I focus on my steps and relax into my stride, making little noise. The steady movement calms my thoughts.
I hear a rustle.
I am a fairly experienced hiker. I listen carefully. I know what a bird sounds like fluttering in a shrub, a squirrel racing among fallen limbs, a deer jumping over branches. This rustle is much larger than all of those. This rustle is heavier.
My head swivels to the right. About 15 feet away, a black bear lumbers from behind a tree. It heads back the way I came.
Terrified, I start singing while continuing to move forward. What comes to mind first, in the panic, is not a song but more like a nursery rhyme: I am here, bear, here I am, bear, here I am. I repeat that simple chorus.
I sing. I walk. I try to think clearly. I have a phone, the area has cell service, but who can I call about the bear? I continue for about 100 feet and look back, still singing. The bear has moved a similar distance in the opposite direction. Now sitting, it looks back at me.
I do not linger. I continue singing and move on, thankful that it is not chasing me.
Ironically, I spoke about bears about 90 minutes earlier. At the state park headquarters, I put trash in the dumpster. A ranger assisted me with the bear bar. We talked about bears in the region. He said “They want as little to do with you as you want to do with them.” I now see that for the lie it is. I want exponentially nothing to do with this bear.
About half a mile away, my heartbeat slows. I feel less in danger. I’m still not taking any chances. I have little vocal talent but continue to sing like a cherub. I transition to Whitney’s “I wanna dance with somebody”. A familiar song, I can sing it repeatedly, the lyrics not as important as the noise.
The trail intersects with another. My original plan was to wind back to the parking lot on that trail. This requires me to head back toward the bear, although several hundred feet downhill. That thought is not appealing. My other option is to wrap around the perimeter of the park, about five more miles. I do not have enough water for that.
I put all my panic into singing and start down the new trail. After about ten minutes, I pass a group of three guys in their early 20s. As they approach, I stop singing for the first time in about two miles. A portable speaker, playing music, hangs from one of their backpacks. I feel relieved. Any nearby bears have had time to move away from the sound.
“Hey y’all, just a heads up, I startled a bear up on Lookout Trail.”
“Oh thanks,” says the first guy, “was it a cub or an adult?”
“Definitely an adult. Not a cub and mother.”
“How much did it weigh?” This from the one in the middle.
I pause a moment. Bears are big, but their weight seems elastic, slinky. “About 200 pounds, but I’m not a great judge.” I don’t say that I wasn’t paying that much attention to the bear’s weight, but to the fact that it had four goddamn legs.
They thank me and continue along the trail. Despite the internal sarcasm, I feel massive relief at the sight of other people.
In another ten minutes, I see a house through the trees. The state park borders part of the nearby lake; private homes line the rest of it. Being near someone’s backyard does not preclude another bear sighting, but it seems less likely. I exhale. My steps lighten, buoyed by the release of the vestigial panic.