I was the first at the trailhead and the air smelled fresh, sweet and damp in the forest as I started up the trail to Comet Falls in Mt Rainier National Park. Western Hemlocks and Douglas Firs towered over the trail creating a cathedral feeling of wonder and amazement. I moseyed along just absorbed by the quiet atmosphere, almost drifting into a self-absorbed trance when the bushes to my left exploded into a fury of crashing and twisting branches. I felt like I jumped right out of my skin before I stopped dead still in the middle of the trail.
A black bear climbed 6 to 8 feet up the backside of a western hemlock and then peaked around the right side of the trunk staring right at me. I had disturbed him from sleeping late under the bushes. He looked like a newly independent three-year old. Big but not as big as an adult bear, the size of a pro middle linebacker rather than a lineman. His sides bulged; he was fattening nicely for his long winter nap. His eyes showed as much fear as mine probably showed him. He pulled back around the tree and a few seconds later looked again at me from the left side of the trunk, still not sure what I was doing in his forest.
We both were trying to assess whether to run or simply ignore the other. My muscles remained tense and the adrenaline flowed freely through my arteries preparing myself to make lots of noise if he looked like he might become aggressive. After what seemed like forever but probably was only a few seconds, he slid down the trunk to the ground to peer at me through some bushes. I imagined then that he shrugged his shoulders at me. Well at least he simply turned and began to mosey up through the forest, stopping several times to feed on berries in the understory bushes. After a minute or two he had disappeared into the dense understory.
I stood, breathing heavily for a while before I relaxed enough to continue up the trail, my closest encounter ever, thrilling and scary, definitely setting the mood for a great day in Mt Rainier Wilderness.