I hear a sound uphill – a branch breaks, bushes rustle. It could only be something huge moving through the jungle of thimbleberries, fireweed and huckleberries on the slopes of Colonel Bob Peak. I think I’ve interrupted a bear stripping juicy huckleberries and swallowing them whole by the dozen. One hand clutches my camera, the other hand clutches a rock.
Bear attacks are extremely rare but when they do attack the experts (bear attack experts?) recommend fighting back. You won’t win but maybe the bear will decide you’re too much trouble and leave you alone.
After 30 seconds of calling to the bear and creeping up the trail, The crashing in the brush stops. I round a switchback in the trail and come face to face with my fear. It’s a creek splashing against the big leaves of a spiny devil’s club. I exhale, but I’m not wholly convinced that the rustling was the creek all along.
Bearanoia, the irrational fear of bears, grips suddenly. It usually happens to me when I’m alone. I’ll be walking along the trail inspired by the scenery, my mind wandering. Then something triggers bearanoia – a sound, a patch of hair snagged on a log, or a still steaming pile of bear turds – and suddenly the fear surrounds me. The heavy feeling of being watched creeps in like fog.
The first time I ever encountered a black bear, the bear saw me first. By the time I looked up from the steep trail it was running away from me and all I saw was a bouncing black rump. It was awesome! I couldn’t understand why people are afraid of bears in the woods for years after. They’re huge, furry and they want nothing to do with people.
This summer I saw another bear in the woods. It was the first I’d seen in years. This one was big and it didn’t run. It didn’t even walk away. It seemed only annoyed or maybe indifferent to my presence. Then I understood the fear. The bear was nearly twice my weight with sharp claws and teeth and could easily overpower me if it wanted to. My fate was in its meaty paws. Of course, it had no reason to hurt me, but that’s not the point. Seeing the bear wasn’t the scary part. Knowing that it was out there was the scary part.
After the panic at the creek on Colonel Bob Peak, I continued up the trail and the bearanoia quickly melted away. The blueberries were as abundant as I’ve ever seen and the clouds lefted to reveal distant peaks in the Olympics. I remembered the abundance of bears in the surrounding wilderness and prided myself for no longer being nervous. Then I nearly stepped on towering mound of barely digested huckleberries. The amazing size of the pile brought the bearanoia back.
I never saw the bear that day. A month later I was hiking on the Shedroof Divide in the Washington portion of the Selkirk Mountains. I was descending from Grassy Top Mountain, admiring autumn colors and enjoying new scenery in an unfamiliar place. My thoughts turned to my tired feet and the food and coffee at my car. When I heard something big moving uphill through the dense pine and fir forest, I wanted to wait and see it. Then I remembered that grizzly bears roam that corner of Washington, so I called out to it and clapped my hands. The rustling stopped. I continued down the trail alone, same as before. But now I didn’t let more than 30 seconds pass before clapping my hands, yelling, or making some kind of noise. I never saw the bear that day either.
While evidence of bears can trigger bearanoia, actually seeing bears sometimes cures the ailment. At least temporarily. One morning in the northern Olympics I was headed 12-miles back to my car with a heavy pack. I was preoccupied with the miles ahead and the rain beginning to soak through my boots. With each step drops of water rolled off my hood, which was pulled down low over my eyes.
I was nearly jogging downhill through a park-like meadow when I saw something in my limited peripheral vision. My boots nearly skidded to a stop on the dirt path as I locked eyes with a small black bear 40 feet away. It must have seen me at the same moment and we stared at each other for a few tense seconds. The wet bear buried his face back in the brush and I took a couple photos. The bear must have cleaned out the patch of huckleberries because a few seconds later it stood up and ambled into a thick stand of subalpine fir trees. I couldn’t help but think it was cute the way the bear used a fuzzy paw to shovel berries toward its snout. And it obviously didn’t want anything to do with me.
I told myself to be more aware, and continued bouncing down the trail without even a hint of bearanoia. Less than a minute later I came nearly face to face with another bear. This one must have been less than 30 feet away – close enough that I took a couple steps back before I realized what I was doing. This bear took off even faster.
Those bear sightings didn’t dull my respect for black bears, but I once again love the idea of seeing bears. Each bear encounter is different, but I think they’re all better in retrospect.