Yvonne and I are headed out west for a few weeks to cowboy and bear country (we really appreciate Yvonne’s cousin house sitting for us while we’re gone). We’ll be visiting places like Black Canyon, Bear Mountain, Snake River, and Dead Horse Point. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we run into some fierce critters along the way, maybe even a mountain lion or a grizzly. I’m taking an extra backpack just in case.
Just the thought of such an encounter brings to mind the terrifying experience I had with a mean tempered old black bear a few years ago. You may remember the story, but sometimes a good story is worth telling again.
This happened when we were visiting Yvonne’s nephew, Dean Cornett, and his family in Linefork, Kentucky. The last morning of our visit I decided to take one last hike, hoping to soak up a little more of the fresh air and serenity of the mountains before heading home.
Dean suggested the old trail that starts at a rear corner of the Cornett family cemetery and winds up the mountain to the spot where his grandpa, as a young man, had chiseled large stones from the face of the mountain. Dean said his grandpa brought those large stones down the trail with a mule-drawn sled, and that some of the stones were hauled all the way to Whitesburg to use in constructing an addition to the Letcher County courthouse in the 1930s.
Just as Dean instructed, I found the trailhead at the edge of the graveyard. At first it was easy going, but within minutes the trail became overgrown and more difficult than I had expected. It occurred to me that other than Dean hiking this trail a few times in his younger days, the rugged steep assent, which led basically to nowhere, had no doubt discouraged others from attempting it. As I struggled to find my way along the trail, encumbered only by the weight of my backpack, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fortitude and sheer determination Dean’s grandpa must have had to climb this mountain, not once but numerous times; and that each time his trek was not, as mine, for quiet solitude, but to work all day pounding rocks with a sledgehammer and chisel before slowly guiding his mule back down the mountain dragging the sled weighted down with a load of heavy slabs of stone.
After the better part of a tiring hour I arrived at the spot where Dean’s grandpa did his work. There was no sign telling me so but the remnants of a clearing and piles of chipped and broken stone were evidence enough. I was ready for a much needed rest and found a comfortable spot with a good view looking back across the valley toward Cornett’s Branch, the hollow that Dean and his ancestors have called home for more than two centuries.
Dean had mentioned spotting an old black bear up the hollow from his house the week before our visit, but the thought of seeing one on this hike had not occurred to me.
Well, I had no more than sat down and pulled a bottle of water from my backpack and started to reach for the peanut butter sandwich I’d pack for a snack when I heard a gruff snorting sound and saw a large shadowy figure in the trees off to my right.
I had no interest in waiting to see if it was a bear so I stood to my feet and prepared to hightail it back down the mountain. But before I could take the first step the shadowy figure emerged from the trees and came lumbering toward me. It surely was a bear and he didn’t look happy to see me.
I’ve always heard you shouldn’t run from a bear, which was just as well because I couldn’t have moved if I’d wanted to, even though the bear was now growling fiercely and coming fast. Suddenly he stopped, maybe 15 feet away, and stood up with his front feet raised high in the air. I don’t mean to exaggerate but at that moment he looked at least 10 feet tall, with fiery black eyes and yellowed teeth big enough to bite me in two.
I still couldn’t move my feet but somehow I found the strength to throw my backpack at him. As sure as my name is George, that bear reached out and caught that backpack in midair, then looked at me as if to say, “Hey, thanks mister.” With that, he grabbed the backpack with his big teeth, dropped to all fours, and went lumbering back into the woods without making another sound.
I was now out of danger and as my courage returned I headed back down the mountain as fast as my trembling legs would allow. When I got back to the house I told Dean about my encounter and how I’d saved myself by throwing my backpack at the bear.
As I told my story it sounded so incredulous I thought Dean wouldn’t believe it, but instead he said, “Oh my goodness, you saw Old Blackie.”
Dean went on to tell me the story his grandpa had told him as a boy, about how one day when he was working on the mountain a big old black bear had come out of the woods, and no doubt would have attacked him or his mule, if he hadn’t thrown his lunch pail at it.
Dean said his grandpa told him the bear reached out and caught the lunch pail in midair and then carried it back into the woods without making another sound. Dean’s grandpa said he never saw that lunch pail again and from then on he always took a gun with him for protection, but he never saw the bear again.
Well folks, I know that wasn’t the same old black bear Dean’s grandpa saw, but it sure must have been one of its descendants. I hope I don’t run into any bears on the trail while Yvonne and I are out west, but I’ll have a backpack handy just in case.
George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.