Happy New Year to me – today I won at hiking.
I know what you’re saying – hiking is not a competitive sport. Read on and find out – today I got the win in a big way.
My daughter, Abbey, and I drove thirty minutes down to Hiwassee, Virginia to participate in the annual Virginia State Parks First Day Hike along a section of the New River Trail State Park.
The day was gray and colder than it’s been in weeks. I was a little surprised that the nine-year-old wanted to go, but she hopped in the car with me enthusiastically.
This was a tough hike to sell to a kid – three miles round trip without a mountaintop view at the end, in weather far too cold to play in any trailside streams, and there was no guaranteed (or even promised) wildlife. Not much incentive.
Still, we arrived happily (if unusually, for me, anyway) on time, though most of the other 70ish hikers had raced ahead while we were parking. Abbey and I met our hosts at the end of the parking lot and were advised that we could walk down the New River Trail for a mile or so to the head of the new side trail the group would hike, or wait in the parking lot for the van to come back and take its next load of passengers.
It was 32 degrees and windy. I chose walking to warm us both up.
It really was a full mile. She was bored after the first half mile and the “how much longer” question was posed in a variety of ways. I answered noncommittally, buying time.
Finally we found the state-vehicle-white-with-blue-license-plate van and a private property gate open allowing us access to an uphill gravel trail. Obviously the last load of van riders beat us to the trailhead. I had no idea how far behind we were, but catching up meant keeping a steady pace uphill while also keeping Abbey engaged looking for tracks in the wet, red clay at the sides of the gravel road.
And so we went, spotting deer tracks and dog tracks, and deer, coyote, and raccoon scat.
We were maybe five minutes past the gate when we heard a loud rustling in the woods between us and a meadow we were passing. We both stopped.
“What was that,” Abbey asked incredulously.
“Probably just some deer” I replied, having gotten my hopes up for spotting other large mammals one too many times.
“Sounds bigger than a deer,” she said, confident. “I think it’s a bear.”
“No, I bet it’s just several deer,” I said, as if seeing a herd of white-tailed deer up close weren’t particularly cool. (For the record, a close encounter with a herd from inside our cabin in the Grayson Highlands sent me over the moon a couple of weeks ago.)
And the the rustling crash came again, about 50 feet behind us. We turned around just in time to see a full-grown black bear (Ursus americanus) sow run across the wide trail. We were frozen with our mouths hanging open, staring at the empty space where the bear just been, when what came to fill that space but a little bear cub running to catch up with mama!
Oh! My brain was reeling. “I just saw mama bear and baby bear in the wild!” I was completely exhilarated.
And that’s when cub number two followed the family across the road.
Two cubs! Lucky us, I thought, we actually got to see a mama with her twins!
Then cub number three and, seconds later, cub number four ran by.
We waited silently to be sure the fourth cub was the last, then we calmly resumed hiking uphill . . . smiling like birthday kids with cake and letting our thoroughly blown minds settle back into working order.
I had only ever seen a black bear in the wild once before. It was from inside a state vehicle the summer I worked for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, seventeen years ago.
These bears were no more than 20 yards away from us. The big group of hikers must have scared the bears out of crossing, and when we last two, fairly non-threatening humans passed, Mama Bear felt safe enough to gather the cubs and run.
Did I mention holy crap?!
(This is where a picture of the black bears would go if I’d had the time or brain to take my camera out. I did not.)
We caught up with the main group about 15 minutes later, spurred to finish the end of the (very, very uphill) hike just so we could share our amazing bear experience.
When we reached the end of the trail, we learned all about the Hoover Color Corporation, whose recently donated former mining site we had been hiking. We stared across a man made canyon and over at a wall of Virginia clay in every shade of yellow, orange, and red.
Hoover Color took the site over in the early 20th century from an iron ore mining company, and made its money selling pigments straight from that ferrous clay.
Hoover Color is, to this day, the largest provider of pigments such as ocher, umber, and sienna. Only now they don’t need to mine the clay; they can extract their pigments while simultaneously cleaning up acid mine tailing and waste. That’s why they’ve donated the old mining land. Now that’s a company doing right by Mother Nature.
Yes, that company is excellent, but they didn’t win the hike.
Abbey and I won that hike. We may have been last up the hill, but we were the only ones who saw bears!
We finally caught up to the Department of Conservation and Recreation ranger as the hike ended, and immediately shared the joy of our sighting. He was pleased, but not surprised (which is exactly how you want a ranger to react).
It’s been so warm these past few months that the black bears haven’t begun to den up and sleep for the winter.
“But four cubs?” I asked. I thought bears could only have single cubs or twins.
The ranger replied that sow bears will adopt cubs who’ve lost their family, so this sow was likely caring for her own twins as well as somebear else’s. Wow. Maybe she wins.
Still I don’t mind taking second place to that mama bear, because if the first day of January was this incredible, 2016 is gonna be a helluva year!