Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A shaggy-something story

I had my very first bear experience at Swallow Falls State Park early this Tuesday morning. I doubt it will be my last. While I never camped until I grew up, I've heard plenty of bear stories from other campers before and since.

The prospect always excited as well as frightened me. I have a childlike fascination with wild animals, but being attacked by a large carnivore is not the way I would like to go. Travel guides claim that black bears are rarely dangerous unless you do something stupid like taunt them. A sign outside the park listing animals in the area described the black bear as "not aggressive" but warned people not to feed one.

I woke up four in the morning and left the tent to read a book by the light of a propane lantern. After about thirty minutes I decided to go back inside. I was getting cold and had no jacket, and I didn't want to walk all by myself to the shower room until the sky got lighter.

As I stood up and stretched my muscles, I heard movement. I looked into the forest, and about fifteen feet away was an animal walking on all fours. I registered it in my mind as a raccoon, though it seemed too big to be one.

After re-entering the tent, I peered outside and noticed that the "raccoon" had climbed on the picnic table to investigate the remains of our meal from the previous night. My friend briefly woke up, and I told him there was an animal outside. Right as I said that, it went away, probably having heard us talking.

By that time, I knew it was no raccoon. A few weeks earlier I had seen a raccoon on the road near my home, and it was no bigger than a cat. This animal took up at least half the table it was on. As far as I know, raccoons do not stalk camp sites waiting for campers to retire for the night so they can steal food. This deliberate, rather intelligent, behavior is associated chiefly with bears.

But I couldn't make out its color or markings, and its head shape though not its body did remind me of a raccoon's. I never previously thought of raccoons as resembling bears, even though I know scientists have had trouble deciding which one of the two a giant panda is. (Nowadays, they usually place it in the bear family.) Somehow I doubt a panda made its way to a western Maryland campground.

Only gradually did I realize what it was I had seen. For some reason, its flat-footed gait and round, bulky frame did not immediately register with me. It looked no bigger than a large dog, and it hardly made a sound the entire time. I think it was a relatively small bear, not fully grown, but I could have miscalculated its size in the dim light. It looked so innocuous I can understand why some campers make the mistake of trying to interact with them.

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