Hiking among bears in Shenandoah National Park
What would you do if you encountered a black bear while walking through a lonely stretch of forest? Farha Mukri recounts her Goldilocks experience while on a hiking trip in Shenandoah National Park.
“There is a bear down that path,” said a young man, pointing in the direction he was emerging from accompanied by a couple of women.
“A bear,” my friend, Jasmine exclaimed. The two of us had just arrived at the Rose River trailhead in Shenandoah National Park. There was still time to turn back.
“Don’t worry, it is not on the trail,” one of the women said, sensing our discomfort. “It is further away and doing its own thing. You just raise your hands, clap, make some noise and it won’t bother you,” she gestured with raised hands.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise that we were about to see a bear on our hike in Shenandoah. The national park has a thriving population of black bears in its 200,000 acres, more than 40 percent of which is federally preserved wilderness under The Wilderness Act.
Located less than two hours away from the bustling capital Washington DC, Shenandoah is abuzz with activity of a different kind. Here waterfalls gush forth from moss covered rocks and mountain-top vistas offer sweeping views of densely forested mountainsides. More than 50 mammals including black bears and white-tailed deer and 190 species of resident and transient birds call Shenandoah National Park home.
Skyline Drive, the only narrow public road through the park, runs close to 170 km long from north to south along Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. About 75 overlooks along this road, snaking through the mountains, provide a bird’s eye view into the surrounding wilderness.
It was on Skyline Drive that we had seen our first glimpse of the black bear the previous day. Perched on the mountainside by the shoulder of the road, was a medium sized one foraging for food. It turned around to look at our car just as we were driving by.
But watching a bear from the relative safety of a car and being exposed to it while hiking are two very different experiences.
We geared up with a bear bell and made our way along the six-plus kilometer trail. A handy small bear bell is easily attached to a backpack and generates some noise to alert a bear of your presence. It is also recommended to carry a bear spray but it should only to be used as a last resort. Bears, being solitary creatures(except mother and her cubs or during mating season), will usually move away and not pose any danger unless they are startled or threatened.
As we moved into the woods, I looked around to soak in the sight of oak and maple trees with sunlight streaming through the leaves and muted sounds of our feet hitting the soft earth. But the beauty of a forest feels very different when one is on high alert for spotting wildlife. Old fallen logs start looking life-like from a distance. Every crackling twig sounds like an approaching animal.
We were routinely greeted by hikers completing the loop from the other direction and couldn’t help asking them about the bear. A dad hiking with a six-year-old daughter joked that the “bear was scared even of her.” Another group assured us that the bear was moving further away from the trail so we might not even see it by the time we got there.
Fifteen minutes later, about 50 yards away in the woods to our left, we spotted a medium sized black ball of fur slowly making its way around a tree. It was inspecting and touching the lower bark of the tree and some fallen logs near the trunk.
As the sound of our voices and chiming of the bear bell moved through the woods, the bear turned sideways to glance at us. It can be difficult to control the urge of speeding off when a black bear is looking towards you. But running will only activate the bear’s preying instincts. A bear’s flabby body may give the impression that it is a slow animal, but bears can run at speeds of up to 56kilometers per hour and even excel at climbing trees.
We continued to walk as calmly as possible along the trail and the bear once again turned its attention to the logs. Although carnivores, bears have a varied diet depending on what’s available. They tear apart logs and dead trees to eat the insects inside. They eat berries, roots, flowers, grasses and even other small mammals.
One of the biggest perils for bears is human food and trash. Casually strewn berry stems or leftover burger or even toothpaste can easily attract a bear, given its excellent sense of smell. Once it has obtained food from humans, it will start associating people with food. If this goes too far, the bear might become a threat to others which ultimately puts the bear’s own life in danger.
The park staff goes to great lengths to ensure the safe cohabitation of humans and bears. Bear resistant trash cans are provided throughout the park to safely dispose waste. Ranger-led programs and talks educate people about bears, their habitat and safety. Social media is used to spread the message about bear safety and inform visitors of any of any trail or campground closures due to bear activity. Park staff is also involved in relocation and hazing of animals when needed to ensure safe distance between animals and humans.
