“You’ve been picking berries haven’t you!” exclaimed a passing hiker. I was in northern Washington and my hands were stained a dark pinkish-purple from picking and eating huckleberries. The sweet perfume of berries filled the late-afternoon air. I grinned ear-to-ear, popping yet another warm, juicy berry into my mouth before replying, “Yeah, I’ve been picking huckleberries. My mom’s going to hike in to meet me at the border, so I’m making huckleberry wine for her!”
Near one of the road intersections I came across the above sing warning hikers about potential mountain lions in the area and suggesting that “hikers should bear side arms.”
Over the winter I’d seen a mountain lion in my home state of Massachusetts and there had been a lot of discussion about why government officials might be reluctant to confirm sightings. Though I’m not sure whether the reluctance is real or not, signs like this one certainly make me understand why there may be a reluctance to confirm sightings. It seemed to me that the sign was trying to encourage fear, panic, and a shoot to kill attitude towards mountain lions (cougars).
As I continued up the trail I kept my eyes open for cougars and rattlesnakes and bears, and whatever else might be lurking in the woods, but figured my odds of running into a mountain lion were probably just as good as they would be anywhere else on the trail (fairly low, and preferably at a distance).
Within the next five miles the trail intersected with a dirt road and saw what appeared to be mountain lion tracks. big mountain lion tracks. They made my men’s size 10 wide boots look small! Was it a hoax? It seemed a bit suspicious to me being so near the warning sign.
I followed the tracks up the road and away from the trail and human tracks until I was confident that the tracks weren’t likely to be a hoax (if anybody knows a tracker that could provide verification or thoughts on the tracks I would be interested in hearing their thoughts!). The pressure, the variation, the spacing, and the number of tracks all suggested to me that the tracks were real though I have to admit I’m definitely not an expert tracker by any stretch of the imagination!
I have to admit, after seeing those giant tracks I may have slowed down a bit so that the friend hiking behind me could catch up to me. I figured the tracks were at least a day old and were going away from the trail, but it made me feel a bit better to hike near someone else for a while!
As I continued hiking I got the dialog from the wizard of oz stuck in my head, “do- do you suppose we’ll meet any wild animals?” Asks Dorothy and the tin man replies, “Um, some. Mostly lions and tigers and bears.” I almost skipped along to the chorus, “Lions and tigers and bears. oh my!” It seemed possible, even probably that at some point on my journey I would encounter mountain lions and bears, but I had no idea that later that same day I was going to encounter actual lions and tigers and bears!
When I rounded the corner it was the smell that hit me first, kind of a fetid, rancid, nasty smell. I looked up and saw rows and rows of chain link fence. In the corner of one there was a large brown blob. As I approached, it became clear that it was a large brown bear intermittently panting in the sun and chewing on the metal bars. It appeared to be a 12×18 foot cage without any enrichment and without any shade. It seemed very sad to me. It was not the way I wanted to see a bear, or any animal really.
As I continued up the hill I saw more animals lying down in their cages in the sun. There were lions and tigers and bears, oh my! And they all looked very sad to me. I heard later that they were retired stunt animals. I just wish they at least had larger cages and some kind of environmental enrichment. If they spent their lives working to entertain us isn’t there something more that we could or perhaps even should do to make their lives better?
I may not feel comfortable seeing the big wild animals up close and personal in the wilderness, but I definitely think that that’s where they belong. We are guests in their world, and if we pull them into our world, we should treat them as respected guests if we can.
I tend to wake up early and am typically the first person out of the shelter and/or campsite. I really enjoy being on the trail first thing in the morning as the low angle sunlight first starts hitting the trees. I know that I’m in bear country, so I often find an old camp song about bears stuck in my head (where each verse is repeated in a sing-along):
The other day, I saw a bear
A great big bear, a way out there
He looked at me, I looked at him
He sized up me, I sized up him
My second day in the Smokies I lived the experience of that old camp song. As I was hiking down the trail I heard a noise up on the ridge to my left. It sounded like a person stumbling through the woods. People had told me that that’s exactly what a bear sounds like, so I stopped and looked towards the sound to see if I could see anything. I saw nothing.
I took a few steps forward and then heard the noise again. Once again, I stopped, looked, and saw nothing. I started moving one more time, i heard the noise and once again I stopped and looked. This time I did see something. I saw a great big bear! It charged down the hill towards the trail, towards about the first place that I’d stopped (10-20 feet behind me). It filled me with adrenaline, but at least it wasn’t charging at me!
I took a moment to process what I’d seen and then kept hiking up the trail. In about a quarter of a mile I came to a shelter. I told them about my experience and they said that they’d had bears around the shelter all night. As I headed up the trail again they jokingly warned me not to disturb anymore bears since the bears probably hadn’t slept much the night before because they’d been so busy keeping them up all night.
I laughed and walked on. About 1/4 mile later I came across a second bear. This one was in the trail about 20 feet ahead of me. As soon as it heard me it barreled down the hill and away from the trail, making a great big ruckus.
It seems like many if not most people hiking in the Smokies hope to catch sight of a bear while in the park. I feel like I’ve seen my fair share now!