Wild Encounters

Having been on the Appalachian Trail for over three and a half months now, I have had many opportunities to witness a variety of wildlife. With summer now in full swing, all kinds of creatures have emerged, and overall they are a delight to see on the trail. In the early morning hours, I am gently stirred from my sleep by the sweet sounds of songbirds. As I begin my hike in the soft light of dawn, I am often greeted by graceful deer, and we usually just stop and gawk at one another. I’ve encountered many other benign creatures along the way, as well as some more cantankerous ones, from venomous snakes to purloining bears. 

Deer are a common sight along the trail.

My first experience with bears attempting to pilfer my food bag back in Tennessee left me feeling rather bitter towards the species. While I was not particularly fearful of them, I wasn’t eager for another encounter. But my attitude towards them changed, as I had more sightings of them in Shenandoah National Park and throughout Pennsylvania. In Shenandoah, I saw a mother and her two little cubs (with momma bear keeping a close eye on us hikers to ensure her little ones’ safety). In Pennsylvania, I came across a very large bear right in the middle of the trail as I came around a bend, and the scared animal took flight before I could get over my shock to try to take a picture. I really came to appreciate the creatures, and enjoyed my sightings of them, especially since they seemed to be more afraid of me than I was of them.

Timber rattlesnakes are occasionally seen basking in the sun on rocky terrain.

Then I entered New Jersey. The density of black bears in the state of New Jersey is perhaps the highest in the nation. This, combined with the fact that New Jersey also has the highest density of people, has created a dangerous situation: black bears that are acclimated to the presence of people, and often associate them with easy meals. We had been warned of the bears in New Jersey, and throughout my hike in the state, I was always on high alert while walking, and also diligent in securing my food bag in a way to deter any would-be bear thieves. Yet I nearly passed through the entire state without a single sighting. That all changed on my last day in the Garden State.

A wild turkey and her young poult.

Before leaving New Jersey and entering into New York, I decided to go into a small town just a couple of miles off of the trail in order to resupply, do laundry, and take a well-needed shower. As I had only hiked six miles or so to the road crossing and it was a beautiful day, I decided I would simply walk the short distance to town, rather than try to secure a ride. I soon regretted that decision. Shortly after starting my road walk, I came across a hotdog stand, which was not yet opened as it was only 9 o’clock in the morning. Suddenly, I heard a loud crash, and was astonished to see a small bear rummaging through a garbage bin that had been negligently left out. Within 50 yards of the animal, it was the closest I had ever been to one and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to snap a few pictures of it. The bear, having by this time noticed my presence, was not too thrilled to be the subject of my photography, and began moving off. Similarly deciding enough was enough, I began to walk on, when I noticed a second, larger bear on the other side of the roadside stand. It occurred to me that this must be a mother bear and her yearling cub, which immediately made me nervous as she eyed me suspiciously. I walked more briskly, and to my alarm, I realized that both bears began to trail behind me.

The young bear was less than thrilled to have his breakfast of garbage interrupted by a nosy hiker.

Mind you, all of this took place on the side of a busy highway, with numerous vehicles passing by all the while. I was not only astounded that I had two bears cooly pursuing me, but also by the fact that no one else seemed to be concerned about it as they drove by. Perhaps this is a usual occurrence for New Jerseyans, I thought to myself as I continued to glance over my shoulder to check the bears’ progress. Then, to my great relief, a man in a pickup truck, who was driving in the same direction I was traveling, slowed down and rolled down his window. “Hey, did you know that you have two bears following you?”, he asked with an audible chuckle. “Yeah,” I replied, smiling nervously, “I’ve been keeping close tabs on them!” Thinking he would then rescue me by offering a ride into town, I prepared to cross over the street. But then, to my utter dismay, I heard him gun the engine, and suddenly he was off, leaving me to fend off the bears on my own.

Mother-cub bonding time.

Luckily, I did not have to fight valiantly with my trekking poles, as the bears soon seemed to lose interest and began ambling back into the woods. I could not believe what had just occurred. I was amazed by the bears’ behavior, as they seemed to have no fear of me whatsoever. I was equally bewildered by the pickup truck driver’s behavior, leaving me to the bears. It just goes to show that one never knows what to expect from the trail (or just off the trail)! Life is full of unexpected events that can create a sense of fear or even crisis. Sometimes the best thing to do is just keep putting one foot in front of the other, with the faith and hope that “This, too, shall pass.”

Until our paths cross again,

      Ashley Sylvan

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