This is my first attempt at writing an article for the Twitter Nature Writing Challenge. Check out the hashtag #naturewritingchallenge for more entries. I didn’t quite manage it within the hour but that’ll just take practice! The challenge for this week was a memorable wildlife encounter on public lands. Here goes.
By the time we’d been hiking in Shenandoah National Park for a couple of years, we were no longer quite so jumpy about the prospect of encountering bears along the trail. We still joke about that time we hiked a trail in the mist and fog and literally stopped in our tracks every time we saw a fire-blackened tree stump. Today’s hike was on a clear November day in 2003, a loop taking in the Little Devil’s Stairs and the Keyser Run fire road; a thoroughly enjoyable route.
We had huffed and puffed our way up the stunning canyon of the Little Devil’s Stairs with its outcrops of columnar basalts, startling one bear high up the sunlit slope (that didn’t show up in any of the photos we took and still has us wondering if we really saw it), and emerged on the fire road for the gentle walk back to the car. The day was drawing to a close, and we estimated that we’d be back at the car with time to spare before taking in another gorgeous Shenandoah sunset. Feeling contented, we fell into a steady, quiet rhythm hiking on the gravel road.
The key word there was quiet. And that quiet was soon to be shattered.
We rounded a bend and were met by a tremendous crashing and rustling of leaves that made our blood run cold. Our first reaction was that it was something large – we’d been startled by many a deer on previous hikes but this was much louder. Our second thought, was it coming our way, and if so, what should we do? We looked at each other with wide eyes and within a moment realized with some relief that the sound was off the trail, down the slope to our right. Then we spotted them: three small dark shapes running through the crisp autumn leaves followed by a larger dark shape. Bears! Not only that, but a mother with three cubs.
After the initial realization that they were not coming for us, the next thought hit us: mother and cubs. Everything we’d read about bears was that this was a combination you did not want to mess with. (I now know that it depends greatly on the type of bear and where you encounter it, but we were still new to the whole bear thing back then!) The mother bear had stopped at the base of a tree having chased her youngsters up it, and she was making a noise we’d never heard before (and not heard since): she was huffing and clacking her jaw. I guess we’d scared her at least as much as she’d scared us.
At this point I couldn’t resist grabbing a couple of quick, discrete shots with our puny digital camera before we figured that we should move on. I mean, check out that look she’s giving us in the photo below!
Before we’d even resumed hiking the crashing recommenced as the bears continued on down the slope to get away from the human menace. It had only been a minute or two at most but those few moments felt like an eternity.
Our heart rates gradually returned to normal as we walked the rest of the way back to the car. Our initial fear had turned to amazement and wonder, those few seconds becoming etched into our memories as one of our most memorable bear encounters. As we reached the car I had the urge to photograph our bumper sticker to celebrate the fact that we’d just had a day where we’d seen more real bears than on the sticker. What a thrill!