Someone once told me that black bears are just like big raccoons. That is false. For one, bears weigh 500 pounds and raccoons weigh less than a watermelon. Second, it is possible that a black bear could see you as a food item. Raccoons will never think you are on the menu, unless, dear reader, you are a crayfish or a rotting apple. The two critters do have similarities—yes, they mostly run away when you spot them rummaging around, and yes, they both enjoy dunking their faces in a good trash can. But their differences, though slight, make them irrevocably distinct.
I thought about these differences last week when I locked eyes with a big-mouthed, broad-shouldered, male black bear in the mountains of western North Carolina. While out for an evening birding stroll, a friend and I spotted a bear rocking an iron-encased garbage receptacle back and forth. The clang of metal on stone echoed through the forest as he brought the bear-proof trash can to the ground, unsuccessful in his venture for a snack. Still hungry, he explored a small parking lot looking for more potential food sources. This was typical black bear behavior and certainly no cause for alarm. My friend and I watched in awe as this hefty bear strolled across the gravel with sweeping, graceful steps.
Our sense of awe, however, quickly turned to pee-your-pants fright when the bear emerged from behind a Subaru a few paces away, bound directly for us. Holy shit. We backed up rapidly, trying not to trip as we clambered up stone steps to a clearing. Having no need for stairs, the bear ascended a steep rhododendron-covered slope, which cut the distance between us and him in half. He was ten paces away when we reached a wooden pavilion, which housed an air horn intended for bear deterrence. Ha! I thought. We’re saved!
The bear stood still now a short distance away, watching us fumble to figure out how to unleash the air horn’s obnoxious honks.
Not a flinch.
Nothing. I’ve never seen a more unfazed expression—I swear he even chuckled under his breath.
Deciding we weren’t worth his time or maybe that we weren’t quite his taste, the bear wandered off in the direction of the nearest trash can, calm and composed, fully retaining his dignity and poise.
Sweating, heaving, and heart pounding, I looked up into the sky as any shred of bravery I thought I had wafted away. I was scared shitless that I was about to be eaten, but it turned out the bear could have cared less about my bony humaneness and was far more interested in the garbage cans, which at least put up a fight.
Bears have bear agendas. They have their own daily pursuits, activities, wants, needs, and goals. Sometimes as an ecologist, the natural world can become minimized into data points to be studied, recorded, and mapped. But a critter’s sentience is palpable when you’re lucky enough to have a close encounter of any kind. That kind of scare reminds me about my own mammalian nature; that I, too, am a critter on this earth with an agenda to survive one day to the next.
Thinking about the scenario in retrospect, another dynamic has crystallized for me. Perhaps another reason—maybe a key reason, even—why the bear passed over me was due to the fact that I hadn’t showered in days. Could it be that the bear caught a whiff of some ripe scent of mine, causing him to freeze in place and seriously reconsider his options? Scientifically, I may never know. Anecdotally, I say yes, and I now proudly claim that aroma as my own home-brewed, organic, all-natural bear repellent. So far, it’s one hundred percent effective.
Jon Gorter (‘17) graduated from Calvin with degrees in English and environmental studies and holds an MS in natural resources from the University of Michigan. He enjoys fly fishing, mushroom foraging, and waterfall scrambling near his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.