This month's Star Letter

It’s not every month a reader’s letter contains: “I looked back, she was frothing at the mouth, eyes angry and narrowed, making deep growling noises”.

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The bear necessities

The sun was shining, the air was warm, and the outdoors was inviting as it so often is in Garrett County, Maryland. Our summers are shorter than most in the state due to living in the higher elevations of the Appalachian Mountains, but it was finally spring, and the weather was warm and inviting. It was a perfect afternoon for a mountain bike ride.

Jilly and Judy

Having finished my usual Saturday chores, I couldn’t wait to get outdoors and enjoy the summer weather. The sun was beginning to set low in the sky and a cool breeze was stirring. My husband and son had finished their chores as well, so we decided to pack up for a ride. I have often found peace and solitude in the woods, even as a child. I’ve always said the quiet of the wood’s sooths the soul. I assume I said it so often that my husband bought me a sigh that hangs over my bedroom window reading ‘I Must Go, The Woods Are Calling’….ohhh how true!

Not having the same athletic ability as my son and husband, I declined their offer to bike ‘Fork Run’ as it can be challenging, and I was looking forward to a ride to unwind and do a little thinking. I headed for the State Park with our 8-year-old mixed Shepard, Jilly while my son and husband headed for their ride of jumping logs and rocks at speeds that my 52-year-old body would hate me for in the morning.

Once at the State Park, I parked in my usual spot, unloaded my bike and clipped into my pedals. It took a while for me to get use to using clip-in pedals because if you fall and don’t ‘snap’ your feet out fast enough you’ll fall onto your face, knees or whatever hits first, I learned quickly how to ‘snap out.’

Jilly and I began the climb to the Fire Tower. The road was sandy, rocky and wet. It wound through the forest with a thick canopy of trees overhead and a peacefulness that can’t be explained. Jilly had been biking with my husband and I since she was a puppy. She learned to wait for passing traffic, to “move over” when a car approached and to stay on “her side” of the bike at a young age. She’s a terrific biking partner, a fast learner.

After completing the climb to the top, we turned onto a single trail that went deep into the woods with rocks and roots making it a bit of a challenge to navigate. Once reaching the top I was ready for the steady downhill. As the trail could sometimes be rocky and washed out, I picked my way and enjoyed the decent at a reasonable pace. Jilly and I were enjoying our cruise when we heard a very distinct CRACK in the woods; I knew all too well what had made the noise. I looked to my left and saw a huge black mama bear. Unfortunately, so did Jilly. She sprung forward not aware of the danger, wanting a closer look. As she approached the sow let out a low grumble and three black cubs scurried up the nearest tree. She turned and charged out of the woods after Jilly and me with lightning speed.

I was shocked, amazed that she was charging us. My husband and I had seen her earlier in the year crossing the trail with the three cubs and at that time were very small, newly born. We were very quiet; she looked at us and continued along her path taking her cubs into the woods.

This time was different; Jilly made the mistake of wanting a closer look and was then threatening her cubs. Jilly ran to the left side of my bike and we began to sprint down the trail. I knew for sure she would stop any minute; no mama bear would leave her cubs in a tree alone for very long, but I was wrong. She continued to chase us down the gravelly, washed out road that was littered with loose rocks and ditches due to several days of rain. I looked back expecting her to stop the chase but instead she was running flat out as fast as she could, her belly almost reaching the ground with each stride.

As I have mentioned I’m not a speedy biker, but I was that day. I was travelling down that gravel road faster than I’ve ever biked in my life. My feet were locked into my pedals and all I could think of is if I fall this huge furious bear will be on top of me in seconds and I’ll be locked on this bike with no defense. I looked back again and again, but she was NOT stopping and was beginning to gain on us. Jilly is the athlete, always has been, her tail was tucked between her legs and she was at my side running top speed.

We were approaching a spot in the road that I knew well, it’s a formation of rock and water that is always unstable and difficult to maneuver. As I approached the crevice, I knew I had to slow down or I would surely fall, so I slowed enough to get through it and then began to gather my speed again but during this time she more than doubled her distance between us. When I looked back, she was about 50 feet from me, frothing at the mouth, eyes angry and narrowed and making deep growling noises, I pictured her ripping me off my bike any minute. I pedalled harder, my legs were on fire, my mind picturing what she would do WHEN she caught me and how I had nothing to defend myself with, my cell phone was tucked tightly into my bike shorts with no way to reach it even if I did have time to make a call. The guys were long gone on their ride, probably deep in the woods and wouldn’t know I was missing for hours.

