My first encounter with a black bear was in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Actually, the encounter was at Mynatt Park on the outskirts of Gatlinburg, just outside the national park’s boundaries.
Walking across a meadow in search of the park’s “facilities,” I found myself face-to-face with a medium-sized black bear.
Two things I noticed: One, he was close enough for me to see the detail of his eyeballs — which was much too close for comfort. Two, he was painfully skinny — which I, with my superior public school education, translated to mean that he was also painfully hungry.
I scrambled to jog my memory, trying to remember exactly what it was I was supposed to do when faced with an aggressive bear: Look him in the eye and make loud noises or avoid eye contact and try to avoid antagonizing him.
For the record, it’s the former — make eye contact and be loud; the latter is for aggressive dogs — but it didn’t matter. The bear wasn’t aggressive. He continued to walk towards me as I slowly backed up and talked to him, but he never exhibited the tell-tale signs of bear aggression — popping his teeth or standing on his hind legs in a show of intimidation — and he didn’t look like he was sizing me up like a hungry diner with a T-bone on his plate at the Texas Roadhouse.
We stared one another down for another minute or so before he turned and went on his way, jumping into the back of some dude’s pickup truck and tearing into a bag of trash.
Fast-forward a few years, and I’ve had several more encounters with bears, most of them in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. I’m a frequent hiker of the trails in the park, and our bear population is growing, which makes an occasional encounter with the critters inevitable. I’ve run into bears along the Sunset Overlook trail at East Rim, at Bandy Creek, at Station Camp and along the Burnt Mill Loop trail on the south end of the park.
In that time I’ve yet to encounter an aggressive bear. In fact, most of the time, by the time I catch a glimpse of them I see only their rear-end. They’re more anxious to get away from me than I am to get away from them.
On the rare occasions when bears haven’t split like their tails were on fire and their derrieres were catching, it was curiosity that kept them around. Bears are curious animals by their very nature, which explained the Gatlinburg bear’s reaction to me.
That isn’t to say that I don’t take precautions. I carry pepper spray on my person whenever I’m on the trail and sometimes carry a handgun (I have a permit, so I’m legal). But, frankly, I’m more concerned about other animals than bears . . . and, in fact, the only time I’ve had to unclip my pepper spray was against an unleashed dog.
It’s spring, which means bear sightings are once again on the increase around Big South Fork Country. Because last year’s mast crop was spotty, bears will naturally move about more this year in search of food, which will lead to increased human-bear encounters.
But if several bear encounters have taught me anything, it is that bears should be respected, not feared. Respect their space and, generally, they’ll respect yours — which can be said of just about any critter in the East Tennessee forests, those with and without claws and sharp teeth.
In the woods, give bears plenty of time to leave the area when running into one on the trail. Keep pets on a leash. And keep an eye on the trail ahead; one thing that will certainly cause a bear to become aggressive is stumbling between a sow and her cubs. Any animal’s maternal instincts kick in when you crowd her young’s space — in fact, I’ve been rushed by momma screech owls and momma whitetail deer after accidentally getting too close to their babies.
In camp, “bear-proof” food by securing it above ground, suspended from a tree limb by rope.
At home, keep trash secured and don’t leave excess dog or cat food in the pets’ food dishes.
There’s only so much acreage here in Big South Fork Country; God stopped making new land some time back. And both humans and bears continue to increase in number — TWRA has proposed to address the latter with a limited hunting season this fall, but we can’t exactly declare open season on excess humans.
With increasing numbers of us both and only a limited amount of space to roam, it’s inevitable that we’re going to keep coming face-to-face with one another. But there’s no reason humans and bears can’t coexist . . . and coexist peacefully.
■ Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.