APALICHICOLA NATIONAL FOREST — Darry Jackson didn't believe there were bears in Florida.
"I've lived here for 64 years and I have never seen one," he said. "I think all this bear talk is just a bunch of hype designed to entertain tourists."
Jackson, a veteran outdoorsman, has spent his share of time in the woods. But as I explained to my friend, just because he hasn't encountered a black bear in the wild does not mean they don't exist.
"I've never seen Santa Claus," I said. "But he still brings me presents on Christmas."
But if we were going to encounter a black bear while we paddled the Ochlockonee River through the heart of bear country, a cool October morning was the time to do it.
Bears can be found year-round throughout the state, but these opportunistic omnivores are especially active in the autumn. Florida bears don't hibernate the same way their northern cousins do, but during the fall months, they will consume around 25,000 calories a day (the equivalent of about 45 Big Macs) in order to put on fat for the winter when food is more scarce.
Black bears will eat just about anything, including fruits, nuts and berries. They also like insects such as termites, ants and yellow jackets, as well as a variety of meats: possums, armadillos, raccoons and, of course, carrion or roadkill.
Black bears also eat human food and will consider anything we eat fair game, even if it has been left to rot in a garbage can.
In fact, during my boyhood summer camping trips in the backwoods of Maine, there was nothing my family enjoyed more than sitting on the roof of our station wagon, watching bears pick through the refuse at the local dump.
We knew, however, to give these animals a wide berth. So if you are traveling in bear country, don't take anything for granted.
For starters, bears are not as rare as you might think. The state's bear population has grown from a historic low of 300 in the 1970s to more than 3,000 today.
These mammals live mostly in isolated populations (on the North Suncoast, you'll find bears in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge), but they often wind up on the side of the road, including busy highways such as U.S. 19 in Citrus County.
While Florida black bears are not as large as their counterparts in other parts of the country, they can still do extensive damage to the front end of an automobile. The typical Florida black bear weighs between 150 and 300 pounds. But there have been exceptions; the largest adult male black bear on record in Florida weighed 624 pounds.
Just because bears are big does not mean they are slow. An adult bear can run in short bursts up to 35 mph, more than twice as fast as the quickest human.
If you come across a bear in the woods, don't run. It will only trigger the animal's natural chase response and you will find yourself in a footrace you cannot win.
Climbing a tree is also a bad idea. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, a black bear can climb 100 feet in 30 seconds. It is also common for momma bears and their cubs to nap in trees, where they assume they will not be disturbed.
If you do disturb a bear and it paws the ground, huffs and puffs, clacks and snorts, or charges, it is probably just trying to scare you off. Even though this might sound a little crazy, stand your ground and chances are the bear will move along.
Raise your arms over your head (you will look bigger) and yell, shout and even sing if you think it will scare it off. While black bears have been known to kill (and even eat) people in other parts of North America, according to the FWC, there has never been a "predatory" attack in Florida.
If you do find yourself in a wrestling match with one of these animals, put up a fight. Punch, kick or beat it with rocks, sticks or anything you can get your hands on.
As previously stated, bears will eat just about anything that smells like food, including toothpaste, deodorant, suntan lotion etc. So in bear country, pack everything in air-tight containers and hang it from a tree, well away from your campsite.
The safest course of action is to cook and sleep in different places. Ensure that your tent is a food-free zone. And clean up before going to sleep.
Forest rangers love to tell the stories about sleeping campers who have been awakened by a bear licking a hot chocolate moustache off their face. Play it safe and assume there are bears in the woods, even if you are like my friend Darry and have never actually seen one.
Which brings us back to the Ochlockonee on a recent Saturday morning: "There's your bear," I yelled as Jackson paddled by a mother and a cub relaxing in a tree a few feet from the water.
Branches snapped as the pair scampered out of the tree, one of them falling the last few feet and landing with a tremendous thud.
The bear issued a half-grunt half-growl, as if to say, "That hurt …" before sauntering off into the woods.
"Well I'll be," Jackson said. "There are bears in Florida."