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Commentary

There's Bears In Those Woods, So This Hiker Heads Right In

A black bear cub.
Ken McMillan
/
Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/kamcmillan
A black bear cub.

Two years ago, I saw 10 bears, but after breaking my leg last year, I didn’t get out much, and saw only two. 

Each time, it brought my legs and breathing to an abrupt halt. 

Neither bear was interested in me, but I was very interested in it crossing the road right in front of me, our lungs breathing the same air.

Nothing plunks me into the present like a bear.

It’s both very real and surreal seeing such a large, powerful animal so close.

My mind tends to stroll as much as my legs when I’m walking. I think about an incident from yesterday, plans for today, that I’m low on milk. Then, bam. It all vanishes, to be replaced by this enormous mammal.

Seeing a bear also makes me realize how little I know about the forests around me.

I need marked trails to find my way, but bears make their own, following paths I can’t see, living lives I’ll never fully understand.

Once, climbing Mount Greylock, I saw something romping in the trail ahead, and suddenly realized it was a cub. It was both one of the cutest and scariest things I'd ever seen.

Its mother had to be near. It was so small. And between a mother and her young is not the wisest place to be. I picked up my pace and so did it. I don’t remember the rest of the hike. When I think back to that day, all I see is that cub.

And once, at the top of Pico, near Killington, I was going to rest where the trail opened to a field of wild flowers and blue sky. After hours of hiking in shaded woods, it looked inviting, and was — to a massive bear. It didn’t linger, and neither did I. 

I didn’t get to enjoy the far-off vista, but I did enjoy a close-up view of a mighty bruin with a button nose.

Sometimes I feel like Goldilocks. I don’t sleep in bears’ beds or eat their porridge, but I do stroll through their backyards, and into their homes, without knocking.

But then I move on. I don’t want to get caught napping.

Susan Johnson teaches writing at UMass Amherst.

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