BEAR: You were expecting a growl or something? Black bears don’t actually growl you know.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: They don’t?
BEAR: Nope. Sometimes we grunt or moan. We chomp our jaws and clack our teeth together and make a kind of a huffing sound. Sometimes we swat the ground with our paws. Those are the sounds we make when we’re unhappy. When we’re happy, we’re usually pretty quiet.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Really, no growling?
BEAR: Nope. Dogs growl. Bears—we’re so over that, evolutionarily speaking. Start growling and the next thing you know you’re licking your butt. Would you lick your butt?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Ah, no. That would be undignified.
BEAR: Well then.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: And to be clear, you’re a black bear, right? Not a brown bear, not a grizzly bear.
BEAR: That’s right. Real-deal Ursus americanus. There aren’t any brown bears—grizzly bears—in eastern North America.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Okay, well, we’re here because bear safety is a hot topic on hiking social media pages these days.
BEAR: Dude, I know. People love to bring us black bears up on hiking social media—I’m convinced that half of the people who do that are just bored and trolling for reactions. And so many of the people who respond have no idea what they're talking about--they're just repeating bear myths. You know trolling for bear dirt is right up there with trolling on Lil Nas X’s Montero music video. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: You know this? How would you know about social media?
BEAR: Popped out of the woods in front of a hiker a few weeks ago and the guy freaked out and dropped his i-phone.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: You five-fingered a guy’s i-phone?
BEAR: That’s five-clawed technically. And no. Some bears will try to get stuff from people by false charging them. Waste of energy if you ask me. Five out of ten people are wusses when it comes to black bears—just walk across the trail twenty feet in front of them and they’ll wet their pants and drop their packs. Thus the new i-phone. Was gonna give it back to the guy but figured I woulda made matters worse if I chased after him with it. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Okay, so should people be afraid of black bears and run away?
BEAR: You’re asking me to give away trade secrets, and you know what they say. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Yeah, if you tell me then you have to kill me. . .
BEAR: . . .EAT you. If I tell you I have to eat you.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Right. So would you?
BEAR: Dude. You ever heard of a black bear eating a human being?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: I’m sure it’s happened, no?
BEAR: Listen. According to available stats, two people were killed by wild black bears in the northeast in the last 70 years. Last time was 2002, in New Jersey (don't get me started on Jersey bears and their 'tudes). For New England, you have to go back to the 1940s when a bear was "suspected" of killing a guy in Vermont who was hunting bears. Statistically speaking, a person is more likely to drown in their bathtub or die of a dog bite than get killed by a black bear.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So, with those odds, I’m probably a heck of a lot more likely to die in a car accident while driving to a trailhead.
BEAR: Right. But you’re not afraid to get into your car. Isn't that interesting?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Also, I hear that you eat a lot of veggies. . .
BEAR: Ruins our image, huh?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So what gives?
BEAR: Dude, give me a break. We already get no end of crap from you guys—for instance, in Maine over 3,000 of us are shot each year—all in the course of us just minding our own business out in the woods. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: But those are licensed hunters legally hunting. . .um. . .ahem. . .
BEAR: . . .and you homo sapiens kill each other too, pretty often actually—last year alone. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: OK, OK. I agree. Too many of us are asshats, it’s absolutely true. So tell me about the chomping of teeth and huffing thing you do—and the false charging—not growling but it does sound scary—can’t blame a person from freaking out when you do that. . .
BEAR: Here’s the deal. We know you’re the apex predator on the block. We know you human beings have more than a few screws loose. So we’d just assume not be seen by you. So, most of the time, we hide. And when we don’t hide, we run. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: But sometimes you charge people.
BEAR: Yeah, but probably 95% percent of the time we hide or run. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: How come you never hear about bears hiding from people. . .
BEAR: If a tree falls in the forest, and no one sees it. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: But you’re so big—how can you hide?
BEAR: Hide from you guys? Really? Dude, you’re freaking amateurs. We’re wild animals. We’re well camouflaged to blend with the shadows in the forest. And we can smell and hear you a mile off—hear you even without your stupid bear bells. And did you know that we have a better sense of smell than dogs--five times better than that of a bloodhound in fact?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: No, I didn’t know that. So OK, 95% of the time you’re hiding or running away, and you can do that because you’re usually aware of us well before we’re aware of you. Let’s talk about the other 5%.
BEAR: Yeah, about that. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: That.
BEAR: Okay. So—when you do surprise us—which is pretty uncommon—we get freaked out. I mean, you guys are unpredictable and capable of anything. So I bump into one of you guys and I think: is this guy stalking me? Is he packing? Is this the end of me?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Oh, come on.
BEAR: No, really. Homo Sapiens= apex predator. Your ancestors booted our ancestors out of their caves and started wearing our skins, and it’s gone downhill from there. You still hunt us. Nothing has changed—and no, don’t get me started on that Uncle Tom of a bear with the stupid hat that you guys use on the trail kiosk posters, give me a break. So you freak us out, and in a close call the only thing we can think to do is to encourage you to back off before you get any ideas about skinning and eating us--
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: I suppose that’s fair. But it’s still a pretty freaky experience, out in the woods. So tell us how we can all get along. . .
