A Bear Encounter: The First of Many
On one of my first days off, I decided to take a hike around Two Ocean Lake (adjacent to the Jackson Lake Lodge). The trip in total was about 12 miles long and took my hiking partner and I around scenic vistas with the Tetons in view over the still waters over the lake. Little did I know that this trip would yield my first encounter with a full grown Black Bear…
Near the end of the hike, we had clocked about 10 miles so far. My dogs were barkingand a bum knee from a prior surgery made it very difficult to descend on the trail in a slow and controlled manner (Much of my cartilage was removed during a knee operation in High School). So nowadays, I tend to just let gravity do the work. I “bound” down the hillside in a rolling jog to ease the pain. Although this takes the strain off my joint, I’m told this is a bad idea in bear country. It is said that if you encounter a bear at this sort of pace, the animal’s instinct will prompt them to scare off or possibly harm the perceived threat. Luckily, I hit a flat section of trail and was able to walk just before I had my first bear experience in the back-country. Had the animal been further up the hill just moments before, my trot might have elicited a much different response! Anyways, trees enveloped this portion of trail and I couldn’t see more than a few dozen yards in any direction. If I saw any wildlife, it would be very difficult to react until it was already too late.
I continued to scan the area as I would on any typical hike, splitting my attention from the placement of my feet to the area around me, and back down again; over and over in a sort of rythmic routine. When scanning the area, I looked to my right and saw what my “suburban” mind identified as a big furry dog in the woods. I thought nothing of it at first glance but not more than a second later I snapped into the reality of the situation. There are no big fluffy dogs out where we were in the woods. Quite frankly, I sort of forgot that I was in the wilderness and not in suburban Illinois. My eyes darted back to make eye contact with a now clearly visible black bear that was no more than 20 yards away. It had been watching me from the forest floor under the forgiving shade of a pine tree. I was surprised at how well the black color of the bear’s coat camouflaged it into it’s surroundings.
Fortunately, I played this situation out in my mind dozens of times before and I suppose it’s true that mental practice can prepare you for a given situation just as physical preparation would. My hands worked in unison to perform a quick release of my bear spray canister. In the blink of an eye, the safety tab was removed and the can was dead set in the direction of the bear. “Hey bear, whoah bear,” I said as I slowly backed away. My heart raced but I did not panic. I knew what to do and I executed the proper course of action without thought. My roommate was coming down the hill fairly quickly and I hoped that his presence wouldn’t provoke any response from the now outnumbered, and possibly agitated, black bear. My gestures got bigger and my voice grew louder to draw my friend’s attention. After all, wouldn’t you want your hiking partner to warn you if a bear was just around the corner? It’s just common courtesy! Once he noticed me and understood the situation, he pulled out his canister of spray and from that point I continued to move further down the hill. As we moved away slowly, the bear scurried up the tree whose shade had first hidden him from my view. I suppose that wildlife, even “ferocious bears” can often times be more scared of us than we are of them. Sometimes, it’s good to be reminded of that; to know that there’s a mutual respect out there in the wilderness. I’m just glad it wasn’t a grizzly otherwise this may have been a different story entirely. No spray was fired, no bear charge occurred, and everyone went home safely to enjoy another day!
After this initial encounter, I feel more confident in my ability to handle the situation should it arise again. I’m happy I did as much reading as I did on the topic and I’m even more thankful that my parents were gracious enough to purchase the canister of bear spray for me as a birthday present. Love you guys!
I’ll leave you all with this: Before going into bear country, be sure to read up on the latest bear aware materials. Some of the uneducated might suggest that bringing a firearm would protect you, however, a sound understanding of the wilderness and a good can of bear spray have been proven far more effective in these kinds of situations. Learn how to handle various situations and go out on your adventures armed with knowledge (this applies to all events and not just bear encounters). Cody Lundin said it best, “Knowledge is powerful and it’s very easy to carry.”