Schooled by a Bear

Some of you know I spend part of the year at our house on the border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We have wonderful views and gobs of wildlife. Elk trot through our neighborhood. Bobcats, skunks and turkeys occasionally visit. We also encounter black bears — so many we never leave garbage or even bird feeders out at night. Even when we take care, though, a bear sometimes shows up on our deck to take advantage of seed spilled by feeding chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and downy woodpeckers. I grab my trusty airhorn and give the bear a good blast. Gone in six seconds.

I tell you all this because I have a pretty good bear story to report.

As some of you also know, I like to ride my bike on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s not exactly a ride in a St. Petersburg park. The long ascents are murder. My nose runs. I pant and say bad words. But riding — giving my body hard work to do — is a way to maintain my own sense of wildness.  And I’ll be honest. I’ve had a few health problems over the years. At 68, I swallow a bunch of pills every morning. Maybe the challenging rides will keep the grim reaper at bay a little while longer.

I always load my bike on my top-of-the-car rack the night before a ride. It helps me get a faster start in the next day.

This morning, as I drove toward the Blue Ridge Parkway, I was surprised to see so much dirt and dust on the windshield. What the hell. How did that happen? Before I reached for the wipers, I took a longer look. The dust that had seemed abstract at first began to take the shape of distinct bear tracks. Not the tracks of a large bear, but tracks from what looked like a first-year cub or maybe two first-year cubs. Anyway, I was sure bears had been on my roof with bad intentions.

At the Blue Ridge Parkway, I unloaded my bike in almost a panic. At first, the bike looked perfect. Then I noticed a toothmark puncture on the handlebar. Kind of cool, actually. But why would bears take the trouble to climb up on my car to chew on the handlebar? Hmm. Just under the handlebar is the canvas bag where I carry a spare tire and tools. The bears, it turned out, had made short work of it — and not because they needed my tools. They were after the precious pack of energy gel I’d stuffed in there and forgotten.

I love my bears. I don’t fear them but I respect them. I respect them because they are so good at being bears. They’re wild. They’re always hungry. If you make a mistake, they will find the mistake and take advantage of your slightest moment of carelessness.

It’s aways a little humbling, and a little thrilling, to be schooled by bears.

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