BEAR: Well, for starters, don’t make things worse. Don’t be a dick. We’re already scared, so don’t yell and scream at us, throw things at us, wave hiking poles at us. . .don’t do things that make you appear more unpredictable to us than you already are. If you act like a maniac, can you blame us if we assume you’re going to attack us? All bets are off if you escalate the confrontation.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: OK, I get it, don’t escalate an already bad situation by carrying on like a crazy person. . .
BEAR: And—dude!-- don’t run away.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Why don’t run away?
BEAR: Because it implies you have a guilty conscience and really were messing with us. And that can tempt us to chase you, so that you’ll be even more scared and will tell all your asshat friends not to ever **ck with us bears again. It’s like, “Yeah, YEAH? You want some of this? Huh? You wanna mess with the bears? See what you get when you mess with the bears, hummie? See?!”
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So what should we do?
BEAR: Abide, dude, abide. Have an ordinary conversation with us. Say Excuse me, bear—you know, show some manners. Be as calm as you can and talk as calmly as you can. Eventually we’ll be able to tell you’re chill and want to be left alone, too. Could take up to five minutes—but that’s one of the most exciting five minutes you’ll ever tell your grandchildren about. Amiright?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: There’s that. But OK, what about that i-phone. . .
BEAR: Er, yeah, well, not all of us are well behaved. Some of us have picked up some bad habits. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: About that. . .
BEAR: Always one bad apple in the bunch. . .and you guys always fixate on the bad apples. I mean, have you actually watched your television news lately?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: OK, good point, train wrecks make good headlines. But trains running smoothly never make the news.
BEAR: Right. And bad boy bears make all the headlines.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Tell me about these delinquent bears.
BEAR: Happens in areas where you guys come to camp a lot. Happens for different reasons—maybe you guys start providing handouts to bears for the fun of it, so you can take bear selfies even though you know you ought not to, or it happens because you carelessly and routinely leave your food around where we can find it. Or maybe you guys get freaked out and drop your backpacks when you see us. So we take advantage and pretty soon we learn how easy it is to tweak you into “dropping the cookies.” But it’s like robbing a convenience store, you know? Not exactly grand theft, but if you do it enough you’ll get caught. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: By the rangers?
BEAR: Yeah. Caught and shot. Sad.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: “A fed bear is a dead bear?”
BEAR: They say that, but can you blame us for wanting to eat?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So let’s say that a person does everything wrong, and pisses the black bear off, or the bear is a really, really badly behaved bear, and it does attack. Now, you guys outweigh us, you have claws, you’re faster than us, you can swim and climb trees better than us. . .
BEAR: Well, don’t play dead—that’s just plain stupid. If another human being were attacking you, would you play dead? Fight back, dude—what have you got to lose?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: OK, one last scenario. Mother bear and cubs.
BEAR: Human mother and toddlers.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: What?
BEAR: Are your mommas any less protecting of their children? Just don’t be foolish. Don’t assume you know the gender of a bear and its maternity status. If you see bears, or bear cubs, and you aren’t in a confrontation with the bear, walk away immediately and keep going. Don’t make a fuss and scream. Don't linger to take photos. Don't try to get a closer look. Just go. If momma gets upset and confronts you, try talking her down. Be calm. Eventually she’ll probably realize you don’t mean any harm, and she and the cubs will go away. She’s more interested in raising her cubs than she is in getting into a tiff with you. She'd rather you were just somewhere else. Think about it.
Credits: I inserted good links into the interview to back up the bear's assertions. A lot of this information is supported by the research and experience of bear expert Ben Kilham. Read more about Kilham, his research on bear behavior, his publications, and his non-profit bear cub rehabilitation center in New Hampshire here and here. Consider making a donation to support Ben's work with orphaned bear cubs.
Photos: open source, public domain.
If hiking was a lifelong dream, what kept you from it earlier?
Some family issues kept me from doing it. But I reached a certain point in my life where I was wondering "what am I waiting for?" so I just decided to go buy some equipment and go do it. . . because none of us know how long we’re going to be here, none of us know how long we’re going to be on the planet.
And how does it feel now that you're doing it?
Amazing, absolutely amazing. This is my salvation, this is my church. It's where I find peace. I'm really glad to be out here.
Random Group of Hikers organizer Cesar Hernandez talks about his changing interests in the outdoors, backpacking, hot tent camping, and hiking and camping as a multi-generational experience.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: You grew up in Venezuela. Did you hike there, or did you start hiking after you moved to the United States?
CESAR: Growing up I did few but amazing hiking trips in Venezuela. I hiked the Roraima which is a table-top mountain between Venezuela and Brazil. I went with my dad three times when I was between 16 and 20 years old. Those trips really cemented in me a love for nature and the physical exertion of hiking. I also hiked the Avila multiple times which is a 9k+ mountain in Caracas. During my time in Venezuela, my main activity was mountain biking but not hiking.
