Lions and Tigers and Bears - O My!

Okay, the lions and tigers are an exaggeration. But the bears and the "o my" are true.

During my weekend retreat in the Smoky Mountains, my friend took me hiking. I confess was a bit out of my element. I don’t consider myself a novice when it comes to physical activity, because I do work out at the gym regularly and I enjoy some pretty active hobbies like snow skiing and scuba diving. But my hiking is pretty much limited to easy nature walks and evening strolls through the neighborhood. Lynn, on the other hand, is a maniac hiker. The first day out she geared up for our outing, checked her pack to make sure we had all the emergency equipment we might need, and strapped a big jingle bell onto her belt. I made her promise to take me on an easy hike. I discovered something about Lynn this weekend – her definition of “easy” is light years away from mine.

Our first hike turned out to be four miles of steep, uneven terrain in the Great Smoky Mountain National Forest, because she wanted me to experience the beauty. Was it beautiful? Absolutely. But remember that steep road leading up to her cabin I mentioned in my last Journal entry, the one that freaked me out when we arrived? The trail we hiked made that road look as flat as a wheat field in Kansas. Not only that, but the soft moist dirt of the trail was covered with bear tracks. Yes. You read that correctly.

Lynn proceeded to educate me on the area. She informed me that the bear population has quadrupled in the past ten years, and bear sightings and maulings have risen dramatically as a result. She explained that’s why she wore the annoying bell, so we would make enough noise to alert the bears to our presence. Privately I questioned the wisdom of that, and whispered a prayer under my breath that the bears wouldn’t mistake the sound for a lunch bell. It’s kind of hard to enjoy the beauty of nature when you’re squinting through the trees looking for bears.

But we made it without becoming lunch for bears. My legs and feet hurt worse than I ever imagined they could, and I was hobbling when we got back to the cabin, but at least I slept really, really well that night.

The second day I got a lot of writing done, so we didn’t get started on our hike until close to 4:00. I was secretly hoping Lynn would give up the idea of another hike, but she was so eager to show off her mountains I couldn’t say no to her. I did tell her flat-out., “NO STEEP TRAILS!” She laughed and promised to go easy on me.

She kept her promise. We did another four miles, but this trail was perfect. Wide and mostly flat, with a few gentle rises that got my heart pumping and gave my lungs a workout, but nothing strenuous enough to make me think I would never see home again. Except…

When Lynn strapped on her jingle bell, she said almost matter-of-factly, “The only thing is, we’re getting a late start. Bears usually come out between four and six to feed. But I’m sure we’ll be okay.”

The trail was gorgeous. It ran alongside a mountain stream that gurgled and splashed over moss-covered rocks, and sent up little droplets of spray that sparkled like diamonds in the sunbeams. It’s a little hard to listen for bear movements over the sound of the stream and the jingle of Lynn’s bell and the noise of our feet crunching the fallen leaves on the trail. I concentrated on talking as loudly as I could and making as much noise as possible so the bears knew exactly where we were.

We hiked two miles up, then turned and headed back down to the trailhead without spotting any bear tracks or seeing anything alarming. I even forgot my bear watch, because we were so involved in our conversation about God’s Word and guardian angels and protection. That’s when we heard it.

Have you ever watched a nature program on television about bears? If so, you’ve seen a bear rise up on its hind legs and make an unmistakable noise. It’s not a roar, or even a growl. It’s more like a moo. Not like a cow moos. It’s deeper and more rumbly and far more alarming. It sounds like moooooooaaahhh.

Lynn and I skidded to a halt on the trail. Her eyes were as round as the tires on an eighteen wheeler as she asked, “Did you hear that?” My throat had slammed shut in complete terror, but I managed to squeak out, “Yes. What was it?” She said, “That was a BEAR!” There was one moment where we paused. And then we sprang into action. We did what you’re not supposed to do – we ran. The sound of the bell on Lynn’s belt couldn’t be heard over our piercing screams that echoed through the forest all around us.

Needless to say, I survived to write this account. We made it back to the car, and back to the cabin, and we spent the evening talking about our encounter with the mooing bear until we’d gotten enough distance that we were able to laugh about it. Shaky laughs, not more than a few tentative chuckles, really, but that’s better than screaming.

Now that I’ve returned to civilization (ahh! God bless the Internet!), I’m actually looking forward to a return trip to the cabin. Even struggling to climb steep mountains and looking over my shoulder for bears was exhilarating when surrounded on all sides by evidence of God’s creativity. But next time I’m going to wear my own jingle bell, and my finger will be cocked and ready on the button of a can of bear mace.