Wandering in the woods

A bear encounter in the backcountry

The trail I hiked in Olympic National Forest in August of 2019.

My tent was nestled in-between two old-growth trees at Fairholme Campground in Olympic National Forest in Washington. The day before my proposed hike; I watched people catch rainbow trout, the fish glistening pink and green with its black speckled body radiating in the sunlight, only to be released again into the teal-colored water belonging to Lake Crescent.

I was in awe of the land around me. Olympic National Forest is an old-growth forest and encompasses 628,115 total acres. With this astounding number in mind, my goal was to hike further into the forest to get away from the crowded campground and go to where I hoped, no one would be. I would simply be a girl, prepared one at that, in the middle of the woods, alone.

The morning of my planned hike started off like any other. I shoved thick socks on, brushed my teeth while gazing at Lake Crescent and packed my day-bag filled with hiking staples like food, water, a rain jacket, map and of course a knife. I had a can of bear spray that I clipped to the waistband of my shorts. The bright orange can accompanied me on every hike, from populated trails to trails I recall not passing a soul on.

The bright orange can of bear spray was like a welcome companion to me, always within arms reach when in my tent, sleeping or not, and provided me with the feelings of safety. In the strangest sense, the bear spray gave me similar comfort like my blue teddy bear once did when I was a child.

“Growing up on North Dakota’s Eastern Plains the only wildlife a person has to worry about is not to hit a deer or a turkey.”

-Kalley Miller, Features Editor, The Spectrum

Hiking was a time to reflect, contemplate and distance myself from the (human) world around me. It was something I had been methodically doing for two months before arriving at Olympic National Forest in my Ford Fusion, packed to the brim with gear. After having two months of experience enduring storms, questionable people and camping mishaps (i.e my tent blowing away) my level of confidence of what I would do and how I would react in emergency situations was mistakenly high.

Lake Crescent in Olympic National Forest located in Washington.

I started my hike with plans to pass a scenic lake that was just two miles in. From there the trail went further branching off to connect to yet another trail that made an eleven-mile loop and would bring me back to where I had started. After passing two people who had hiked to look at the lake, I realized I was completely alone.

The trail was muddy from the onslaught of the previous night’s rain, giving the forest an ethereal feeling with dew-drops sticking to the moss of the trees. The forest was full of thick undergrowth and the trees towered over me reaching up to the pale blue sky, something I only had glimpses of when I was in the thick of it all.

After a few hours of hiking, I started to become acutely aware of the fact I was alone and a sixth sense made me think, well if you’re going to see wildlife on your trip, this is going to be the place.

The trail wasn’t a straight path and often times winded and twisted with the elevation slowly climbing reaching the point to where I started coming across fields of blueberry and huckleberry bushes. After some time my brain jolted at me to stop. In front of me was a clearing half, covered from view.

I stopped to gaze around, to take a water break and try to peek my head around the undergrowth that concealed me. While taking my first step out of the undergrowth a cub bounded out of the side of the clearing that was obscured from view fifty feet away. While running to the opposite side of the clearing it stared at me with a playful look and jumped onto a tree-hugging it. It turned its shiny black head and stared at me.

There was only a split second of time where I savored the moment of most likely being the first human that a wild animal of the forest has ever seen. My next reaction was a string of expletives that went off in my head asking myself where in fact is the mama bear because, without a doubt, I spooked her cub.

With my bear spray now in my hand with the safety clip off, I started to back away with the cub’s eyes still locked on mine. I turned to leave to follow the trail back, with the bear’s presence in mind I thought to myself I still have five miles to hike back to get to my car.

I could visibly tell my heart was having an adrenaline rush, it’s heavy beating in the frame of my chest made it look like I was having more of a muscle spasm than having large amounts of blood redirected to my muscles. My mind turned to only one thought, survival. My hair fell out of my hair-tie and if I were to somehow have a picture of myself at that moment, I most likely would look nothing short of deranged.

I swiveled my head side to side staring into the undergrowth trying to discern if there was, in fact, something lurking in there. After fifteen minutes, I was still in the windiest parts of the trail but had thought I had put distance between me and the cub. When suddenly I hear the sound of the snapping of branches, heavy paws dragging across the ground, and the rustling of shrubs being separated. The noise echoed throughout my ears knowing well that an animal any smaller couldn’t make that much noise or destroy that much underbrush.

A second wave of adrenaline coursed through my veins with the nauseous feeling of being watched. It was apparent to me that the cub’s mother has been following me the entire time.

I picked up my step, slipping on sleek rocks along the path hoping I wasn’t blindsided. Still clutching my bear spray with my knife drawn, I thought to myself, how the tables have turned, I’m now (possibly) the hunted (only if I accidentally displayed myself as being dangerous).

After what seemed like a lifetime and an unshakeable amount of paranoia, I finally arrived at the beginning of the trail-head where my car was parked. I was safe and in one piece not even having to use my bear spray. After making a report to the National Parks staff of a bear sighting I remarked to the worker, “She saw me but I didn’t see her.”

The bear may not have had any interest in me, but more curious about what food was in my pack. Regardless of that, the one moment I will always vividly remember is when I locked eyes with the cub. Its claws buried into the bark staring at me, curious as to what I was and why I was walking through the place they called their home. In short, I have never been so close to the meaning of life itself.

Campsite at Fairholme Campground.

People may scoff at the idea of being alone in the woods or find the idea terrifying. All that matters is that you come prepared, you know your limits and are constantly aware of your surroundings. When you enter the woods you have to remember that you’re entering somebody else’s home, not yours. Wild animals are incredible and are often more scared of you than you are of them. Happy Hiking!

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