Since I was a kid, I've spent a lot of time in the woods. My family has camped in state and national parks along the East Coast from Maine to Florida, and I've even hiked relatively short portions of the Appalachian Trail in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Trout fishing is something I enjoy immensely and it's an endeavor that obliges those who are serious about its practice to spend a fair amount of time in fairly remote territories. Pine needles, beach sand and leaves have served as comfortable cushions under my sleeping bags; roots, pine cones and rocks have made for unpleasant sleeping experiences.
Through all of this, I've seen an awful lot of really impressive wild things. As a boy of maybe 10, I saw a full grown bald eagle who, like me, was fishing for carp. This was back when DDT had ravaged their population, so it was an impressive sight, but I also recall it because the bird appeared to be large enough to carry off a small child. I found myself hunkering down near a tree.
Bring up deer, Pileated woodpeckers, great horned owls, dolphins, snapping turtles, small sharks, large beavers, foxes, possums, raccoons and any number of other critters and I've probably got a story or two about them.
My experience with bears, however, is greatly lacking. I've seen them in zoos, but that doesn't really count. I've been in close proximity to them. Shenandoah National Park is regarded as the preeminent national park in the U.S. when it comes to black bears per square mile and I've been there a lot. Fellow campers have seen bears even as I've slept through their escapades. This was also the case a few weeks ago on a camping trip to Pennsylvania: there was a bear in camp, seen by others, but I slept through it.
The closest thing I've got to a bear sighting was once on a family trip to the Great Smokey Mountains, a swarm of fools had gathered around a cub to offer it food and I caught a glimpse of the young bear as we drove by. Then there was the time something was tearing through a briar patch in Pennsylvania's Clark's Valley south of Tower City. It might have been a small bear or maybe a porcupine (another creature I've never had chance to encounter in the wild), but, unlike the people offering food to the young bear in the Smokey Mountains, I'm inclined to want to see my wildlife from a safe distance.
I hadn't given much thought to going out on a bear sighting expedition (I'm not inclined to want to hunt for bears) in a number of years, but lately I've been thinking about it because of all the bear sightings in and around Harford County. A few years back, when Maryland opened a hunting season for black bears, I thought it was a wonderful development because it meant there were enough bears that a group of responsible wildlife scientists thought it would be beneficial to do something to keep the population in check out in Garrett County and surrounding environs. Since then, there have been occasions when bears have ventured into Harford County.
A few of them have come and gone without consequence. One, however, met his end on the wrong end of a small caliber rifle down in Creswell. (Personally, I'm not inclined to confront a bear with a gun because of the cautionary advice offered about gun sights on guns to be used against bears. I've been told you're supposed to file them down so it doesn't hurt so much when the bear gets angry and shoves the gun where the sun doesn't shine.)
This summer, at least one bear has been showing up in the presence of people with cameras, giving it something of a celebrity status in certain circles.
I don't know what I'd do if the bear were to show up in my back yard, but I think I'd probably be inclined to make a loud noise from inside my house in an effort to frighten it away. During a snow storm two or three years ago, I got a sense of my family's reaction to a bear encounter. It was late at night, and the wind was blowing. Everything was covered in snow, and it was still coming down. From my daughter's bedroom, our dog spotted a bear-sized object in a neighbor's back yard. There was much barking, and human chatter. Everyone in the family became involved. Every light in the house was switched on. It was decided, not by me, that I would venture out into the snow and investigate. Fortunately, I didn't have to step off the porch before I discovered that the bear-sized object was nothing more than a gas grill cover that had blown off and was moving thanks to the strong winds. Everyone but the dog was satisfied with the explanation and things settled down.
Ever since the grill cover sighting, though, my interest in seeing a bear in the wild has been rekindled. There are more of them around, and to me this is good news because it is a sign that we're taking better collective care of our wild places. And it makes me think the day is coming when I'll get a good look at a bear in the wild, from a safe distance.