When I moved to the US, I started eating a lot of fast food and pretty soon I put on some weight. I started running, and later trail running. In 2013 I was running ultras. I ran around ten 50k races and two 50 mile races. Sadly, in 2014 I tore my ACL. This was a very long recovery, and during my recovery process I picked up hiking as a way to get back to running at some point. I fell in love with hiking and never looked back. I found an amazing group of hikers (Random Group of Hikers) that have taught me and helped develop my hiking skills over time.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: I understand you also do a lot of backpacking and camping, even in winter, and you have got into “hot tent camping.” What appeals to you about backpacking, winter camping, and can you explain what hot tent camping is and why you like it?
CESAR: I have always liked going backpacking. In 2018, I hiked the John Muir Trail (which is the longest trail I have hiked) and I loved every part of it. There is something magical about backpacking, it makes you realize how little you actually need to get out there and be happy. All you have to do is eat, sleep and hike. Few years ago, I backpacked in winter for the first time and I was very cold. I thought it was not for me and did not do it anymore until recently. In November last year, I did a week class on mountain living in Maine. During that time, we learned a lot of things about living in the backcountry and hot tenting was introduced to me. Traditionally, it has been done by hunters for a long time, but more recently, campers have adopted it as a way to stay comfortable outside during winter. You basically put a wood stove inside your tent. There are many companies that make light stoves and light hot tents. Light enough to bring in a sled. So I placed an order for one. It was one of the best things I have done, because now my wife Vanessa can come with me and enjoy camping in winter.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Tell me more about sharing this experience with Vanessa and your children. What is it like for them?
CESAR: I started taking Vanessa camping in winter because we had a hot tent. A month later I convinced her to come with me on a regular winter backpacking trip. I think the secret is to have enough experience and pick a good day so anyone that is getting introduced to it can have a good trip. I think that’s key if you want to bring someone that is just experiencing it for the first time. My wife has loved the few trips in winter we have done together. In my case, I am willing to be uncomfortable, it’s part of the fun. With my kids, since they are babies, we have taken them car camping. We have a really big tent to make sure we have enough room inside for them. One of my goals with my kids is to expose them very early to camping and nature so they see camping as normal and continue loving the outdoors as I do. I have met many adults that think car camping is super adventurous, and I want my kids to see it as a normal, regular weekend.
This winter, I did a winter trip pulling a sled near Flat Mountain Pond in NH. The place is beautiful and the trail to get there is pretty easy. My wife and I are planning to take my older daughter there this summer for her first backpacking experience. She will be 4 years old by then, and our plan is for me to carry everything, and my wife will bring one of those backpacks that can carry a child in case my daughter gets tired. I am sure we will have many car camping trips this summer as we usually do. While hiking the JMT, I saw a few families hiking the entire trail. I cannot wait to do this trip with them when they are old enough.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: You mentioned that your dad took you on hiking trips when you were living in Venezuela. What is the most important thing you learned from those trips with your dad? Do you have any plans to hike with your dad again soon?
CESAR: My dad lives in Venezuela and he comes every other year. Every time he comes, I take him hiking. He still loves to be connected with nature even though we did not hike as frequently as we could when I was living in Venezuela. I believe that if my dad never took me backpacking the Roraima when I was teenager, I might not have developed the love for the outdoors I have today. The experience from our hikes is what drives me to expose my own kids to nature. I believe connecting early with nature is important to understand and appreciate the outdoors. I am expecting my dad to come this summer again (depending on COVID restrictions). If he is able to come, I would love to bring him to the Presidentials in New Hampshire, and hopefully do a backpacking trip so we can spend some dad-son time together.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: What was one of your best/ most satisfying hiking experiences, and why?
CESAR: The most amazing trip I have done is the John Muir Trail (JMT). As I was l working, I had to rush my trip and completed the 240+ miles in 15 days. I was able to enjoy every second of my hike, but I want to come back and go slower and hopefully with my kids. For anyone wanting to do it, I would definitely recommend they do it in not fewer than 23 days. On the JMT, you go over four national parks and the scenery is out of this world. For people living in New England, you often have to get above treeline to get amazing views but the JMT offers you days and days of never-ending amazing views.
Photo credits: Cesar Hernandez
Mountain People: Hans (with Stacey, Ollie, and soon-to-arrive Madeleine) [Belknap Mountain, NH 3.21.2021]
And you moved up here?
We’re stationed in Cambridge [with the Navy]. . .[Stacey’s] folks live up in this area so we pretty much relocated up here instead of being in the Boston area.
Any good hiking plans coming up?
Well, we're one month out from having a baby so we’re kinda trying to do some simpler hikes now than we did last year, so we're probably going to be sticking around, staying close to home in this area the next few weeks, and then probably take a break once the baby is born but--I don't know when you can bring a baby up on a hike-- but as soon as we can, we’ll be back up.
Do you have a name picked out for your upcoming child?
Madeleine. Well, we haven’t officially decided but we call her that every day and so it's pretty much done deal.