Heed the Warnings

photo by Michael Elliott
This bear is mocking me.
I would consider myself an avid hiker.  I love being on a trail, pounding footsteps, hearing nothing but the sound of my own thoughts.  This is therapy for me.  I solve problems, gain a new perspective, and clear my body of the junk that starts to accumulate from city living.

Having gone on several hikes alone I typically take several precautions.  I read up on the area and it's wildlife, look at weather, and take all the necessary gear.  I'm a rule follower.  Being several miles out on a trail doesn't scare me. 

Needless to say, when I was planning a quick weekend trip to Southeast Oklahoma I knew hiking would be on the schedule.  I researched the area for trails and of course I chose the Ouachita Trail spanning 223 miles from Oklahoma through Arkansas.  The F.O.O.T website had a great packet of information that broke the trail down into several segments that included topo maps.  I read through the entire packet and settled on section two.  

There were warnings of wildlife: four species of venomous snakes, brown recluse spiders, ticks, etc.  All things I have dealt with in the past.  There was no mention of bears, and the thought never crossed my mind.   

We (no, I didn't hike alone) started out the Pashubbe trail head in the Winding Stair area, which was 3 or so miles off the highway down a long dirt road.  We were reaching close to 3 miles in and I was starting to get in the zone.  My steps and breathing in rhythm.  I stepped cautiously, conscious of snakes that might be sunning in the warm, spring sun.  I had just asked a question when we started to ascend this small ridge.  There was a rustle ahead of us at the top.  My first thought was it's a deer or even an armadillo rooting around in the leaves.  C thought it was other hikers.  Much to my surprise, it was a black bear WITH her two cubs no less than twenty feet from us. 

Panic quickly set in.  I was not mentally prepared for the possibility of seeing a bear.  I knew we had no where to go.  She can climb trees, and outrun us.  We slowly started to back away hoping for the best possible outcome.  She tolerated our presence and quickly got out of our way with her cubs scampering behind her.  It was surreal.  Time slowed, almost standing still, but yet it happened in a matter of seconds.  I could hear my heartbeat and see it pulsing through my skin.  She was gone.  Just like that.  I took a deep breath after holding it.

I started to go for my camera in my backpack and chase her down the hill to get a shot.  Then I realized I didn't want to chance it.  She might not be nice twice. 

The remainder of the hike I was agitated.  My sense of hearing all of a sudden becoming very acute.  Every black stump I saw through the trees was another bear.  I could not shake the experience.  I was embarrassed and desperately searching for faith.  I almost lost my cool because I wasn't mentally prepared.

I keep going back and forth in my mind pondering if this is really a big deal or not.  After returning home and doing some research it maybe wasn't such a big deal after all.  My gut feelings were confirmed; black bears are hardly aggressive unless they are hungry or feel threatened, which means I mostly overreacted. 

Several days later, I've settled with the fact, however common it is those parts, that this is a cool story to me.  My faith was challenged.  My ability to stay calm in what I thought could be a crisis was challenged, and the exhileration of something so new to me is unforgetable.  It's not everyday you see an animal up close in the wild that could take your life with a swipe of a paw. 

In the future I will do more research no matter where I go and of course I'll heed the warnings. 

Major kuddos to the Friends of the Ouachita Trail that volunteer to keep the trail free of debris, and well marked.  An "A" rating in my book!