Whumph, whumph, whumph
Sharp noises interrupted a sunny, but cool morning hike on a little used backcountry trail in Shenandoah National Park. Glancing to my right I spied a small bear, likely a cub born this spring. Then the source of the threatening noise appeared only 20 feet away, a large sow looking directly at me. The very protective mother bear continued emitting threatening noises. She made it eminently clear that I should get no closer to her cubs.
I snapped a hurried picture and decided to continue with my hike leaving the bear family behind. While thrilling to see such large and beautiful animals, my encounter is a stark reminder that one needs to be highly respectful of the many risks while venturing into the wilderness.
It was late summer and the Park’s bears were actively building fat in preparation for the coming winter. Normally mostly nocturnal eaters, bears almost continually forage for food in late summer to consume as many calories as possible. Bears can gain 100 pounds or more to prepare for winter hibernation.
During my 20 mile hike, I encountered 6 bears. One male bear bear off to my left 100 feet was intently foraging for food. The bear did not acknowledge me, but I knew he knew that I was there. We walked in parallel for several minutes, cohabiting in his environment without fear.
It was exhilarating to spend a day hiking in the wilderness and to observe so many bears. However, at the end of my hike I encountered a painful reminder. People made the Shenandoah area their homes before it was a National Park. The government dispossessed these families to create the park, inflicting pain and suffering on many people. Today, this family displacement provides a park where bears can thrive and people can enjoy bucolic walks and back country experiences.
So an idyllic day ends with a pang of melancholy. And a reminder that one should be respectful not only of the wilderness but respectful of other people.