I heard the bear before I saw it, instantly knew what it was.
He was in a thicket, munching on some berries, I was on a hiking trail that looped around the thicket. I moved quickly and quietly to get on the upwind side of him, so he wouldn’t sniff out my presence and turn tail for parts unknown. I wanted to be able to observe this critter a little more closely, maybe get some photos of him.
I got into position, then waited. It wasn’t long before he came shuffling out of the thicket. And I got more than I bargained for.
An old-timer told me something once that has stuck with me through the years: “The difference between a deer and a turkey is a deer will look at a man and think he’s a stump. A turkey will look at a stump and think it’s a man.” Apparently bears have more in common with turkeys than deer. Because that bear looked right at me and just kept coming. Fifty yards became 40, then 30, and still he came.
I normally hike with pepper spray attached to the shoulder strap on my backpack. That day, I was without it. And as that bear closed the distance between me and him, I realized for the first time just how naked I felt without it. As 30 yards became 20, I started to get a little nervous.
Not scared; I’ve never been scared of bears. But if you don’t have a very healthy dose of respect for them, you’re a fool. So when 20 yards became 10, I knew that he was more than close enough — in fact, by that point he was way too close. So I scuffed my foot against the dirt. That’s all it took; just the slightest movement, and he was headed the opposite direction like his tail was on fire and the rest of him was catching.
I’m not writing this to give you advice on how to approach bears, because the stunt I pulled that day is exactly the opposite of what you should do when you encounter a bear on the trail. Any expert will tell you that I was acting foolishly. The correct way to approach a bear is to not approach him at all; give him a wide berth. In fact, if you encounter a bear on the trail, the best option is to slowly and quietly back away, and leave the area.
But I’ve always been fascinated by bears, ever since I had my first encounter with one. That was more than 20 years ago, at Mynatt Park on the outskirts of Gatlinburg. I came face-to-face with a bear just days after a school teacher was killed by one while hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
It was about that same time that the National Park Service and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency were working in tandem to reintroduce black bears to the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. And over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have more than my fair share of bear encounters in the BSF. Part of it is because I’m in the BSF backcountry a lot more than the average person. Part of it is because I know where bears are most likely to be. And, perhaps, part of it is just good luck.
Yes, I said good luck. Running into a bear on the trail is most people’s worst nightmare. Not mine. I enjoy observing them. And I suppose that leads me to the point I’m trying to make.
In all the bear encounters I’ve had over the years, I have not once met a bear that has acted even a little aggressive towards me. I’ve never had one make audible warning noises, stand on its hind legs to bluff me. Most of them have turned and fled as quickly as I’ve seen them. Others have stayed and watched me — as curious of me as I was of them, and even more wary — as I watch them, then slowly sauntered out of sight. But I’ve never had to unclip that pepper spray because I was worried about a bear. I’ve had to unclip it on unleashed dogs, but never a bear.
I’ve been attacked by a whitetail deer and a screech owl — both times because I stumbled too close to their young — but never by a bear. I’ve stumbled into hornets nests and yellow jackets nests and paid the price. I’ve been bitten by rat snakes. But I’ve never met an aggressive bear.
I don’t worry too much about bears when I’m on the trail. After a couple of decades of hiking in bear country, I know what I’m up against. Yes, I carry pepper spray, but it’s more for the aforementioned dogs than for bears. In fact, I worry much more about stepping on a copperhead than I worry about bumping into a bear.
My point is that bears are inherently dangerous only because they’re wild animals. Any wild animal is unpredictable, and one that is as big as we are, with much bigger teeth than we have and the added benefit of claws, is an animal that demands respect. But black bears aren’t predators, and they aren’t mean. In fact, they’re one of the most docile animals in the wild. As Oneida Police Department’s Dustin Burke puts it, they’re basically overgrown raccoons.
About this time every year, bear sightings start to increase. They’re feeding more as they prepare for the winter months, when they won’t truly hibernate but will become much more lethargic. And that usually stokes fear.
We’re afraid of what we don’t know, and most people in the Big South Fork region still don’t know bears. As we become more accustomed to them, we’ll fear them less. But that’s going to take time. In the meantime, I live a stone’s throw from the BSF’s eastern boundary, so my home is very much in bear country. I don’t worry about my kids playing outside because of bears so much as I worry about them playing outside because of the neighbor’s german shepherds. I don’t have a streetlight, but I don’t worry about walking from my car to the house because of a bear hiding in the bushes so much as I worry about a copperhead being stretched across the sidewalk.
Don’t do what I did on the hiking trail — don’t crowd a bear in his natural environment. That’s asking for trouble. But don’t be afraid of them, either. Sure, a bear can be dangerous. A bear demands respect. But there’s a quantum gap between healthy respect and irrational fear.