I was hiking (alone) in the Ottawa National Forest the other day, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, when, looking up the trail, I saw a little bear sitting alongside the path! Oh boy! I have always longed to encounter a bear in the wild. I took a super-zoom photo and examined the image — nope. Just a tree stump. Silly me!
Not two minutes later, lost in thought, examining my boots as they tromped along, I was arrested by a low, guttural growl. I glanced up in time to source the sound to a dense thicket not fifteen yards away, directly adjacent to the trail on the uphill side.
“Requesting permission to pass, madame or sir!!” I yelled. I received no answer.
“Yow yow yow yip yip yip yip owoooo owoooo!” Again, no answer.
It occurred to me that should my interlocutor actually respond, I was way too close for safety, so I backed down the trail, continuing to ululate. I reviewed what I knew about encountering a bear in the wild. I had seen a video in the park visitor center earlier in the week: “The 275-pound bear knocks down the small tree, breaking it off at the root. He uses his razor-like claws to slash away the bark. With his massive incisors, he crushes the yellow sapwood, looking for grubs on which to feed.”
My bear wasn’t feeding; it was just laying about. Should I stay on the trail and scoot past the thicket, making myself seem big and scary, and just keep going? I could hold my camera at the ready, in case the bear bolted out of the thicket! What an opportunity! Unless, of course, it bolted my way.
I had seen a sign just that morning, elsewhere in the park: “Bears are shy and afraid of humans. If you encounter one in the wild, it will be anxious to move away from you.” But not my bear. Mine was not moving off; in fact, it wasn’t moving at all. Dusk was approaching. Apparently it was trying to bed down for the night, and here was I, doing my best to disturb it.
“However, if you are carrying food, a bear may overcome its natural fear and approach you to feed.” I checked my pockets. I had no food on me, just some wrappers left over from a recent snack: Doritos, chocolate bar, Starburst… uh oh… I recalled that while bears cannot see very well, they have an extraordinary sense of… smell…
“Bears that have learned to associate food with humans can be dangerous.”
I considered ditching the wrappers, but my “Leave No Trace” ethic wouldn’t allow it. I decided to get off the path, skirt the thicket, and leave the bear alone.
I picked my way downhill, through dense and tangly forest. I ducked under the rotting trunk of a huge hemlock, toppled decades ago. I kept about forty yards between me and the thicket as I worked my way around the slope. I never heard any more sound from that thicket; nor could I detect any motion. I began to second-guess myself: maybe I was mistaken; possibly I had imagined or misidentified the growl; perhaps it was nothing. Silly me.
I stomped along, watching my boots, lost in thought, when I was arrested by something upon which I trod.
I was standing on a four-inch tree, sixteen feet long, snapped off at the root and pressed into the forest floor. Every bit of bark was stripped away and lay scattered about in ribbons. The shiny yellow sapwood was mangled as by a massive blender. I glanced up toward the thicket and suddenly felt very much afraid. I considered that I was about to litter the forest with not only those wrappers but also my carcass.
Finally I remembered one truly useful piece of knowledge concerning an encounter with a bear in the wild, which I had probably learned as a Cub Scout: “Run away.”
So I did.