about 15 feet between us, neither was quite sure what to do. My yelling and pole waving wasn’t convincing enough. He just looked at me like, “Where, exactly, would you like me to go?”
I backed up and began to think of plan B. He backed up a few feet too, but stayed on the narrow trail. I’d read on one of the many “Bear Aware” signs in the park that throwing a rock in the direction of a bear could entice them to move and I had just set my eyes on one that looked about the right size. As I stooped to pick it up, the bear finally jumped off the trail and ran down the steep hill into the woods.
About a quarter mile on I came to a roadside overlook where a couple was reading a sign about the Appalachian Trail. “You’re doing that?” they asked. I confirmed and explained that I also just had a close encounter with a bear. They were suitably impressed (I think) and went on their way while I composed myself.
Soon another family stopped and I offered to take a photo of the couple and their four children. They spoke Spanish and I tried in my rusty Spanglish to explain to the kids that I had just come face to face with an “un oso grande.” They thought that was pretty cool.
By now I was feeling a bit over-beared. My count was five in the Shennies and five before I got there; ten overall. Some hikers make it through the whole trail without a single bear signing. Was I lucky? Or just more in tune with the wildlife?
For example, I saw a momma and two cubs munching berries near the Big Meadows wayside as Walkabout and I headed up to get some lunch. He would have missed them altogether if I hadn’t said, “Hey, there’s a bear right there!” (They were bears six, seven, and eight for me.)
How many other park visitors went right by, wondering if they’d ever get to see a bear?
I kept up my daily noisemaking ritual, which worked pretty well for a couple of days. Then I met a bear that seemed pretty smug and not at all surprised to see me. Bears in the Shenandoahs don’t appear to be very afraid of people, probably because so many campers and day hikers leave garbage and food scraps out, or don’t store their food properly.
This bear was sitting in a thicket of berry bushes with only his head sticking up. No amount of yelling would get him to move. I swear he smiled at me as if to say, “C’mon, you know I’m cute!”
Eventually I laughed and continued down the trail, passing at what I hoped was a safe distance from a bear that looked to be more entertained than threatened by my presence. Bear number nine.
By now I was determined to keep the bears away. Not that I was afraid. I just didn’t need any more encounters and I certainly didn’t want to accidentally get close enough to invite a bluff charge, which some hikers had done.
Freebird, Walkabout, and I spent a night at the delightfully small and quiet Lewis Mountain Campground, where I got a shower and did laundry. The camp store sold beer and we hung out past hiker midnight just chatting and having fun. (A ranger told me Lewis Mountain used to be the colored campground back in the days of segregation.)
As I left camp early the next morning, I startled bear number ten right out of a tree. Not an hour later, bears 11, 12, and 13 (another momma and two small babies) ran off as I approached.
On my last day I the park, I figured my final count of 13 bears was good. That’s when bear 14 ran down the trail ahead of me and off into the woods. I found it interesting that bears at the north end of the park appeared less eager to meet me and I was OK with that.
I met bears 15 and 16 later that day and they also scooted off quickly. One jumped out of a tree in a cascade of leaves, the other ran quickly up a hill. (There was one more I didn’t count because I heard him but didn’t actually lay eyes on him.)
So I left the Shenandoahs with a Sweet 16 of bear sightings. It’s what I’ll remember most about my time in the park, above the food, the occasional stunning views, and amazing campgrounds.
I’d love to return by car and see more of the park, since the AT meanders mostly though the woods and rarely by notable sites like waterfalls or waterways. That’s for someday. For now, I’ve got a lot more hiking to do.
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