Shenandoah Bears and Butterflies!

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Shenandoah National Park Wildlife, Copyright Michael Bencik 2015

Walking through the wild flowers along the road was like being in the middle of a ticker tape parade, but instead of pieces of paper fluttering around you, it was scores of butterflies flapping in midair. As I walk through they take flight, surrounding me with a tornado of colors. There is a constant buzzing from the bees zipping about looking for their next feast of nectar. A mother deer crosses the field, intent on the little clovers, while her two fawns dance about with out a care in the world. Deep in the woods a limb snaps and the scratching of bark notifies us of the presence of a bear. All this with in feet of Sky Line Drive in Shenandoah National Park, a 105 mile long treasure trove of natures most beautiful and wild animals.

I have never seen so many gorgeous butterflies in one location before in my life. Everything from Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, American Lady Butterflies and the great spangled fritillary are everywhere. There are so many that it’s a magical experience to walk through them. Of course it’s the profusion of wildflowers that attract them.

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Shenandoah National Park Wildlife, Copyright Michael Bencik 2015

Deer are everywhere in the park, walking casually through campsites, near the visitors center, and along the road. We were there in early August; so the spotted fawns were at the wonderful age where they are playful and stay close to the mom’s side.

Along the waterfalls and trails there are large millipedes crawling on thousands of legs. Millipedes are vegetarian, but its still best not to pick them up because they can have a fluid that will irritate the skin. Under the waterfalls, on the very damp, mossy rocks were salamanders. Hunting for worms and other yummy things, these amphibians were not the easiest to find. Also hunting along the tumbling falls was a water snake. Fish dart about from one overhang to another in the deeper pools.

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Shenandoah National Park Wildlife, Copyright Michael Bencik 2015

Near the end of our hike a woman told us there was a bear and cubs around the corner. We were at the top of an incline, on Rose River Fire road, and could see deep into the woods but there was nothing out there. Nature called so we hiked off trail, in that general direction. I heard the crunching of wood echoing up, and scratching sounds. About 100 yards from us were little black dots, dashing through the woods. There were 2, possible 3 cubs and a momma. There was a tree that had fallen on a 45-degree angle. I climbed up it to get a better look. They were so far away, but you could still see the cubs playing around the mother. All these wonderful animals we spotted along Rose River Waterfall trail.

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Shenandoah National Park Wildlife, Copyright Michael Bencik 2015

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Shenandoah National Park Wildlife, Copyright Michael Bencik 2015

Later that day we ended up in a traffic jam, two cars stopped in the middle of the road. People were taking pictures up the ridge. I jumped out, always willing to put my life at risk to get the best iPhone picture for my audience. The bear was about 25 yards up the slope, walking through the trees, snuffling along. Three adorable little cubs were scrambling around her. She took no notice of me at all. Then, as I took a few steps forward to get a better view I stepped on a branch, snapping it in two. She turned her head quizzically, and then kept on snuffling. I stepped on some twigs again and her head snapped up and our eyes met. Wow, I was getting amazing footage, how exciting.

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Shenandoah National Park Wildlife, Copyright Michael Bencik 2015

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Shenandoah National Park Wildlife, Copyright Michael Bencik 2015

Now she sauntered around in my general direction. Yeah, she was heading my way, but I am sure she was not looking for some delicate morsels any more. I would not call it a charge by any means, but it was a purposeful march.

Yvonne was yelling at me to get in the car, stating all along that I was too close. Seeing how the bear was making a fast track in my direction, I began to slowly back up, but not fast enough as far as my wife was concerned. She put the car into gear, the wrong gear it turns out, and a metallic screeching sound echoed from the engine. Well, the bear was looking me directly in the eyes when the noise startled her! Her eyes popped open as wide as they could go, and she did that head tilt thing that my dog does when she is startled. She did an about face and bolted through the woods, running right through her playing cubs. The cubs decided to hightail it out of there too. I on the other hand, was just as startled by the noise, and practically fell over getting back in the car. My wife says I was clearly panicked, and she was right. But not by the bears, but her driving.

Ironically the first time I met Yvonne, we were in Alaska in 2001. After an evening drinking with the locals, we decided to head over to the waterfall. While we were sitting on the rocks, a large bear approached us. Yvonne being from Ireland, had never seen a bear before. She was excited beyond words. She actually started walking towards the bear with her camera. The bear was twice the size of the one in Virginia, and approaching very aggressively. I have a very healthy fear of grizzly bears, having read a book on survival stories from bear attacks. I started screaming at the top of my lungs, waving my arms around in different directions so the bear knew I was not a caribou, and dancing in place. I grabbed Yvonne’s arm to pull her back, and she was like “What’s the problem?” Fourteen years later it was Yvonne who was yelling at me to get back.

That night we stopped at the campground amphitheater to learn about Bears! The ranger had a bunch of photos of black bears of all ages. There was a Q and A, and it was really informative for adults and children. Shenandoah has the largest density of bears on the East coast, and they have never had a bear attack. It is really important to follow all the rules about bears, because when bears get used to humans, it’s the bears who suffers. The park will relocate a problem bear as far away as possible. If they keep returning they will ultimately be shot. It turns out you should be no closer than 100 yards from a bear, and that you most certainly should not be in iPhone range. Yvonne was right after all. So enjoy the video, because I risked my life getting it.

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