I Am A Bear Magnet
Let’s be real…
I have no experience backpacking. In fact, I learned how to properly use trekking poles for the first time about a month ago. But what I lack in experience, I make up for in enthusiasm. In order to train myself for my wildly impending thru-hike, I have been deliberately placing myself in situations that would normally scare the willies out of me. I’ve gotten up close and personal with bear, learned how to stay warm in freezing temperatures, conquered my first night hike, pitched a tent through the snow, and even gone for a
hike run through a violent thunderstorm.
I can’t chase a perfect hike… so instead, I’m going after bravery.
For my first practice hike, I took myself on an overnight hike through the backcountry of Shenandoah National Park. As I drove away from the front gate, the park ranger yelled out, “Oh, and be careful in the Northern District, bear have been particularly active up there!”
And there I went. La la la LA!
After receiving my very official-looking backcountry camping permit and a measly three line map, I set out on the trail. I hadn’t known what to pack and instead just threw ALL the camping gear I own into my new flashy backpack. It weighed 40 pounds, but I figured it was good training. The Appalachian Trail only runs about five miles on the loop I had chosen, a total of 18 miles. The AT stretch felt particularly breezy, although I did have to stop every few minutes to take some many pictures. As soon as I turned left off the Appalachian Trail, I dipped into the steep descent of a valley. The trail grew narrower and the dense trees grew taller. Suddenly, I saw a creature of sorts… About hip-high, sleek and black. My honest first thought was, “Wow! I didn’t know they have jaguars here!” Then I realized it was a bear.
MY FIRST BEAR.
Not only did I see my first bear that day, I saw FIVE. The next sighting was a mom and two cubs drinking from the stream. I surprised all of us as I came sauntering around the bend. Yes, there was a thundering voice shrieking inside of me that I was about to DIE, but I chose to instead listen to the bouncy and bright idea that they were all actually pretty cute. I wondered how close I could get to them. We all stood there and stared at each other for a little while, and eventually they scampered up the mountain. Two miles later, my head in the clouds taking more pictures, I saw ANOTHER bear running in my direction from behind. He was not cute. Luckily, he saw me in time to turn and run the other direction.
I hiked about 10 miles that day before I stopped, setting up my hammock with my back to the stream. I figured should any animals chose to visit in the night, at least I could hear them.
…All through the night it seemed. I lay there in pitch black, cocooned in my hammock, with my emergency whistle in one hand and my compass in the other. I was terrified. I actually devised a plan to take only my headlamp and water and run my scaredy-pants the ten miles back to my car. Mentally working the logistics of this plan lulled me in and out of sleep.
I heard something again. This time it wasn’t just branches breaking and leaving rustling… it was the deep, low guttural and raspy breathing of a bear. He was right outside of my flimsy hammock, sniffing me out. Surprisingly, I grew brave. I started talking to him. I put on my best baritone voice, pretended I was Michael Clark Duncan, and said hey. I probably spouted twenty different types of salutations, trying to get my voice deeper each time. He went away, and guess what? I fell asleep.
I woke up in the morning to sounds of birds chirping. I made it through the night, and I was alive! You bet your bottom dollar that as soon as I returned home, I spent three hours online researching bear behavior and interactions.
While I still have a lot to learn, I am proud of myself to have caught that sweet slice of courage. Without courage, you cannot truly possess any other trait. Also, maybe I should consider a tent.
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