Sunday, July 10, 2011

Surviving My First Bear Charge

It was a perfect day.  The sky was blue and pocked with plump, lazy stratus clouds.  It was early, so the temperature was still tolerable.  It had rained the night before, so the trail was damp and perfect to keep your eyes peeled for tracks.  The damp leaves softened every footfall, so the sounds of the forest were alive.  We hiked the incline at a casual, deliberate pace.  Today, we had no set destination; we merely looked at what branched off the trail and, though we agreed that we'd take one specific trail if we made it that far, opted to take whatever trail looked the most inviting to us.

A quarter mile passed... half a mile... one mile... the incline leveled substantially.  We neared our first branch and stood for a moment, deliberating on how enticing it may be.  We'd never taken that specific trail, so there was promise of new adventure if we so wished it.  After a few minutes discussion, we decided to keep going and see what the next trail brought.

The main trail crosses over three mountain "streams" but, through the summer (excluding after rain) the creeks are normally barely flowing.  The recent rainfall didn't impact the creeks much, but it did leave potential for tracks.  At every creek, I would pause and inspect the forest floor, looking for tracks of bear, bobcat, deer, boar, and coyote.

We approached the third stream and I meandered over to it.  I heard a rustling in the forest on the hill above me.  My eyes immediately searched for the source of the scratching sounds.

"Jess," I said as I pointed up the hill, "cubs!"  Sure enough, two cubs were scrambling up a tree about 50 yards away.  They were taking it at quite a pace, too.  That, my friends, is NOT a good sign.  Bears climb trees for three reasons:  1) to escape perceived danger, 2) to get to some nuts or fruits, and 3) to rest or sleep.  When hiking, if you see cubs hauling bear tookey up a tree and you don't see momma in the bush, this can be a very bad sign.

"Awe! Yes," Jess replied, "oh look, there's momma!"

"Momma?!" my ears perked up and I leaned left to get a view from Jessica's vantage point.  She wasn't kidding.  We saw momma, NOT scrambling up a tree, and momma quite clearly saw us.  The following portion of the story will take far longer to tell than the encounter itself, but I swear to you, I will not embellish one thing.

Momma bear saw us and charged.  Immediately education and training kicked in; my hands were in the air, arms waving.  It's the equivalent of saying "I'm human" in bear.  She quickly closed the distance to 50 feet.  Jess's arms were in the air now, too.  We yelled 'HEY BEAR' as we waved.  She was charging down hill... this is worse than up hill because she's more inclined to follow through.  Momma bear closed the distance to 25 feet.  My yelling became more aggressive and loud - black bears respond to aggression (whereas a grizzly responds by becoming more aggressive).  She was 20 feet away.  I started snapping my camera with my right hand, aiming at nothing but hoping the flash would help make me look big and scary.  Now she was 15 feet away and I was reaching with my left hand for the bear spray.

Suddenly, she skidded... stopped.  She was somewhere between 10-12 feet away.  Her teeth were bared at us still, but at least she was stopped; behavioral signs indicating it was a bluff charge.  Still waving our arms and yelling at her, I told Jess quickly and quietly to very slowly step back.  We took a large but slow and deliberate step back.  Momma bear stood her ground.

"Back up another step, Jess."  We did.  Again, very slow and deliberate.  We had increased our distance between us and momma bear to about 15 feet.  She didn't realize it, but I was in the exact same mode that she was in: "if you threaten my child, I will attack and hurt you."

It was enough.  She turned and ran back up the hill to her awaiting cubs.  We stood our ground.  She gathered her cubs and they took off in the opposite direction.  Finally - after seconds that seemingly lasted hours - I was able to breathe.

"Jess," I said at last, "do you realize we were just bluff charged by a black bear?!"

Jess and I stood there for another 5 minutes, talking excitedly.  I glanced at the photos on my camera, not spending a lot of time on any as my adrenaline was pumping, and told Jess I didn't think I managed to snag her in any of the photos.  We continued to talk excitedly while we made our way to a backcountry unsanctioned camping area to sit and have a bite to eat.

We continued to talk over some trailmix and jerky and, on a whim, I wanted to look at the photos again.  I was calm now, and I was so very hopeful that I had managed to get even a shadow of her in one of the sure-to-be-out-of-focus pictures.  I hit the display on my camera and, right there she was.

Defensive Momma Black Bear after a bluff charge.  (Nic Pic)
How I missed it before can only be summed up by sheer adrenaline causing brain freeze.  In the photo in front of my eyes was an almost in focus, 10 feet away, teeth bared, pissed off and scared momma black bear.

I say it every time, but this is one of those cases that really brings it home: know everything about EVERYTHING where you plan to be.

Of note, I didn't manage to get a photo of the cubs.  I will report this sow and her cubs to the Cherokee National Forest rangers because this bear has been spotted by the trail 3 times in three weeks; twice by me.  I don't know if they will do what the Smoky's do (block the trail for awhile) because this is a wilderness area, but I should at least let them know that she is very active and consistently near the trail and that she has at least 2 cubs (she had 3 a couple weeks prior, but I can only verify a visualization of 2).

Now, go outside and have fun!

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Talk about close encounters. Glad you made it safely