It’s interesting what goes through your mind when you’re facing extreme conditions. For some reason I kept hearing myself scream even though I wasn’t. I kept telling myself that screaming won’t help and kept reminding myself that if I should fall or if she catches me, I should keep my bike on top of me and stay very still (fat chance). Having been around animals all my life I never feared them even while working as a vet tech at a zoo and at a wildlife preserve, but this was different. I’ve never seen a beast so angry and relentless at perusing her trespassers, she was not going to stop, she just kept on running, chasing us without any sign of giving up.

Being raised Catholic and having a strong faith, I began to pray to my Guardian Angels. I know they’ve helped me out more than once as I’m one of those persons that my friends say “things seem to happen to”. I asked my Angels to wrap me in their wings, give me courage and allow me to pedal faster than I’ve ever pedalled before, and they did. I dogged rocks, jumped ditches and biked down the trail at a speed that I had no idea that I was capable of biking. The chase continued for over a mile. I continually looked back and there she was, full gallop, frothing, relentless. As we began to enter the main part of the trail that leads to the road I looked back and didn’t see her but wasn’t sure if she had really given up the chase. Nope, she was still there, full speed ahead. Jilly was tiring and so was I. I began to think about my family and the scene they would have to endure if the rangers found me mangled by this bear, it would be horrifying, something I’d rather they wouldn’t have to witness. I pedalled faster; thank goodness we were going downhill.

A yellow park gate sits at the beginning of the entrance of the Fire Tower trial and the gate has always been closed and locked. I knew as I was approaching the gate that I would have to get off my bike and drag it under the gate as I’ve done hundreds of times in the past. The thought was terrifying. If I had to stop, she would definitely catch us. I prayed again, begging for the gate to be open this one time. One last look behind me and there she was, slowing a bit but still charging forward. I rounded the corner toward the gate and, oh my gosh, my prayers had been answered…the gate was open!! I made the 90degree turn onto the paved road and biked toward my car. The mountain to my right was the mountain we had just exited; I expected to see her charging down the slope determined to let us know that we had invaded her home and threatened her cubs. I biked even faster to the car. I don’t remember putting my bike on the bike rack nor locking down the straps, but I suppose I did because my bike was still there when I got home. Jilly, exhausted and shaking, jumped into the car. I locked the doors, even though I’m not sure why and drove away looking in my rear-view mirror expecting to see her standing on the road behind me glaring at us with those angry eyes, but there was no sign of her.

On my way home, I pulled over, shaking badly. Having worked in numerous ERs and having been a Medivac nurse, I had experienced various life threating situations but never my own. The one thing I do know about myself is that I can remain in control during a crisis but would usually fall apart about an hour later and yes, that was beginning to happen.

I called a DNR [Department of Natural Resources] friend of mine and tried to calmly tell him the story. His reply was, “no one can outrun a bear, they run about 35-40mph.” I told him I was on a bike and luckily going downhill and yes, I was easily going 35-40mph. My Angels had stayed with me that afternoon, they had given me wings. I hadn’t fallen, I hadn’t even stumbled as I normally would have, maybe the old saying that ‘speed is your friend’ is true. He told me that it’s very abnormal for a sow to leave her cubs let alone for over a mile. He was thinking that she had become extremely irritable with all the visitors, hiker, and bikers that frequent the park and had invaded her home. He called a bear behaviorist that evening, who agreed with his theory. They decided to have the sow and her cubs moved to a remote area absent of humans and dogs as she obviously wanted to be left alone.

It took me about 24 hours to stop shaking especially when I would repeat the story. I feel very fortunate to have experienced such an event without being injured. It took me several months to ride the trail again, but Jilly and I have done so several times now. I carry a bear mace with me now “just in case.” I keep my Angels close and hope for no more life-threatening experiences. The outdoors is still the place where I find peace, comfort and solitude. I still look at the sign over my door that reads ‘I Must go, the woods are Calling’ and pack up and head out. I’m just a little more aware, look over my shoulder more often and keep Jilly close to my side and away from bears.

– Judy Simson

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