Animals, Long-Distance Walking, USA
Comments 5

Ghost Bear

Ghost Dog: Wow. That’s a helluva big bear you’ve killed there.

Redneck: Yep. Musta weighed about 300 pounds.

Ghost Dog: You know, it’s funny, because I…I didn’t even know it was bear-huntin’ season.

Redneck: What are you, a game warden?

Bears. They’ve been on my mind lately. Just re-watched my favourite Jim Jarmush movie, Ghost Dog, in which the protagonist, a black, modern-day samurai/assassin, with an affinity for all wild creatures, dispatches a couple of camo-clad rednecks immediately after the above exchange.

A trail name there for the takin'

Just a few days earlier I’d been working through the pile of ATC magazines that had accumulated here in Club Mountaingoat while I was abroad last year. In the July-August 2010 issue, a correspondent had predicted the emboldening of bears sans Fear of Man:

I happen not to hunt, but I am glad there are people who do hunt black bears. Without hunting pressure, black bears would eventually revert to the animals with little fear of humans that Native Americans originally knew.

In the next issue, another reader countered that:

Black bears are highly intelligent animals and I strongly believe that hunting [them] is not nearly as important as managing people from doing irresponsible things like feeding them.

During my first thousand miles on the A.T., I saw 10 bears, including two encounters with a mother and three cubs. I felt privileged, if a little shaken: a mama bear eyeing you warily from nearby while her three agitated young ‘uns try to skeddadle down a tree trunk —  well, it teaches a man a thing or two about bladder control.

Wouldn't 'A Nap on the Couch' be a lot safer?

And perhaps Bill Bryson can take some of the blame. Like many (most?) thru-hikers, I’d read his ‘A Walk in the Woods‘, in which he does a spectacular job of transforming Ursus americanus into some kind of nightmarish terrestrial great white shark in the potential hiker’s imagination:

Imagine, if you will, lying in the dark alone in a little tent, nothing but a few microns of trembling nylon between you and the chill night air, listening to a 400-pound bear moving around your campsite…

Sounds like my first night on Springer Mountain — but that’s another story. This one is from my return to the Trail two years later…

Summer, 2006. It’s overcast and humid. I’ve done just over 150 miles and crossed into New Jersey six days earlier. Hallelujah, Pennsylvania is just a boot-corroding, 229.3-mile memory. N.J. is a surprise — a nice one. The “Joisey” of TV and cinema is typically a crime-ridden wasteland, part Mafia dumping ground, part industrial cancer cluster. I can’t speak for the heavily developed coastal part, but back here in the woods, not a mafioso in sight*, just gorgeous views…

Jersey views were an unexpected treat

..lovely farmland…

A gothic barn?

..and some fearsome-looking but harmless wildlife:

Eastern Racer

I’d spent the night before on the floor of the Episcopal Church in the small town of Vernon, and left town simmering in frustration after a futile attempt to call my daughter in Australia for her birthday. It’s always those jarring reconnections with the world you left behind that bring it home to you how alone you are, how private and how brittle your journey really is.

But what can you do? You walk, and wait for the exertion to sluice the bad stuff out of your veins. I didn’t have long to wait:

Wawayanda Mountain and white blaze # 47,392

You leave town fresh, in clean rags, and half an hour later you’re a stinking mess all over again. I crest Wawayanda, the sun finally calling it a day. Suddenly a bear darts across the path. I slow…stop…start again. There it is, watching me, as I edge past. I lift my speed and bound with thumping heart till the path intersects a dirt road. Just as my feet hit the dust I turn on some impulse — and there it is right behind me, following close.

“YAHHHHHH!” And “YAHHHHHHHHHHH!” I spin to face the thing and it moves across the road, just inside the trees, and turns to face me. It’s staying put. I shout some more, hurl a few rocks, but this bear is…focused. I spy a beer bottle near my feet, and launch it bearward, an Olympic-quality shot (and with no human witnesses) that connects with the tree just in front of that moist, twitchy snout and explodes. Bear backs off a tad. I swing left and down the road. Somewhere down there and in the trees is the shelter.

Adrenalin. What a gift. Unfortunately the bear has some too. I turn and — yes — the thing is coming right down the middle of the road after me. More “YAHHHHHH!”s, more rocks, and it ambles into the woods on my left. The same side as the shelter. Too late, I get the camera out and squeeze off a picture that makes up in atmosphere what it lacks in focus:

Ghost Bear

There’s a very unpleasant journey up the side-trail to the shelter, all the while scanning the trees, one trekking pole held high like a pathetic club. I hear the voices before I get there, a shelter full of hikers, a happy, rowdy scene, and nobody there is anywhere near attentive enough as I tell my tale. And it does lose impact in the telling, as I dump the pack, claim a sliver of ground for my night’s bed.

That thing didn’t want you, I remind myself, sorting through my bulging food sack. It wanted these lovely Lipton’s instant meals, this mouth-watering peanut butter. That beast has been indulged by ignorant hikers, or their trash. Its days are numbered.

A guy comes in, bearded and tall. “You see the bear?” I ask. “Bear? Nope.” We end up, days later, becoming friends, hiking hundreds of miles together, splitting that corridor of chance and walking the entire state of Vermont to Canada via another — then coming back for the rest of the A.T. But tonight I adjourn to the picnic table with another trusted friend:

Keeping my fire lit

Soon the bear is almost forgotten, but I hang my food high tonight.

* Research reveals much of Ghost Dog was filmed in…New Jersey.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote



  1. Andrew Smallacombe says

    Ahh, bears.
    Never encountered one myself.
    The Japanese black bear is a smallish critter, 160cm and 60kg or so. Every year a couple of old people get killed/badly injured by these things – there’s not enough food up in the mountains anymore, and the pickings around villages and tourist traps are easier.
    The goat may remember about 10 years ago when some guy was attacked by a bear here. He performed a judo throw and the bear decided to leave well enough alone.
    A slightly more recent story, and more in line with the spirit of your prose:
    A hunter crawls into a cave. Finds bear. Shoots and kills bear. Discovers that the bear’s corpse is a) too heavy for him to move alone; and b) blocking the exit to the cave. Almost a week went by before he was discovered.

  2. Discovered alive? I have only seen one bear in Japan and I will write about that encounter soon. A local was killed by a bear in Hokkaido while I was up there in 2008.

  3. Andrew Smallacombe says

    Hokkaido has brown bears, smaller than grizzlies but larger than European brown bears. And considerably larger than the black bears of Honshu.
    I remember my old host family had a book on Hokkaido browns. One grizzly (excuse the pun) photo showed the contents of a killer bear’s gut – including an almost intact human foot!!

      • Andrew Smallacombe says

        [i]Higuma[i/] (羆), that’s the one.
        Did a bit of a dig for my bear and hunter story – turns out he was trapped only for 24 hours and had his dog to keep him warm.
        Still, a bit more than he could bear…

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