Autumn and hiking and bears, oh my!

What started off as an average hike in late October turned into a bit of a scare. Shenandoah National Park appeared to be on fire with color during my recent visit but little did I know what this trip had in store for me. The highest elevations boasted the brightest fall colors from oak, hickory, and maple trees, illustrating a typical yet breathtakingly beautiful fall day in the temperate zone.

I ventured onto a trail with a shiver due to the slight chill in the air. Not even 30 yards in – I noticed some very dry bear scat on the trail. I looked around and listened intently for a few minutes to make sure the coast was clear. The dense brush and tree cover swallows you from the outside world, and it just might be the perfect hiding place for a black bear.

Following the trail deeper and deeper, every 50 yards or so, I found fresher bear droppings. I finally came to a breaking point – while the atmosphere and trees were amazing - I had to turn back.

After loudly retracing my steps to hopefully scare off any bears, I settled on a different trail not too far from where I began. It was somewhat mesmerizing to watch the multicolored branches sway in the breeze. No sirens, no fluorescent lighting, no car horns, no computers, no distractions. This place is an escape – its calm - autumn enveloped me in a flushed serenity.

Twilight swiftly approached, and the colors began to fade with the darkness. I wandered down the trail a little longer until I filled up my camera with proof of this little adventure.

After my almost bear encounter, I conducted a little research. I discovered that Virginia is home to thousands of black bears - a few hundred of which live in Shenandoah.

This trip expanded my appreciation for wilderness, and it would not have been possible without the Weeks Act of 1911. At the time, no land on the East Coast was protected by the government, so this legislation established the forest system.

I had the privilege of visiting six national parks this year. In 2011, I hope to continue expanding my repertoire by visiting at least five new national parks. The New Year also brings great opportunities for legislators to celebrate the centennial and understand the accomplishments of the Weeks Act.

Having lived in California’s Mediterranean climate most of my life, where winters are mild and summers are hot, the changing seasons of the East are something of a wonder to me. Most people told me that I wouldn’t like the cold climate when I moved to the Washington, D.C. metro area. I think it’s now safe to say - all my life I’ve been missing something that I didn’t know I could miss.

If ever there was a comprehensive list of places in the US that people should see before they die – a national park or forest on the East Coast in autumn should be among the top choices.