HikingBear Breath

Bear Breath


It’s been twenty years since that fateful day on the spine of the Smoky Mountains, but the scene stays fresh in my mind: the insidious curve of her claws, the chest-rattling depth of her roar, the, um . . . the, um, . . . the warm viscous drip of her slobber.

The drool in question belonged to an angry black bear, who had trapped a few of us hardy hikers in the Mollies Ridge backcountry shelter, an otherwise peaceful place on the Appalachian Trail. As the bear hung her massive frame on the chain-link fence that separated us, I was transfixed not by her teeth or her snarl or her foul foul breath, but by the foamy spittle dripping from her tongue, landing with dusty plops on the shelter floor.

The day had started innocently enough. It was the second day of a three-day trek that would bring my friend Joe and me from Cades Cove to Fontana Lake, hiking mostly along the Appalachian Trail. It had been a light day—five miles from Spence Field to Mollies Ridge—and at age eighteen I was feeling no pain. We had arrived in good time, set up camp, and gotten deeply involved in a whole bunch of nothing. Then we noticed a large black bear ambling slowly towards the campsite.

As a crusty old vet of eighteen, I’d met a few bears in my time—mostly near the backpackers’ shelters, where the so-called “nuisance bears” came to fatten up on leftover vittles and backwoods trash (and by this I mean actual refuse, not the hikers who left it behind). These bears were relatively tame, and my previous encounters with them decidedly mild. At any rate, our bear did not seem too bothered by our presence, nor we by hers. Still, as she walked into the clearing and began sniffing around for stray granola bars, we grabbed our packs and went into the shelter, latching the gate behind us. (Backcountry shelters in the national park consist of three stone walls, a corrugated roof, and a floor-to-ceiling chain-link fence running across the front.)

Inside, six of us were waiting out the bear: Joe, myself, and a family of four, with whom we had exchanged a few pleasantries but nothing more. The bear nosed around the campsite for a while before coming over to inspect the shelter. I watched from my bunk as she hung her powerful claws on the fence and drew herself upright, standing on her rear legs to survey the scene inside. Everything was calm at that point, even magical; she was an impressive beast, and never before had I been so close to a bear.

Still, I’ll admit to being a bit rattled: she was awfully big, and her teeth were sharp enough. While I trusted the fencing and the essential good nature of our shaggy friend, I wondered what would happen if she got inside somehow. I had no doubt she could make quick work of my soft belly, and I wasn’t sure that a bribe of Top Ramen would be enough to win her favor.

The family trapped with us seemed to have adopted a strategy of studious disengagement, trying, in various ways and with limited success, to ignore the bear at the door. The mom was quietly reading a Tom Clancy paperback on the top bunk; while she appeared collected, she was surely more rattled than I. I know this because, within moments and without warning, she flew off of her bunk and made straight for the bear, batting wildly at its paws with her paperback. “Go away!” she screamed. “Go away!”

Now, in my time, I’ve seen a lot of different advice for what to do when confronted by a bear in the woods, but “Attack With a Tom Clancy Novel” is never mentioned. With good reason, as it turns out.

After Swat Two (or perhaps Swat Three), the bear shifted gears from “Hungry & Curious” to “Angry & Afraid.” Rather than retreat, the bear chose to advance. She let out a mighty roar, reared back on her haunches, and launched her massive frame into the shelter fence. The fence creaked and groaned and bowed a bit in the middle, but did not give way.

Undeterred, the bear tried again, throwing a meaty shoulder into the fencing and adding a few solid swats with her claws for good measure. At this point I, too, shifted gears: from “A Bit Rattled” to “Scared Shitless.” I had no idea if the fence could hold back an attacking bear. It did. Never before or since have I been so grateful for the strength of steel.

Satisfied that she had made her point, the bear left us with a few perfunctory growls and resumed her examination of the fire ring. Ten minutes later, she was gone. Ten minutes after that, we let ourselves out of the shelter, our eyes a bit more wary and our nerves a touch on edge. She did not return. We completed our hike the next day, and left with a hell of a story to tell.

As odd as it might seem from this distance, we never did ask our cohort what possessed her to attack the bear, with a book. Perhaps we were still too stunned, or angry; perhaps she was embarrassed, or proud. I don’t know.

I realize that a determined philosopher could pull a number of truths out of the episode. As a metaphor for the encounter between Society and Wilderness, it works pretty well, and it has its charms on the literal level also. I myself have given some thought to the innocence and naivete of we hikers, out for a weekend in the woods but hardly equipped to handle everything it could offer; to the confusion of the wild bear, raised on trail mix and Little Debbies, accustomed to people, attacked by a small thin humanoid bearing a paperback book; to the mere existence of a bear-proof shelter in the backcountry, which surely saved us from grievous harm, and without which the seven of us would never have come together.

But beyond all that—beyond the confusion, fear, reckless courage, and recrimination, beyond the downright implausibility of it all—I choose first to remember the wonder. I remember the quiet moment just before the fireworks, with the massive black beast standing upright before me, arms outstretched, eyes curious, nose twitching, slobber dripping at my feet. It was beautiful. •

Jay Hardwig has swat a few possums in his time, but never a black bear. He aims to keep it that way.

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