It’s now been ten days of camping, and the highlight has most definitely been the wildlife we’ve been surrounded by. Every morning, we wake up to birds chirping, crickets and grasshoppers playing their orchestra, and chipmunks scurrying about outside our tent! Wild turkey walk past with their heads down, gobbling busily to themselves, and every now and then, a chubby groundhog or raccoon pokes his nose out of the bushes to peer at us.
But there was only one animal we wanted to see: the Black Bear! This sign outside our campsite in Shenandoah National Park raised our hopes on the first day.
For three days, we trekked miles down trails where bears were spotted “just yesterday”. No bears. We scanned bushes and walked down to rivers and craned our necks to look up into trees where bears “hang out all the time”. No bears. We spoke to other campers and Park Rangers and locals and trekked some more. No bears. We learned how to identify ‘bear playgrounds’ (my name for them, not a scientific term), and walk quietly so as not to alert them. Still no bears. We even examined bear scat or droppings to figure out if the bear had passed by recently.
And on our second-last day, we ran into Eve and Pat, fellow campers and veteran outdoor enthusiasts who had video footage of a pair of baby bears gambolling in the grass at a location close by. They smiled at our eagerness and were kind enough to show us trails on our map that we should visit if we wanted to see bears. They told us that bears in the area come out in the early hours of the morning or before sunset, and that we were just going out at the wrong time.
So on our last day, we awoke to a cold morning in Big Meadows Campground, hurried through tea and breakfast and went to Limberlost Trail. We had done a recce trip the previous evening and identified the bear playgrounds that we could stake out, so we headed quickly towards them. The morning mist was just clearing, and the sounds of the forest were amplified in the quiet of the morning. There were far fewer tourists around, and the day was crisp and slightly overcast. It seemed like ideal conditions for a big fat furry black bear to want to come out and play. 1
We walked quickly and quietly, watching out for baby bears ambling about so that we wouldn’t inadvertently stumble upon them and piss off the mama bear! We found fresh bear droppings. Trekkers usually poke sticks into them so that other trekkers won’t step into them.
Bear playgrounds are large areas of trees that seem shredded somehow. They claw the soft inner bark of the trees down, and spread them around to make beds or soft nests to lie on. They also have a lot of branches lying around on the ground for some reason. I figured it was just because they’re fat and trundle through knocking small trees over, but was told that they climb trees to nibble on the branches at the top, and then drop them to the ground. Here’s a picture of one.
We walked for an hour, holding our breath almost the whole time. I jumped out of my skin every time a piece of wood snapped, but there was nothing. The forest started to come to life, with the mist clearing and the sun shining weakly through. One bear playground, two bear playgrounds, three bear playgrounds, and still no bear. By the time we reached the fourth and last one, we were starting to lose hope. It was almost a feeling of disbelief that three days of bear chasing had resulted in no bears. We started chatting and ruing our bad luck, when suddenly, we hear a loud snapping and crunching noise!
And there, sitting high up in an oak tree slightly off the main path, was a 150-pound black bear! He was perched comfortably, resting his considerable weight on the weaker branches at the top, and plucking acorns for breakfast. Standing about 100 feet away, we could hear the crunching of his powerful jaws, and see his black paw reaching out for the next acorn. It was a thrill that no picture can convey, to have tracked and found a bear, and to find such a big one.
We stood for an hour, just looking at the big guy. He could smell us, but seemed unperturbed at how close we were. Eventually, a crowd had gathered to watch him, gasping collectively each time he moved or cracked an acorn.
An hour later, all of us said our goodbyes and walked back to our campsite, warm in the knowledge that here in Shenandoah National Park, a big bear could sprawl safely on a treetop, enjoying the morning sun and a few acorns.