It was clear that we’d have to turn around at some point and start moving quickly. I said an urgent prayer...
I’ve spent this week up in the Berkshires with Millie and her BFF, Winky, whom I was watching for her owner, Amy, who was in New York nursing a blown-out knee. Julee was out in Sedona, Arizona, having a mini-reunion with some high school friends from Creston. So it was just the girls and me all week.
We’d done a lot of hiking. This morning we had just started out on the Appalachian Trail, hiking south from the parking lot on Route 23 toward South Mountain. I’ve done that section many, many times and Millie is very familiar with it. I think I could practically do it with my eyes closed. We planned to hike several miles in to a beautiful spot called the Ledges.
We were not far into the woods, which are tremendously green and lush this time of year, almost tropical. Millie was 20 feet or so out in front, leading, as is her wont. Winky was right beside me, slightly to my rear. Millie disappeared around a slight bend in the trail. Suddenly I heard furious barking coming in urgent bursts.
I assumed it was a deer. Millie likes to chase them off. Makes her feel tough and she always turns and grins at me in self-delight. Or maybe it was just another hiker taking a break in the bushes. But as I neared the bend and caught sight of Millie I didn’t detect the usual friendly body language she displays when meeting up with a person. Her tail was high and rigid and her fur was up. Her jaws were snapping. I followed her stare to the right. Ten feet into the trees was a large dark shape. Not a deer. Not a hiker.
Millie was right in front of it, barking and growling. The bear reared up on its hind legs and stood very still. For an absurd second I thought it looked like someone had hauled a large stuffed black bear and stood it up in the woods. But no, this was a very real bear very close to us and not, apparently, going anywhere.
I stopped about 10 feet behind Millie, putting me around 20 feet from the bear. Winky stopped at my side. Her eyesight isn’t great so I don’t think she could actually see the bear, but she poked her nose high in the air and sniffed.
Stay calm, I told myself. That was the first order of business. Panic would only provoke the bear. The second order of business was to draw Millie back. Big and strong as she is, she was no match for a bear. It occurred to me that the bear might have doubts too about taking on two large dogs and a human. For the moment this appeared to be a standoff.
I tried to keep my voice calm and firm: “Millie, come!”
She looked at me, looked at the bear. She kept barking and snarling, holding her ground stubbornly, protectively.
“Millie! Come! Now!”
Winky was glued to me. I reached down and snagged her collar in case she had any ideas about charging to Millie’s side.
She glanced at me and began backing off cautiously, not turning her back to the bear. She kept up the barking. I went over in my mind all the bear-encounter advice I’d heard over the years. Don’t run. Don’t turn your back. Make noise.
By now Millie was right in front of me. Now we had to retreat somehow. I moved backward very slowly. It was clear, though, that we’d have to turn around at some point and start moving quickly.
I said an urgent prayer: Lord, I’m going to have to turn my back on this bear in a second. It’s a risk but I don’t see any other way. Please watch my back and keep that bear off of us.
I turned slowly, pushing Winky ahead of me. “Go!” I said, and began striding up the trail away from the bear. Not running, not strolling, just moving purposefully and as confidently as I could manage. I tried to move Millie around to the front but she was having none of it. She wanted to stay between us and the bear. But she kept up, glancing over her shoulder every few seconds. I kept looking back, too, and listening for the crackle of twigs and breaking branches
I checked left to see if the bear was tracking us on the parallel. No sign of it.
We made it back to Route 23 in a few minutes, crossed over to the parking area, where I ordered the dogs into the Pathfinder, jumped behind the wheel, pulled out of my parking spot and turned toward the south trail. If the bear followed us I fully intended to run him over with my truck. I figured even a big bear was no match for a V8. But we had respected his territory and he had apparently respected our retreat.
I let out a massive sigh of relief. It felt like I hadn’t breathed for the last 10 minutes. Then I turned and praised the girls for their smarts and their bravery. I looked north. We could change our route and hike in that direction toward Beartown State Forest (yikes!) and Benedict Pond. Route 23 was a pretty reliable barrier, and what were the chances of encountering two bears in a single day? Then I remembered the date, Friday the 13th. I’m not an especially superstitious person but I decided to say a prayer of thanks and call it a day.
And how is your vacation going?