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Columnist for a Day: Walk in the park turns beary bad

I've spent a fair amount of time this year hiking trails in Jacksonville's Forest Park, usually three or four days a week. Last Thursday, after several days of light rain, leaves on trails no longer crackled under my feet. I was walking silently through the woods, enjoying the fall colors, watching colorful leaves drift lazily toward the ground, and listening to the raucous sounds of ravens and jays, wind in the trees, buzzing flies, and to small streams that were gurgling once again after a long, dry summer.

I was enjoying the solitude. As I rounded a sharp bend in the trail through a manzanita patch near the shelter on the Naversen Trail, I noticed a small black object ahead, maybe a dog or burned tree stump. Then the object moved and looked at me. Crap, a bear cub.

A split second later, momma bear appeared (double crap!), looked at me, woofed softly and began walking toward me. An ideal afternoon suddenly turned bad.

I quickly scooted back around the bend in the trail out of sight, where I could hopefully pull myself together and get my air horn out of a pouch that was attached to my backpack shoulder strap. Why didn't I do that before I ran?

Every experienced hiker knows that the first rule when coming face to face with a bear in the wild is “Don't Run!” Back up slowly, speak to the bear in a normal voice and use an air horn or whistle, which are always preferable to pepper spray, unless of course the bear is charging and you have no choice but to use it.

Releasing a spray into a breeze that happens to be blowing toward the hiker rather than toward the bear can have disastrous results. I didn't go for my bottle of pepper spray because I didn't remember which backpack pocket it was in, plus I didn't want to be rummaging for it when I needed to be standing tall, facing the danger and looking as imposing as possible. But why was it in my pack anyway?

The rule is never, ever carry pepper spray in a pack. It needs to be on a belt or attached to a backpack where it can be reached easily. I have no good excuse for how I reacted, only two lame ones: I was too lazy to put it on my belt, and I didn't like it bouncing against my hip and never needing to use it.

I waited nervously, maybe a minute, for her to come around the bend in the trail (hey, we were only about 50 feet apart originally, so she could have easily closed more than that distance in just a few seconds if she had been after me). Lucky for me, she was a no-show.

After peeking timidly around the bend and seeing that she and her kids had apparently left, I could relax a bit and figure out how I was going to get back to my car. I decided to continue in my original hiking direction with my bear spray and horn in hand, and talking loudly to myself and the bears until I was out of the danger zone. Finally, I was applying what I'd learned to do, and it worked. I'm home. I'm writing this. But I'm still a little shaken and disappointed with how I reacted.

It’s one thing to educate yourself about how to react to a bear encounter but totally another to do what you've learned in a stressful situation. It's not like we live in Alaska, Montana or Wyoming where I could expect to see grizzly bears regularly. I'd be alert and on edge all the time.

We don't hear much about black bear/hiker encounters in our valley even though southwest Oregon has the highest density of black bears in the state. Now on the trails a week after my close encounter, I'm armed to the hilt with a whistle around my neck, an air horn on my shoulder strap and a bottle of pepper spray on my belt.

I'd seen bear sign throughout the park but dismissed the odds of ever seeing one up close. Well, it's obvious that I underestimated the risk. I'd come upon bears while hiking in other places but never so close and I never a sow with cubs.

I'm a little surprised that I haven't seen Bear Warning posters tacked to the park's kiosks. I guess that means nobody's been attacked yet. As for cougars, I'm aware of only one instance of one being spotted in the park, but that was a couple of years ago.

It's humiliating to admit that I failed the test for how to respond to a bear encounter. I'd gotten complacent and then lost my composure at a critical moment. Luckily there wasn't a bad outcome. Therein lies a lesson for me and anyone who spends time hiking and running on the park's trails. Large mammals in our region generally avoid humans when given the chance, unless a person gets between the adult and their offspring. If that happens, all bets are off.

Trail users should know what to do if they encounter a large predator, have their repellent paraphernalia where it can be grabbed in an instant, and when threatened don't panic, which is a lot easier said than done.

Hiking with a buddy is also a good idea. Trail runners might want to glance over their shoulders frequently, since their movement could trigger a chase response in cougars. And parents letting dogs and children out of their sight is just not a good idea.

Forest Park is a wonderful place and full of surprises, some of them unpleasant. Since the first of this year, a squirrel has peed on me from his perch on an overhead branch, someone broke into my car at the P4 parking area, I encountered a small herd of domestic chickens, I startled a skunk — and now the bears. It's been an interesting year in Forest Park.

Bob Bessey lives in west Medford.

Be a columnist for a day

Do you have something to say? Do you have a humorous take on current events or an insightful angle on the seemingly mundane? Maybe you have a view of life that will help us all see things a little more clearly. If so, email your 500-word column to features editor David Smigelski at dsmigelski@rosebudmedia.com. Please put “Columnist for a Day” in the subject line, and include your phone and city of residence. The rules are simple. Keep it short. Have a point. Don’t cuss. And make us glad we asked. If we like it, we’ll run it in the Sunday paper.