Friday, February 6, 2015

Bears on the Bucket List

Me on Smokey's lap
 Ever since I was a little girl, I had a thing for bears.  In fact, I wanted to marry Smokey the Bear back in the day (and if you've ever seen my husband with his shirt off or witnessed him scratching his back on the doorjamb, you'll see my young girl's dream more or less came true).  Even now I can sing the Smokey the Bear song, and I get excited when I get to see him at events. 
Naturally, because of this bear love of mine, I've always wanted to see a bear out in the wild.  I've seen them at the zoo of course, but I want to see one in its natural habitat.  I've looked for them as I've driven through through the mountains, but I've never been able to spy one.  My grandmother saw a small cub once while she was traveling through the George Washington National Forest, but even though I've spent a lot of time in that same forest I've never seen so much as a pile of scat. So this backpacking trip has the ability to let me cross off two things on my bucket list- the trip itself and seeing a bear in the wild.
While the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the Shenandoah National Park are the two best spots on the Appalachian Trail to see a bear, there are black bears in Maryland.  Several years ago there was even a report that a hiker staying at the Pine Knob Shelter woke in the middle of the night to find a black bear rooting through their pack.  Even though that was a few years ago, the bear population in Maryland has rebounded quite a bit over the years.  The Maryland DNR's last count in 2011 estimated the bear population at 701 adult and sub-adult bears.  Just a couple of years ago, there was a young black bear roaming Gettysburg and even ventured into parts of Maryland (he spent time in the small town where I live and no, I didn't see him). 
Even though I have a crazy desire to see a bear in the wild, you don't need to worry about me pulling an Arliss on Old Yeller and grabbing a bear cub by the leg to drag it home (my mom would never let me keep it in the barn anyway).  Seriously, I'm aware of the dangers of bears on the trail.    So, here's a basic bear safety run down.

  1. Be Bear Aware- Look for signs of recent bear activity while on the trail.  Things like fresh paw prints, scat and scratched trees can indicate a bear is in the area.  Also, don't hang around animal carcasses (not sure why you would, but don't).  Use bear bags for food and strong smelling items like toothpaste, deodorant or trash and be sure to hang it at night.
  2. Make Your Presence Known-  When hiking through bear country, wear a bear bell, talk or sing while hiking.   
  3. Stay Calm- If you come across a bear that hasn't noticed you, speak quietly, leave the area and don't do anything to provoke it.  Don't try to get closer to get a better picture!
  4. Don't Run- Bears run faster than you.  Also, they climb trees faster than you too.
  5. Wave Your Arms- make yourself look bigger than you are.  If you're in a group, link arms to make your group look like one large creature (all I see is my group of hiking friends linking arms and doing a Rockettes imitation)
  6. Walk Away- But don't turn your back to the bear and don't look him in the eyes.
  7. If a Bear Charges- Don't panic, throw something at the ground to distract it.
  8. If a Bear Attacks- Fight back! Use whatever you have handy- rocks, camera, hiking poles aimed at the bear's eyes, nose or face.
This is just a basic overview of bear safety that applies to Black Bears.  Grizzlies (which aren't on the AT) have a completely different set of rules.  Use your common sense.  Bears are wild animals not cuddly toys.   

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