On top of Pine Mountain near Whitesburg, KY is the Little Shepard Trail, a 38 mile crooked “road” made from a hiking trial along the top of the mountain. When this story took place, many years ago, about half of the trail was paved with the other half being various combinations of gravel and dirt. Traffic was limited by the narrow track, the uncertain surface and the constant ascending and descending switchbacks that would have a vehicle of any significant width dangling a wheel or two to get around the curvature.
I was on my way home from a BMW motorcycle rally in Tennessee, riding my “dual sport” 1993 R100GS/PD and decided on a whim to take the trail since I’d often said I would do it “next time I’m down here”.
It was a sunny summer Sunday afternoon and there was no evidence of other humans on the trail. The views from the top are amazing, stretching 50 miles or more across the valleys to the north and over to the next range of hills nestling in this mountain’s shadow. I pottered along the trail, working around the curves and ducking the overhanging branches, stopping frequently at the overlooks to stand on the edge of the precipice, something some of us never outgrow. A wild turkey strolled across the path in front of me, waiting until the last possible moment to take flight. A large deer stood silently and watched my bike approach, the bolted into the forest, iconic white tail raised high. I wondered in my helmet where were all the other hikers and nature enthusiasts that should be enjoying this view with me. Then, looking through the leaves to the next turn ahead, I saw what I took to be a hiker’s large black dog standing on the trail looking back at me. I slowed to a crawl, not wanting to scare the dog or its unseen owner.
Then the mother bear stepped onto the path to stand beside her long-legged cub.
I stopped quickly and began to backpedal the 500 pound motorcycle, not a simple task under most circumstances, but surprisingly easy with the right incentive, so that Mama Bear would see me retreating in her field of view. She looked at me, then down at her cub, and raised up slightly on her back paws, stamped her front feet back on the ground and made a deep “woof” sound, not a bark exactly, but more of an exhalation. Not a terribly articulate sound, but very effective communication. It said, as I understood it, “I don’t think you really want to mess with us over here” and I agreed.
I knew I couldn’t turn the bike around on the narrow trail, barely as wide as the motorcycle was long, without being in a position of sitting duck for longer than it would take her to get to me, so I kept backing up. She took a sort of step toward me, more like moving her front feet forward without shifting the back. She was telling me that she didn’t really want a confrontation with this strange thing in her world, but if I had any notion of harming this cub with it, I should weigh the potential costs quite carefully. Message received, M’am, loud and clear.
I continued back pedaling, now slightly uphill. She looked at the cub, and then at me. The cub, a tall skinny thing that did resemble a large dog as much as a bear, watched me with more curiosity than apprehension. Typical adolescent, he felt no particular fear with Mom there by his side and instead was up for the adventure of exploring this new element in his world. Great, I thought, that’s all I need is for him to decide to start this way to see what motorcycles are like up close. People had been telling me for a half-century that I was “going to get killed on that motorcycle “, but I doubt this was exactly the scenario they had in mind. I had visions of hikers later encountering a young bear wearing my red motorcycle jacket, using my pocketknife to pick shards of plastic fenders from his back teeth.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, Mama gave me one last warning look, “woofed” to make it stick, and then herded her curious cub off into the bushes and down the hill. I waited for a bit to give them time to get where they were going, then started forward slowly, then accelerating hard when I got to the spot they had vacated. If she was going to catch me now, she would have to work at it. I would be fast food. I was a half mile down the trail before I slowed down to catch my breath. I’ve always loved woods riding alone and seeing wildlife is always a bonus….but I much prefer the vegetarians when it comes to sharing the trail.