It must be Newfoundland retriever, I thought as I gazed at the large, black creature looking back at me from the middle of the trail about 50 yards away.
I raised my binoculars and all doubt was removed: it was a big black bear. It was looking at me, but not in an aggressive way. Its expression was more “uh oh what’s he up to” than “yum lunch.” He slowly wandered across the trail and into the woods. By the time I reached the spot, he was no longer in sight.
I was very excited. Bears are common enough in this part of New Jersey, but in all the years I have been walking the Colombia Trail I have never seen one. In fact, it is more common to see one raiding a dumpster than to come across one in the woods.
The reason is that bears are shy and have more sensitive noses than dogs; hence they will smell you coming a mile away and make themselves scarce. They also have very good reason to be frightened of humans.
I know this because I attended a lecture a few months ago called “Living with Bears.” At first I thought that this might be a talk aimed at helping women deal with the housekeeping habits of male family members. But no, it was about real bears.
Unlike grizzlies, black bears are not predators. Their diet consists mostly of vegetation, nuts and roots. They will, however, scavenge a carcass. The lecturer observed that if you are attacked by a grizzly, playing dead often works as a defense strategy. Not with black bears. They will just dig in.
Basically, they are not dangerous to humans. However, “habituated” bears can be a different story. These are not bears supporting a crack habit by preying on humans, but those that have lost their fear of us: the dumpster divers, in other words. Some people actually encourage this by leaving food out for them or not properly securing their trash. The lecturer told the story of a bald man in the area who used to coat his head with peanut butter and allow the bears in his yard to lick it off, proving that not all humans occupy the top rung of the evolutionary ladder.
The uh-oh look on “my” bear’s face, and the fact that he moved off, indicated he was not of that ilk, so I was not scared. However, if he had moved toward me aggressively it would have time for some serious pants pooping, because a human cannot outrun or out climb a bear.
Following my sighting, I called Kathie, texted the kids, and bounded down the trail with the hope I would run into someone to tell. Soon I encountered a lone woman walking along. “I’ve just seen a bear! I’ve just seen a bear,” I hollered while hopping up and down, like my 2 year old grandson does when he sees a tractor.
“Now, you’ve frightened me,” she said.
I don’t think she was talking about the bear.