The last time I visited Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, just beyond Damascus, Virginia, I needed a paper map to find my way. Getting directions required pulling into a gas station. Not that I would ever ask for such a thing. In 1990 dudes did not ask for directions. Now we ask Siri when alone in our car. Shh. Don’t tell our wives.
Near as any of us could remember, this was about the time frame since Rob, John, and I last connected. Great friends from my undergrad years, spent in a small liberal arts college near Abingdon, Virginia. Andy arrived on Monday soon after I did. He and I have been hiking together off and on since 2017.
The conversation picked up as if it was weeks, rather than thirty years, since our last meeting. We decided a hike was in order the next day. The following afternoon, as we descended into the tree-line from a chilly mountain top, John spotted him. A black bear, perhaps rousted from a nap, lumbering up the side of a hill.
New Experiences Shared
For whatever reason, staying out in the wilderness has become my escape. I get out as often as I can, with only a backpack, two hiking sticks, and my determination to summit the next mountain. If asked, I feel Andy might give a similar answer. Though they require being near operational bathrooms and a place for their Coleman stoves, Rob and John enjoy the wilderness just as much, with the added adventures of fishing in beautiful mountain streams. To each our own.
Monday evening we cooked hamburgers, tossed back a few beers, and updated one another on where our lives have taken us. The places we’ve been, our grown children, with a few embellished adventures here and there. And of course, recounting the craziness of life spent in a fraternity at Emory & Henry College during the late 1980s.
The next morning, after sunrise coffee, followed by freshly baked biscuits over an open fire, we departed for the Appalachian Trail. I slowly learned to enjoy Coleman stoves, a campfire, and Rob’s ability to cook amazing food.
The goal was a mere 3.4 miles for lunch at Whitetop Mountain. Little did we know, that morning would be our last view of the sun until late Thursday. The day began chilly, and later transitioned to a wet cold wind.
Encounters With Black Bears Are Not To Be Feared - Embrace Them As Gifts Of The Wild
I believe black bears to be the most fascinating creatures in North America. They possess short term and long term memory, with the same visual acuity of humans. Black bears are inquisitive, adaptive, and intelligent animals that show insight and planning. They are generally shy and wary, and prefer avoiding people as much as possible.
Black bears are not nocturnal creatures. They use the evening hours to avoid people. Their great memories are handy for remembering food locations, and they are exceptional navigators. They even possess individual personalities.
If you desire to spend time in the wilderness, learn to understand black bears. This is your best strategy to prevent an unpleasant encounter. While you want to avoid getting between a mother and her cubs, black bears are not nearly as aggressive as the infamous grizzly when it comes to protecting their young.
If you come in contact with a black bear, stand your ground, never run, and talk to it softly, even as you back away. If a bear snorts, snaps its teeth, or breaks into a fake charge, stand your ground. It is bluffing. A killer bear, maybe the “neighborhood asshole”, will come at you slowly in a quiet stalk, ready for the kill. In any case, running is the best manner to ensure your death.
I’ve had the pleasure of only three black bear encounters since 1988. The one a few days ago was far away an exceptional encounter. I hope there will be others in the near future.
A Worthy Adventure
I believe it is safe to state Rob’s dog Piper, and Andy’s dog, Walter, received the most enjoyment from the trail. Every scent and leaf crunching sound was followed by a wild sprint, tongues flopping to the side. Piper often disappeared into the thick brush, but always returned with Rob’s calling. Eventually.
The ascent from the parking area to Whitetop Mountain was mostly gentle, with a few steep rocky sections as we neared the top. Our greatest challenge became the cold misty wind. Before we reached Whitetop there was Buzzard Rock. Exposed to the 46 degree wind, with the normal vistas obscured by thick fog. It was exciting to reach this point nonetheless. We fearlessly stopped for more than a few pictures.
Once we reached Whitetop we found an area out of the wind to enjoy a few snacks. This shared experience of lunch, sitting on wet rocks, more than made up for the lack of panoramic views.
The mood was elevated on the way down the mountain. An easier hike with talk of beers and hot food will tend to lift spirits. Not that we were ever down. The adventure kept us engaged throughout the climb. But still, even seasoned hikers begin to resemble the horse heading for the barn when there is mention of food and a warm fire.
“Guys. Hold on. Check it out!”, as John pointed up the slope.
A large black bear scurried from the thick brush. It sprinted behind a large boulder and then peered out from the side. Realizing we could still see him or her, the bear then moved higher, reaching the top of a ridge. It looked back once more. I hope to forever remember those last few seconds.
It was a gentle, curious face. Beautiful to the point of resembling a stuffed teddy bear. I’m sure I could read the expression. “You humans are interesting. I was kind of enjoying my hiding place, but your dogs give me anxiety.”
And then it was gone.
Boots drying over an open fire. Andy calmly stating, “Rob, your pants are kind of on fire.”
John and I sharing life philosophies during a car ride to a fishing spot. Rob spending the day with a burnt hole in his pants. A low country boil for dinner. Oven fired pizza from a dutch oven stacked with hot coals. Fresh baked biscuits.
The smiles on the faces of Rob and John as they cast their lines in a cold mountain stream. The parallel focus of Andy and Walter as a fishing line is reeled in.
None of us managed to capture a good picture of the bear. Unless you consider a black blob a good picture. As Andy scrambled for his camera I merely stood and watched. I do not require a picture for this memory. Or the new experiences shared with old friends. They are forever burned into me.