Bears are scary, but they're also beautiful animals. I still remember my first close-up bear encounter clearly: I was coming round the bend of a trail, singing my head off because I'd seen fresh bear scat and wanted to make plenty of noise so it'd hear me coming.
Unfortunately I could only remember the words to silly old camp songs, so I was right in the middle of "On Top of Spaghetti" -- the part where the meatball rolls off the table, onto the floor and out the door -- when a black bear popped out of the bushes in front of me. I guess it hadn't heard my racket -- talk about being a poster child for the dangers of hiking alone in bear country!
I stared at the bear; the bear stared at me. It was beautiful, with the sun shining off its dense black fur. I was close enough to see the texture of said fur -- that's way too close. Lucky for me the bear turned and ran straight down the mountainside, kicking rocks down the slope as it went. I waited long enough to make sure no mini-bears were going to follow it, then completed the rest of the hike with bear spray in hand. I'm pretty sure my hands shook all the way back to the car.
All I can say is thank goodness it turned out well. The odds were in my favor, but surprising a bear at close range is still one of the best ways to get mauled. At least I paid attention to the signs a bear was in the area, so I wasn't caught completely by surprise... just mostly.
If I'd been playing it safe and hiking with others -- I live smack in the middle of bear country, after all -- I probably could have saved myself the scare; that bear would no doubt have heard a big group coming sooner than it noticed my warbling.
That said, this isn't a rant against hiking alone. It's just a bear story. I don't hike alone anywhere near as much as I used to -- encounters like this are one reason why -- but I still do it from time to time, so I'd be a bit of a hypocrite if I told you not to. One thing I will say, however, is that this story is proof positive of why hiking in groups is one of the most important parts of basic bear safety... and why if you do hike alone, you should be well-educated about the risks you're taking.
Until next year -- happy trails!