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Bear encounter (2) Tue, Sep 05, 2006
Another wonderful thing that happened on my recent hiking trip was a bear encounter.  This website says that bear encounters usually happen in two places on the Appalachian Trail:  In the White Mountains of New Hampshire and in the Wawayanda Shelter area in New Jersey.  They're right about at least one of those places. 

I started hiking at about 5:10pm on Friday.  At around 7:15, the trail crossed another trail.  As I was walking, I saw a black bear run away from me to my right side.  I was a little spooked, but I thought, "Yay, my first bear encounter on the heavily-bear-populated section of the AT."  In order to make noise, I shook my key chain and clapped my hands.  I continued on the trail, but as I looked over my shoulder, I noticed the bear was following me.  Not running or growling or anything, but following me.  A 250-lb black bear was following me in the middle of the woods near Vernon, NJ.  I backed away from the bear and continued on the trail (backwards) as I panicked and tried to think of something to do.  I continued making loud noises and tried yelling.  The bear kept following me.  I blew a little high-powered compressed air horn, which promptly ran out of air after 2 seconds of use (I had used it in the past).  The bear might've been slightly concerned, but it continued to follow me.  I kept walking on the trail, hoping the bear would lose interest or get spooked by something.  After a little while, I didn't think it was on my tail anymore.  I saw some "bear skat" (what nature dorks call poop) on the trail and stopped to take a picture of it, just in case some hikers found my lifeless body -- maybe they could piece together my last few moments.  After I took the picture, I looked back and saw the bear coming towards me.  So I tried making some more noises and continued walking quickly on the trail, thinking about how stupid it was to stop and take a picture of bear poop while a live bear was chasing me.  For a good 10 minutes, this bear followed me at a distance of about 40 feet.  After a while, I guess it got sick of me and wandered off the trail and into the woods.  For the next mile or so until the Wawayanda Shelter, I kept looking over my shoulder and making as much noise as possible (which is stupid seeing that it didn't help in the first place), all the while walking as quickly as I could.  I finally made it to the shelter just before I needed to use a headlamp, and I almost hugged the other people at the shelter (except that they were guys and they stank). 

All in all, it was pretty predictable:  A bear encounter in the Wawayanda Shelter area at dusk.  I thought about it for several hours after that.  I think I decided what I should've done:  I should've walked away more slowly because running or quick walking encourages bears to follow or chase.  I should've made some loud noises and put my arms above my head (or at least that's what some websites said) so that I looked "big and threatening".  As soon as that failed (which I bet is about 50/50), I should've dropped to the ground in the fetal position with my bag on and wrapped my arms around the back of my neck to try to protect my jugular and other vital things.  As this whole fiasco was happening, I didn't really feel like the bear wanted to kill me.  Sometimes I feel like my cat wants to kill me.  But I think this bear just wanted to check me out, maybe sniff me and figure out what I was doing walking through the woods.  I could be completely wrong about that, but it's my theory.  Either way, I hope I never see another bear again.  To all the websites that said "the bear will probably run away", thanks a lot.  Buncha jerks. #nature

clare Tue, Dec 26, 2006
Actually, what you did was probably the best course of action.  That "curl into a ball and protect your neck/head" strategy is meant for grizzlies/brown bears, but not black bears.  Black bears are 95% bluff, and the best way to make them back off is to convince them you're not falling for it.

Backing away slowly, remaining upright and "big" (arms up/out), and yelling at an oncoming black bear is your best defense. You want to convince it you're not worth the effort.  If the bear is far enough away, I keep quiet, and just go with the stay big/back away part, reserving the noise for a bear that is charging,  "huffing," or pawing the ground at me.  I've found that a firm, loud "KNOCK IT OFF!" usually works anytime I've been bluff-charged. 

Rule #1 if a black bear does attack, however, is: FIGHT BACK, and don't stop!  Do not "play dead" with a black bear.  I had an encounter this summer in which a female with three tiny cubs charged out of the dense woods into the road where I was walking my two dogs.  It knew she simply felt threatened by the dogs, so my goal was to get us all away, but she would not back off.  As she went after the dogs (who were leashed), I made a very loud fuss and swatted at her with the plastic retractable leash housing while trying my best to pull the dogs out of her reach.  I slipped and wound up on my backside at one point, but regained my feet before she came at us a third and final time. 

I'm sure the ordeal only lasted several minutes, but it felt like forever, and was loud and long enough to wake people from their sleep and onto their decks.  It happened just 100 feet or so from my front door. 

Final outcome: a draw.  We agreed to turn around and go home the way we'd come, and she agreed to take her cubs into the woods where they belonged.  She could have seriously hurt or even killed me and/or my dogs, but she didn't harm ANY of us.  She simply wanted to scare us away from her cubs, and she succeeded in doing so.  Of course, had we known she was there in the first place, we would have taken a different dog walk route!

We continued to see them all season, and although my dogs argued for a rematch every time they saw her out the window, we had no further encounters.

Where did this happen? Vernon, NJ, of course. ;-)  Living with bears is just part of the routine here.

Dave Wed, Dec 27, 2006
Thanks for the info, Clare.  But there's just something about "fighting" a bear that doesn't make sense in my head:  How can a 300-pound pointy-toothed sharp-clawed survival-oriented animal be defeated by a puny little human with a 3-inch knife and a big backpack?  Will a bear really get hurt if I punch it in the snout?  Will a bear respond to an armbar or a guillotine choke?  Based on my experience of sticking my 10-pound cat in a bathtub, animals fight hard, and they fight to the death (though neither I nor my cat died in the bathing process).  I'd like to approach the situation thinking I can fight off a bear, but something tells me there's more to it than that.

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