Unlike Moose, which I have unsuccessfully endeavored to encounter in the woods of New Hampshire, bears are a creature that I would have been totally fine to go forever without seeing face-to-face in the wild. It’s not that I’m scared of them but I don’t want to try my luck either. My girlfriend, on the other hand, is terrified of bears and insists that we wear bear bells and carry bear spray when in the back country (which are two very good ideas). Most of the time making noise while on the trail, cleaning up after camp meals, and properly storing food is all it takes to deflect their inherent curiosity. These bear-safe practices have awarded me a lot of luck with bears so far in every sense of the word. Sometimes, however, ever safe practice in the book will not prevent a bear encounter…
My first black bear encounter was in Franconia Notch, NH. My buddy Alex and I had just completed an epic day hike. We had started at dawn from our tent at Franconia Notch Campground, ascended Mt. Flume via the ever treacherous Flume Slide, traversed the entire Franconia Ridge, and descended back to camp via the Bridal Path. It was just after dark and we were played out after 15 miles on the trail. We were about to enter the highway underpass on our way back to camp when Alex grabbed me. “Don’t run!,” he said. Sitting in the middle of the underpass, less than 20 yards away was a big, round, black figure. It was a black bear probably on its way to the campground for a dumpster snack. We backed off slowly and then turned and booked it up the hill. The bear didn’t even look up and went on its way. We found a jeep up at the trailhead with a college-aged guy waiting for his family to finish up their hike. He was nice enough to take us in and give us a ride across the highway to camp. We dubbed the bear “Gordon” after the ranger at the camp store who we promptly reported the sighting to.
My first brown bear encounter came along the park road in Denali National Park, AK. We were just exiting the taiga forest and entering into the open tundra where grizzlies more often roam. All of a sudden, the bus driver made an announcement. Walking down the middle of the road was a female grizzly bear with her prominent back hump and head held low. She could have cared less about the bus because she knew who was in charge. The grizzly just kept walking within feet of the bus as she made her way down the road. It was an amazingly powerful encounter and I was glad that there was a bus between us (although I’m not sure how much that would have mattered). She left us a big, steaming poop as a treat. I had some business to attend to at the next rest stop too. As I walked into the low brush I envisioned the scene from Jurassic Park when the T-Rex devours that guy in the outhouse…but grizzly bear style!
The bear encounter that I was most happy not to be a part of also happened in Alaska. My girlfriend and I had booked a bed and breakfast and a kayaking trip in Seward. Our friends had decided to make the drive down for dinner and had stopped at Exit Glacier on the way. While approaching the glacier they came across a black bear that reared up on his haunches to get a better look. It must have been really scary for the girls, one of whom was 7 months pregnant at the time. Thankfully they got away unscathed and met up with us in Seward to tell their tale. We decided to check out Exit Glacier the next morning on our way back to Anchorage. The rangers had posted the wildlife sightings for the previous day and low and behold “One black bear encountered at foot of glacier” rounded out a four-bear day.
Bears are amazing creatures indeed. They are powerful and cunning. They are playful and ingenious. My bear encounters to date have been anxiety provoking but largely peaceful. I hope that I continue to have safe experiences with bears in the future.