One fine Saturday in June, 2007, I decided to take a short hike up to the waterfall on Hickey Fork Creek. It’s a fairly easy hike, and I decided to leave my water in the car for this one. After 20 minutes on the trail I arrived at the falls, soaked in the scene for a few minutes, and then started heading back to the trailhead. Only a few hundred yards down the trail on a very steep downhill section, I was stopped dead in my tracks: there, ahead of me and shooting rapidly up a tree, was a young bear cub. Down below, on the trail itself, was the mother.
Now, normally, one does not simply walk past a mother black bear and her cubs. She took a curious stance, and looked in my direction, but didn’t move very much. I made a little noise and slowly retreated, feeling the adrenaline, while the bear watched me moving away. After a short time, I was back at the falls and what I felt was a safe distance from her and her cub.
But was my biggest concern at that point being attacked by the bear? Apparently not, seeing as she didn’t even move. I was much more likely to see her disappearing away from me through the rhododendron than to get attacked. Even if she did charge my way, the chances of an actual attack are pretty low. Not absent, but low. But this encounter left me with another dilemma.
Between me and my vehicle was a family of bears that I did not want to disturb any further. The falls is located in a steep, rugged valley, making the possibility of finding a safe bypass a slim one. Looking at the map (which I thankfully did bring) and weighing my options as afternoon wore on, I spied another trail that joined with the one I was on further up the mountain and looped back down the next valley to reach the trailhead where I was parked. I quickly decided to take this route. But not until I was on the dry ridgeline searching for the connecting trail, after climbing 1500′ up an insanely steep ridge on a windy, hot day, did I realize that I had no water, and was quite thirsty – dehydrated, even.
The connecting trail did not appear soon, and when I finally found it, it was not heading in the right direction. It was wildly overgrown and difficult to follow. I was beginning to think I might have to spend the night on the mountain. With…no…water.
So, you see, the bear gave me a much bigger problem without so much as making a move. My only choice at this point was to return the way I came and hope that the bear had gone on her way, which I did, and she had. However, by the time I reached the falls again I was completely parched, had stopped sweating and was feeling nauseous (classic signs of dehydration).
To make it the rest of the way back to the car, I was forced to take a nice, long, refreshing drink out of the creek. After all, bad water is better than no water when it’s getting dark, you still have a mile and a half to hike, and it’s getting dark. This water wasn’t so bad – it was cold, clear, and tasted great, even – but drinking straight from a stream is not really a good idea due to the various bacteria and flagellated protozoa which may inhabit the waters. These nasty bugs can do a number on a human digestive system, which is why purification is always recommended.
Luckily, I only came down with a mild upset stomach which lasted about 3 days. But it could have been worse. For me, it was a lesson learned and proves that the most dangerous animals in the woods might be the ones you can’t even see.