The bear appeared an hour before sunset. When I first saw her she was more than one hundred yards away padding quietly through the deep mountain forest. She was a regal creature – a magnificent beast. I estimated her to be at least twice my two hundred pounds. Her twin cubs, less than a quarter her size, bumbled along behind like a pair of frisky puppies. After hiking almost one thousand miles solo along the Appalachian Trail, this black bear in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park was the first I had encountered.
The bruin walked self-assuredly, directly toward the log upon which I was sitting. My open backpack lay beside me. I stood to make sure she saw that a human was present. I had heard that a black bear would never make an unprovoked attack upon a human. I thought she would be frightened away upon sighting me. I was wrong on both counts.
She continued in my direction until not more than thirty feet away she stopped and sniffed the air. Her massive head bobbed slowly as she now paced deliberately back and forth in front of me. I nervously focused my camera and snapped a quick shot. Until that moment it did not occur to me that the brute might charge.
It happened with breathtaking suddenness. The powerful beast lowered her head, gave a deep “woof,” and hurled herself toward me like frightful black lightning. My mind screamed “Run!” but my body didn’t respond. I froze in horror.
As quickly as she had charged the bear skidded to an abrupt halt with only inches of empty space and my now-forgotten camera between us. Her wild ebony eyes fixed on mine and the stench of her breath was almost overpowering. She emitted a low grumbling sound so deep that it was more nearly felt than heard. The thought of what her knife-blade claws and dagger teeth could do sent a shudder through me and I felt the blood drain from my face. Every nerve ending of my body seemed charged as if by electricity.
Unwilling to accept the dark demon’s challenge, I slowly backed away. I dared not run for fear that any quick movement might provoke her. Silently I prayed that I would safely reach the nearest climbable tree some twenty yards distant.
From my perch I watched in semi-shock as the bruin buried her entire head into my open pack, lifted it, and snorted as she shook it violently. In a moment she emerged with a plastic bag of gorp (trail food) between her teeth and retreated to the base of a giant poplar nearby where she lay down, ripped the bag open with her sharp incisors, and began to eat. The cubs had disappeared either into the forest or up a tree. I did not see them again. The mama bear had my undivided attention.
As she lapped up the gorp, I cautiously returned to my pack. I didn’t want to be around if she came back for seconds. A hungry park bear who has lost all fear of humans, especially a mother with cubs, can be an extremely dangerous animal. With a watchful eye on the beast I threw my things together and hastily departed.
My original plan had been to spend the night in that spot, where I had met the bear. Now I thought it wise to hike another mile or two before setting up camp.
A light steady rain began as I trudged uphill for the final mile of what had become a very long day. In the gathering dusk this was a particularly good mile for wildlife viewing. I delighted in the sight of eight whitetail deer, including two spotted fawns and two young bucks, proudly sporting new velvet racks. Also, there was a striped skunk near the Elkwallow Wayside where the trail intersected the famous Skyline Drive. A fat raccoon crossed my path at one spot, and a wood thrush eyed me intently from her nest on a low-hanging branch not more than five feet from the trail. However, the preoccupation of my mind was the hungry bear which might be following my scent. After dozens of peaceful nights alone on the trail – this night I was afraid.
My trail guidebook indicated that the Range View Cabin should be just ahead of me. The cabin would be locked, unless it was occupied, but I hoped that the overhanging front porch might at least give me refuge from the rain.
Twilight had come in earnest when I broke into the clearing. Three brightly colored tents decorated the grassy area in front of the cabin. Six young men and women sat Indian fashion in a circle under the shelter provided by the cabin overhang. I noticed that in each of their laps was an opened book. They had not yet seen me. I paused at the edge of the clearing and listened.
Above the gentle whisper of the rain a beautiful melody floated from their lips. It sounded to me at the time like a choir of guardian angels. The words came from the Bibles in their laps, which were turned to Psalm 34:
“O magnify the Lord with me,
And let us exalt his name together.”
I joined in, adding a seventh voice to the chorus:
“I sought the Lord, and he heard me,
And delivered me from all my fears.”
God had provided me a safe refuge for the evening. And six members of my spiritual family were on hand to welcome me.