Ecocentricity - July 8, 2015

Foundation Blog

“And don’t shave a baby black bear.”

“And don’t shave a baby black bear.”  This was some comical, but still very much accurate, advice that I received two weekends ago. My wife and I had signed up for an introductory backpacking class through REI, and just before we set out at the trailhead, our two guides took us through the Leave No Trace principles.

For anyone thinking about hiking, backpacking and other recreation in our state and Federal parks, these are absolutely crucial. Unsurprisingly, shaving a bear constitutes leaving a trace.  Turns out this last bit of advice they gave us was a bit more applicable than anyone expected. And for those playing along at home, yes – this is a blatant use of foreshadowing.

Our destination was a campground about 1.5 miles from a trailhead in the Black Rock Mountain State Park in North Georgia. Thunderstorms had kept us off the trail until about 5:30pm that evening, but with a relatively short hike, we still expected to make camp well before dark.

Yep, more foreshadowing. Off we go. The overcast sky and light drizzle kept everyone cool as our group of nine marched single file along the narrow, challenging trail. Georgia forests are always lush, and this one was no exception. It wasn’t long before I felt the cares of everyday life slip away into the trees and mud and mountain air.

Our timing was just right. With about a quarter mile to go before making camp, I had worked up the perfect appetite for the basil gnocchi dinner that we planned to make. Few meals taste as good as those you have to earn, and so our collective anticipation was high.

Suddenly I hear from the front of our group, “Back! Back! Black bear cubs on that tree! Everybody back up!” Our guide had noticed two cubs clinging to a tree not more than 15 yards from us. Our presumption that their mother was nearby proved correct, as we saw her stroll out onto the path ahead of us a moment later.

Our guides used this as a perfect teaching moment. First, we were told that you NEVER put yourself between a mother black bear and her cubs. We immediately got into a tight group and began making plenty of noise. We waited for our noise to scare the bears off so we could proceed to the camp, keeping our distance from them in the meantime.

Except a funny thing happened. The bears didn’t budge. We hooted and hollered for a solid 30 minutes, but to no avail. The message was clear and two-fold:  these bears weren’t afraid of us, and we were on their turf.

We turned around and began the hike back out. There was no good alternative path to the campsite, and with nightfall not far away, we needed a back-up plan. The guides made the sensible decision and suggested we double back to the van and drive to a car-camping site in the park. By the time we pitched our tents and had fired up the camp stove, it was well after 10pm. As you might imagine, at that point the gnocchi tasted heavenly.

As I said, this was a backpacking class. So what did I learn? I learned many practical outdoors skills that I hope to use for the rest of my life, such as how to set a bear hang and where is best to pitch a tent. I learned that if I’m ready for dinner at 7pm after hiking for over an hour, I’ll really be ready at 10pm. I learned that living in harmony with nature means that you must respect her. I learned that sometimes, this last lesson means you should just turn around and go back.

And I learned that you should absolutely not, no matter what, under no circumstances whatsoever, shave a baby black bear.