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Wed, Oct. 16

Johnson: Bear encounter in Grapevine Canyon
Hiking Arizona

As I have aged and continue to hike solo, I have become a little anxious about crossing paths with a bear somewhere off the beaten path. My concerns may be unfounded but I feel like I am due.

Funny, how the smallest detail may have a significant impact on your wilderness experience, like in life. I stuffed a poncho in a cargo pocket for handy access as rain came and went. I concluded the hike and turned around but needed my glasses to read my GPS unit. I reached into my cargo pocket but no glasses. Didn’t I put them in there earlier? Perhaps I dropped them on the way up when I was taking my poncho out of my pocket. I decided to retrace my steps to look for them.

I cut off the main trail and headed for the unofficial trail by the stream. I began a gentle descent toward an oak tree that had fallen across a fence. Just beyond the flat fence I saw something big, black and hairy lumbering across my path toward the left. It hadn’t seen me yet, being somewhat below me. A bear? It turned to look at me.

Our eyes locked for a second. A few questions flashed through my mind. What will it do now that I am in its sights? Is it hungry? Do I smell like lunch?

The fence between us continued to the left, where it was not lying flat under a fallen tree. Could I get to it and over it before it got to me, putting the fence between us? Would that even matter? Before any answers came, it did an immediate about-face and flew back across the stream and up the other side of the canyon. It didn’t make a sound, like it was running on air. Had I gone deaf? I was surprised by how quiet it was but not by how fast it was. I knew I could never out run a bear.

I continued my hike back to the trailhead still scanning the ground for my glasses, the main reason I was on that path, the path which gave me a good view of the bear before it saw me. If I had descended the canyon like normal, I would have cut in front of the bear and either missed seeing it entirely or would have been “too close for comfort.” When I got back to the truck, I set my camera case in the seat and saw my glasses, in the case where I put them when I started this little adventure. Did my short-term memory loss explain why I forgot where my glasses were or was this a Divine appointment?

Black bears need a reason to attack someone. Given the option, they will retreat. So, don’t give them any reasons to become interested in you. Don’t sleep with food in your tent. Don’t eat something and wipe your “smelly hands” on your clothes. Don’t smell like lunch and you are less likely to become lunch.

Have you seen the movie, The Revenant? Don’t get between a bear and her cubs. Bears in the wild have a natural fear of humans but if they become familiar with people, they lose that fear. The latter are much more dangerous. Unfortunately, you aren’t going to know what you’re dealing with until you have to deal with it.

Next: Trailhead Thievery in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve

Ted Johnson is a columnist for The Daily Courier. Reach him by email at

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