I have seen one black bear on the trail while hiking in West Virginia. The encounter was awkward for both of us. We both stopped at a road crossing about 100 yards from one another. We stared at each other – me in disbelief and borderline paralysis – the bear in trying to decide how hungry he was and how tough an old-timer might taste. He decided to hunt for a more tasty breakfast and meandered into the forest. According to AppalachianTrail.org, black bears live along many parts of the A.T. and are particularly common in Georgia, the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks, and parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
While attacks on humans are rare indeed, bears can be rather brazen toward food sacks and yummy resources stored in tents. A startled bear may react aggressively and a momma will protect her cubs from idiot hikers that want to pet the youngsters. The best way to avoid an encounter while you are hiking is to make noise by whistling or talking – one of my friends gave me a bell to put on one of my trekking poles – I might sound like Santa’s sleigh, but it will give the bear a chance to move away before I get close enough to make Smoky feel threatened. I have considered singing – even on my best day, it is a little scary to listen to.
AppalachianTrail.org offers some advice to a hiker that comes nose to nose with a bear and the animal does not move away. The hiker should back off; he/she should speak calmly and firmly (if he can speak at all), and avoid making eye contact. They suggest that the hiker not run or “play dead” even if a bear makes a “bluff charge.” Yelling, making loud noises, throwing rocks, may frighten it away, however, the hiker should be prepared to fight back if necessary. If a hiker is actually attacked by a bear, he/she should fight for all they’re worth with anything at hand – rocks, sticks, fists. A bear that enters a campsite or cooking area should be considered predatory and great care should be used during the encounter.
Hiking as a family in West Virginia, we would jokingly (…I think) make sure that we had one member of the group that we could outrun – we always designated the youngest cousin as BB (Bear Bait) feeling confident that if we had to try to out run the bear, BB would be caught first and we would all be safe. Logan now runs cross country at the collegiate level!