Black Bear encounter in the High Country

Bear paw artwork.

Let me tell you a story about a bear I met today.

I decided to change my hiking routine this day to get in a short waterfall hike to Upper Creek Falls, just off N.C. Hwy. 181, near the Brown Mountain overlook.
 
Originally, I was headed to Harper Creek Falls, but today I wanted to shorten the hiking time and get back to do some chores at home.

It was a sunny and cool day with perfect weather to work the legs for the afternoon. I carried along my camera for those special hiking shots. It was not going to be a long hike, but going in, it’s down at least three-quarters of a mile before reaching a creek.

I had bear bells on to alert any wildlife along the way, but as I came upon a small rise in the trail next to the creek, the hair on the back of my neck raised up and gave me an eerie feeling that something was around.

Just as fast as I was experiencing this feeling, I saw a huge black bear step down off the bank. He was all 250 to 300 pounds — and 35 to 50 feet away from me.

Apparently, he, or she, hadn’t heard my bear bells jingling because of the rushing water of the creek. 

The bear was there, and so was I — and I thought to myself, “Oh, man,” and froze in my tracks. 

No camera shot. I just stood my ground, barely breathing.

That bear looked to the right and looked left right at me. That was the human/bear eye contact moment. 

I glanced to the left for a brief moment to find a quick exit; when I looked back right, the bear was heading off down the trail. 

I then asked myself, “What just happened?”

My heart was in my nasal passage at this point. I could not continue the hike because the bear went in the same the direction as I was headed. One brief encounter was enough for me that day. So, nervous and frustrated, I went back the way I came, all the while on major bear alert status, until I made it back to my truck.

I took the encounter for what it was, glad to be away from the bear and safe at the vehicle. However, with my nerves now settled, my heart beating normal and my breathing relaxed, I decided to go on to photograph Linville Falls. 

I put behind me my first bear encounter: Exciting, scary and nervous.

There seems to be an increase in bear encounters, or sightings, in the High Country. Mainly the sightings have been close to homes with trash and bird feeders. 

While black bear attacks are very rare in this area, you should take precautions when encountering them.

What should you do if you encounter a bear while hiking?

I tend to take well-known trails by myself, but it is always good to bring along a hiking companion. You should not be afraid to make some noise on the trail; talking to your companion on the hike will let a bear know you are in the vicinity. Bear bells are a good option, as well. Bears do have good hearing and will hear the bells before you even see the bear. The noise gives the bear a chance to change direction — away from you, hopefully.

Here are some points to consider while hiking in the High Country:

• Bears can climb and swim, especially black bears.

• Bears can run up to 35 miles per hour.

• Bears can weigh up to 600 pounds.

• Male bears are larger than female bears.

• Bears can live up to 35 years in the wild.

• Bears are intelligent and often curious.

• Bears see in color and have excellent sense of smell.

• Bears love solitude and are easily frightened.

• Bear attacks, when they happen, are for predatory, territorial or protective reasons.
• Most bear attacks have occurred with one or two persons in the vicinity.

• If camping, hang your food high and outside of the perimeter of your camp and use bear-proof containers to hide the scent of food.

• Be aware of bears around streams and heavily wooded areas with thick underbrush.


What to do if you encounter a bear:

• Stay calm and DO NOT RUN; even if the bear charges (it could be a bluff). It is trying to scare YOU.

• After a bluff charge, talk softly and wave hands slowly above your head. Hold your ground and bow your shoulders and chest to look big.

• If you have children or a dog along with you, calm them and keep them back; avoid eye contact with the bear (since this is considered a challenge by the bear) and talk out loud if the bear is not moving away from you.

• Should the bear stand up, this is NOT an aggressive posture, but it is trying to get a better look or sniff.

• Back up slowly, but if the bear snaps its jaw or paws the ground, it feels threatened by you.

• Slowly retreat from the area away from the bear; the more distance the better.

• Generally, you do not climb a tree if confronted by a bear, but if it is a bigger bear, climbing might save you some time in getting away from it and allow you to defend yourself, but climb high.

• Keep bear spray ready, if you have it with you.

• Defend yourself if the bear is not going away and it is still appearing threatening; use sticks, rocks, anything, and try to hit its eyes and nose.

• Last resort is playing dead, but this is debatable by some wildlife experts, but do cover the nap of your neck.

In our region, local black bears will likely turn and run when encountered by humans, but it is always good to be alert at all times.

There are very few, or recorded, black bear attacks in the High Country, but encounters are on the rise. My encounter in the Pisgah National Forest was a surprise  and could have turned for the worse had the bear felt threatened or if it was a sow with cubs.

For more information on black bears and wildlife in general, contact your local forest service. You can also check out these websites for more information at: www.wikihow.com/Survive-a-Bear-Attack or www.americanbear.org/blackbearfacts.htm.