I was still pretty green and inexperienced, hiking alone in the Shenandoahs. It was early; the sun was brightening the sky but not yet visible.
The bed of the fire from the night before still had some warm coals in it. It wasn’t too much trouble to bring it back to life. The creek was a short hike down the hill, less than a tenth of a mile. I hopped on down to get some water for the morning’s instant coffee.
Upon returning, I discovered my food bag was gone.
For an instant, I panicked. I was miles from the nearest town. No cell phone service way out here. My mind raced with worry as I tried to figure out how I was going to get the strength to get through the next climb.
The panic evaporated as quickly as it came. I realized with an odd sense of calm that bags of dried food do not sprout legs and walk away. I started looking more closely at the ground and it didn’t take long to find a sign.
The drag marks led directly up the hill. Not a hundred paces away was a small brown bear enthusiastically digging into my jar of peanut butter. The bear glanced at me for a moment and went back to the peanut butter.
I don’t care a firearm. My bag of calories was laid open. The bear was totally unconcerned with me.
The good news is that I didn’t starve for days trying to get to the next town. I didn’t sit around hungry for weeks waiting for help to arrive. I didn’t get mauled by a bear in a desperate struggle for survival.
While planning my hike, I made the usual rookie mistake of bringing much more than I needed. Including an annual form of bear deterrent. A lot of people recommend bear spray. I brought along a few firecrackers.
I backed slowly away from the bear and proceeded back to my camp site and my other gear, removing a small bundle of black cats (fireworks) from the double zip lock bag in my day pouch. I attempted to master my fear and walked up the hill towards the bear and stopped about 10 paces away.
When the fire crackers went off the bear didn’t pause to reflect or second guess its instinct: it dropped everything and ran up and away at what I’m guessing was close to top speed.
I hastily grabbed my partially shredded bag and headed back the way I came. I packed up camp, put out the fire and and moved on in the opposite way the bear was going.
The aftermath left me with a few hours of sewing to put the bag back in usable condition. While I know it wasn’t the right thing to do, I left the jar of peanut butter for the bear. I was loath to pack an open jar of peanut butter through bear country, and I feel that the bear, in its boldness and cunning, to watch and wait for me to leave and approach my fire, deserved its prize.
When I encountered other travellers, I learned that it’s better to hang ones treasures from a tree branch, at least 10 feet from the main trunk and 15 feet off the ground. Anything left unnattended on the ground is fair game.
In my haste to depart I didn’t gather any evidence of this encounter, but here is a recording of another bear I encountered down the trail.
The proper way to handle a bear encounter is to stay calm, stand your ground, and make lots of noise, which is what I and a couple travellers did after gathering footage.
A higher resolution video may be available on YouTube.