After the adrenaline rush of the bear sighting, we continued downhill along the trail to Rose River. The river was gentle and clear at first, revealing the rocky riverbed underneath. Slowly, it picked up pace as it meandered downhill around large grey, green rocks and fallen logs. It culminated in beautiful falls with four cascades. People and dogs were warding off the summer heat with a dip in the pools along the way. We alerted the swimmers who were returning about the bear and passed along the safety advice we had received.
The trail turned around in a loop and we continued uphill along another section of the gushing river. Assuming that we were done with our bear encounters, we stopped often to listen to the sounds of rushing water and admire the soothing shades of forest greens, a luxury for city dwellers like us.
Finally, we crossed a wooden bridge and reached a fork on the trail. To the left, a trail went up the mountainside to Dark Hollow falls while the main path continued on the right back to our parking lot. We turned right and continued on the last gradual uphill segment on a gravel path, much wider and easier than the earlier trail.
A family was approaching from the opposite direction on their way to Dark Hollow falls. The young kids skipped excitedly along the way while an older woman, a teenage girl and a man managed the group on both ends.
We walked in silence, tired from the long and exciting hike, and were more than halfway along the gravel path. Since the path was slightly uphill, we could only see less than 25 meters ahead at a time.
Suddenly, my eyes landed on a large black bear standing sideways on the trail looking right at us. It had probably heard the bell and our footsteps from a distance. It seemed to have come from a side trail and was standing at the point where his trail intersected with ours.
Fear was the only emotion I had expected to feel if I came so close in the direct path of a bear. But in that moment, I was gripped by something more powerful and visceral – a feeling of awe. Its brown snout stood out from its large body covered in thick black fur.
Jasmine, who had been looking down on her phone, suddenly looked up and shrieked. While it is not advisable to shriek, the sound surprised the bear and it jumped slightly.
It paused and continued to look at us with curiosity. I started following the protocol prescribed by National Park Service. I raised my hands above my head and waved to look bigger. I quickly detached the bear bell from the side of the pack with one hand and started ringing it loudly to make more noise. Jasmine followed the lead.
“Don’t run, and don’t turn around,” I reminded her as much as myself. Speaking calmly in front of bear also helps to establish your identity as a human and not a prey.
We started backing off slowly, still facing the bear and continuing to make noise. With the increasing noise, the bear jumped once again away from us while still staying on the trail. It paused and turned around to look at us. We continued making noise and backing off.
After several minutes of indecision marked by jumping and pausing and looking over its shoulder, the bear finally made up its mind and ran away. Its large body swayed as its front and hind legs moved synchronously one after another.
We watched until it had disappeared into the shadows of the forest. Since the bear was still on our trail, we could not continue forward. We either had to wait and give it enough time to move elsewhere or find another route.
We walked back to the bridge where the trail had forked, hopeful of finding other company or another way back to our car. Serendipitously, as we reached the bridge, the family that we had seen on our way earlier was making its way downhill from the falls to their car.
We alerted them about the bear and asked if we could join their group of seven since bears especially stay away from large groups. They warmly welcomed us and being a local Virginian family seemed quite at ease in the presence of black bears.
“These children create such a ruckus, the bear will never come near us,” the grandmother laughed pointing towards the four young girls and boys.
Once again, we made our way back on the gravel path for the final stretch. The girls aged six and eight, were especially great company. We talked about Katie’s love for horses and Emily’s plans of growing up and living near her family in the Virginian countryside since she knew cities are noisy. By now enough time had passed for the bear to move away from the trail.
As we reached the end of the trail and bid farewell to the family, I turned around for my own silent farewell to the wilderness. The bears, trees ,river and waterfalls would remain in their rightful place, unharmed and unspoiled as the last of us hikers pulled away. I was reminded of the words from The Wilderness Act displayed on one of the park information boards we had seen earlier. After all, this was how wilderness was defined and should be – an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.
For more information
- Shenandoah National Park https://www.nps.gov/shen/index.htm
- Wilderness Act https://www.wilderness.org/articles/article/wilderness-acthttps://wilderness.net/learn-about-wilderness/key-laws/wilderness-act/default.php