Grizzly Bill’s boasting turns to chagrin in the wilds of Shenandoah National Park.
On a muggy day last spring, after three days hiking through the central portion of Shenandoah National Park, I was just getting ready to take off from Pinnacles Overlook when a trio of hikers came strolling off of the Appalachian Trail. Hoping to bond with my fellow woodsmen, I told them about the mountain miles I’d logged and rattled off the wild animals I’d seen. (I admit I’m a bit of a braggart.) But these guys made me feel more like Tinkerbell than Daniel Boone. “We’ve seen a lot of animals, too,” said one of the skinny, scraggly-bearded strangers.
“In fact, we came across a bear yesterday. Off in the woods behind it, we even saw a cub.”
He paused, shook his head and added, “You know, a mother bear protecting her cubs is the worst danger.”
“You lucky bum,” I replied, “I’ve never seen a bear in my life!”
At the tail end of the day, I was paused on the side of Skyline Drive just south of the Thornton Gap when I noticed a shadow moving along the rocky escarpment above my head. Just another deer, I thought. But when I glanced upward a chill shot up my spine and the hairs on my neck stood on end. A black bear! It was meandering over the rocks and through the trees. A yearling about the size of a Rottweiler, but much stronger and with two-inch claws. It was only 40 feet away, close enough, I figured, to hear my heart hammering in my chest. But my fear soon turned to jubilation and, before it could waddle out of sight, I whipped out my camera and snapped a couple of pictures. There, now I had proof! I had come within a stone’s throw of a bear and lived to tell about it. How many other people could say the same?
The next leg of my journey was 11 miles eastward, out of the mountains to the tiny town of Washington, Virginia, and I was eager to get going. I couldn’t wait to regale some bear-virgins with the tale of my encounter.
About an hour into my walk, I arrived at a gas station in the outskirts of Sperryville. I dropped my rucksack on the stoop and entered the air-conditioned embrace of the convenience store with a strut in my step. It was 9 a.m. on a Saturday. I eyed the heavyset woman with blonde, streaked tangles behind the counter. She seemed like a perfect audience: Her face was as innocent and inviting as a ball of dough.
I slid a Gatorade and a package of nuts on the counter and as casually as possible announced to the cashier, “You know, I came across a bear in Shenandoah no farther than 40 feet away.” I tossed a five on the counter and readied myself for her amazed response.
“No surprise,” she shrugged. “One’s been visiting my backyard for the last couple of weeks.” Then, as she handed me my change she added, “Been feeding him table scraps. Stopped doing it though, when I thought about coming home from work some night and running into him in the dark.” (Later on, I discovered that there are about 15,000 black bears spread throughout the state.)
A couple of hours later, I was a handful of miles farther down the road, and the rugged land had slowly morphed into rolling hills filled with fields of grazing horses and cows. A much better place, I figured, to find an appreciative audience for the tale of Grizzly Bill. And so I marched into another gas station, swaggered up to the counter, and told the thin dark-haired cashier my story.
“You don’t say,” she replied. “Why, I ran across a big old bear in my yard the other day. Got some great pictures of it. Would you like to see?”
Afterwards, as I plodded down the road, the cawing of the crows overhead sounding like harsh laughter, was when it happened. First I heard the giant sucking plop of something large extracting itself from the mud of the stream bank just 20 feet away. Then a brown form darted into the screen of bushes running parallel to the road. A bear! I thought. But this bear was no yearling the size of a large dog. This bear was as big as a grizzly! Or at least as big as a cow!
In that instant, I forgot about telling a great story and just worried about staying alive. What were my options? Run away? Play dead? Clap my hands and yell, “Shoo, bear, shoo!?” Before I could decide, the goliath lumbered through the brush away from me. My shaky legs propelled me up the road as my gaze fixed on the edge where bushes gave way to an open field. I aimed my camera to take a picture of what I was certain had to be a grizzly bear. Nothing else could be that big. Ha! No one would top this story! But my moment of celebration turned to panic when I saw a second bear as big as the first. Except this one was black with white blotches on its hide. And instead of running, it just stood its ground and stared at me. Chewing its cud. Like a cow. Because, I realized, it was a cow. They both were.
Looking past it, I saw the first mud-covered bovine exiting the bushes to rejoin the herd nearby. Blood that had been pounding in my ears now flushed my cheeks. I stood there catching my breath. What would I say at my next rest stop? Maybe, I thought, I’d just keep my mouth shut.