The gift of bears

Black bear at Pungo unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (cell phone photo through spotting scope taken by Keith Hanson)

Decades ago I read a book that said the bear was my birth totem. I’ve since learned that the book was written by a British author who essentially appropriated indigenous teachings and blended them with Anglo-ideology to make money. But the idea of the bear as my totem or spirit animal stuck with me. When I met a bear for the first time in the wild I felt a genuine connection that cemented that earlier belief that I might share a bond with bears in a profound, spiritual way. Since then, I’ve had numerous bear encounters, each one reinforcing our connection and gifting me with a deep appreciation for their existence. 

My first face-to-face bear encounter was brief. I was hiking the CREW Marsh Trail and had stopped to make a field note about a wildflower. When I looked up from my notepad, a black bear stepped out of the palmettos onto the trail about 30 yards away. It turned toward me, and my brain registered its two perfectly rounded ears and brownish snout. For a split second we assessed each other, both of us completely surprised, then the bear dashed across the trail and silently disappeared. My heart may have been pounding, but I felt completely centered, joyously full, humbly honored, and unquestionably linked to that bear.

From that day on I watched for bears anywhere I knew they lived. I had several other bear encounters at CREW, including a very close experience with a black bear and her cub. I was hiking alone and walking quickly since a thunderstorm was looming. I heard something climbing a tree ahead of me and looked up to find it was a bear cub. As my eyes tracked back down to the bottom of the tree, the cub’s momma stood up to check me out. She was only about 30 feet away. I immediately looked down at her feet, raised my arms and backed slowly away, talking to her the whole time, telling her she was large and in charge and I was not going to hurt her or her cub.  She huffed and her cub scrambled down the tree and scampered into the palmettos. Momma lowered down onto all four feet, turned slowly away, and followed her cub. I gave them a few minutes before I quickly continued my hike, passing the tree where the cub had climbed and watching in the direction the bears had disappeared. Momma bear stood up one more time and huffed. I took that as my signal to keep moving. I’d been given two gifts – a moment of pure magic with these two beautiful mammals and a positive bear encounter story to share.

“Always respect Mother Nature. Especially when she weighs 400 pounds and is guarding her baby.” ― James Rollins, Ice Hunt

Bear paw on my knee (this one got hit by a car)

In Yellowstone, I purposefully hike trails where grizzlies have been reported in hopes of seeing them. In Florida, I helped save a young bear that had been injured by an illegal hog trap and helped bury a bear that had been killed by a car. I visited bears up close at the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota and delighted at spotting them from a bush plane in Alaska. Each encounter was a gift.

Since moving back to NC, I haven’t spent much time looking for bears. But several friends had told us how abundant they are in the coastal plain farmlands of eastern North Carolina and especially at the Pungo Unit of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. So, when a friend invited us to tag along to Pungo on a bear watching trip, we happily accepted.

It was a delightfully cool and mostly sunny day that began with a tour of the refuge’s inner roads. We scanned fields, forests, and trees for bear silhouettes as we traveled. We stopped to enjoy the hundreds of tundra swans that have already found winter refuge here. I loved listening to the symphony of their voices, high and low-pitched calls that intermingle but allow you to pick out individual calls while also hearing a low steady hum from the group. I marveled at the many tracks on the muddy roads – deer, canids, bobcats, raccoons, and bears.

Around mid-afternoon we headed to “Bear Road” on the refuge. On the way, we spotted two black bears on a dike across a field. When we stopped and scanned the area with our binoculars, we spotted three more bears up in a tree. Two were lounging and one was exploring, hugging the tree and moving around on a large branch. On the dike a third larger bear appeared, scaring one of the first two away. A smaller bear stood up to assess the larger bear’s intentions, I suppose. Clearly they were wary of each other, paying close attention to  each other’s movements.

Bear tracks on “Bear Road” in Pungo

On Bear Road, we parked the vehicle and then walked. There was a lot of bear scat and tracks large and small, showing us the direction they travel and their preferred crossing points. Within minutes of our arrival we saw two black bears emerge from the woods, then a third larger one. We watched them awhile, trying to figure out what they were eating. The longer we lingered, the more bears we saw. A fourth and a fifth at the same edge of the woods.

We left the bears for a while to hike into the woods near Pungo Lake and let the sun sink lower in the sky. In the woods, bear signs were obvious – bear trails, claw marks on trees, rolled and torn up logs, back-scratching trees, and big sweetgums that, apparently, the bears rip the bark from to get to the resinous sap inside. Each sign was part of the story of those bears, showing us how they live and what they do when we aren’t around to see them.

As we emerged from the woods once again, more bears appeared in the corn fields by Bear Road. One started running toward the road where another group of humans were watching them. It was clearly on a mission, but was afraid to pass the group of people. Later, two smaller, young bears ambled along the edge of the field. As the sun set, one bear starting running full tilt across the field, splashed into the ditch that separated the field from Bear Road and then dashed across Bear Road into the woods behind us, water flinging from its fur. 

As the sky darkened and we made our way slowly to the car, we looked back and saw two bears emerge from the woods right where we’d been standing. A crescent moon peaked through the tree branches. A great horned owl hooted. In that moment, life was perfect.

By the end of the day we had seen 19 bears. Every sighting was a gift, every bear a beauty, every moment a joyful communion with the natural world. I was grounded, refreshed, filled with the spirit of the bears – strength, confidence, and courage – and awe. 

Note: I didn’t even bother trying to get many photos of the bears. It was more important to be in the moment with them, watching and enjoying. If you want to see really awesome bear photos from Pungo, check out this post from The Roads End Naturalist  and this one, too.


  1. Beautiful story! I agree, don’t try to take pictures while you have a great encounter, with our equipment they are just blurry spots anyway. Soak in the moment and keep the memory locked in your brain. I try to take a few pictures of panther sightings, because the park rangers like to have a record, but then I just soak it all in.

    • I’ve gotten more tuned in to how I feel and what I observe with and without taking pictures while i’m out and about, and I really do enjoy it more without the camera.

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