The Bears Dance


Anyone who has traveled through the ridge and valley portions of Appalachian Pennsylvania, or into the Pocono Mountains of the northeast, has seen many distinctive areas on the sides of the ridges that look like large fields of rock.  Some are small, maybe only a half-acre or so;  some, like the great big “boulder field” in Hickory Run State Park, cover almost 20 acres.  Take a drive up through the Lewistown  Narrows along the Juniata River.  These “rock gardens” can be seen on both ridges on both sides of the river.  In other places they may be a bit harder to see, and certainly a lot harder to get to, but they are indeed commonplace in the mountains of Pennsylvania.  Not a tree or shrub or even a blade of grass grows in these “fields.”  They are barren rock.  How do you suppose these areas came to be?

Well of course the geologists have weighed in on the issue.  They would tell you about erosion and sedimentation and oh yes about those huge ice-sheets that covered most of  North America for thousands upon thousands of years.

But I’m here to tell you that the geologists are wrong.  Glaciers didn’t have a thing to do with these rocky patches.  Nope, it was the bears.

Bears? Yes that’s what I said.  It was the bears.  Pennsylvania’s native member of the bear family is the Black Bear, although this critter has been found in just about every color phase from coal black to blond.  A big one in Pennsylvania might top the scales at 600 pounds, but the average adult bear is a good bit smaller than that.  Bears hibernate in the winter of course – everyone knows that – but they are known to wake up in mid-winter and wander about looking for a tasty snack.  Bear’s will eat just about everything, from acorns to mushrooms to field mice to carrion, to birdseed in a backyard feeder.  Pennsylvania Game Commission officers, who often have to lure nuisance bears into a big trap to move them away, know that the best bait for a bear is a sugary doughnut!  Yep, they are omnivorous!

One thing that most folks, especially bear biologists, don’t know about our Pennsylvania Black Bears is that whatever else they like to do, they like to dance the best.  They always have – probably always will.  Just ask Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind!  Who is she you might ask?  Well Sally Ann was the third wife of the famous backwoodsman, and bear-hunter I might add, Davy Crockett!  Yep, that Davy Crockett – King of the Wild Frontier!  Sally Ann was straightening up the cabin one day when a great big humunganivorous black bear walked right in the door, probably attracted by the wafting aroma of the apple pie Sally Ann had in the oven.  Not finding the pie, the bear came for Sally.  She quickly curtsied, asked the bear if he would like to dance.  Of course he did, and the two of them waltzed their way around the cabin floor until Sally Ann slyly guided him to the door and pushed him out, quickly barring the door behind her.  History, or at least pioneer folklore, if chock full of such tales. 

So let’s get back to those big clear patches on the mountains.  Bears don’t only dance with folks they meet.  They dance with each other too.  Just as our pioneer ancestors on the mountain ridges and in the hollows used to get together for a “Saturday Night Frolic,” where music and moonshine flowed freely, so did the bears meet to dance many a night away.  Most likely this was on full moon nights, for as everyone knows, the eyesight of bears is not their strong suit – but then with a nose like they have, who needs eyesight?

There is something magical about a full-moon night, especially out in the forest.

I’m not all together sure how the word gets spread among bears that there will be a dance frolic coming up.  They don’t post notices down at the fire hall or the post office like we do.  Maybe if you’re a bear you just know.

But know they did, and dance they did. 

Pennsylvania – Penn’s Woods – has always been characterized by big timber.  Although today’s forest is mostly second growth, following the logging of the 1800s and the rampant forest fires that followed, some 70% of the state is once again covered by forests in various stages of natural succession.  There have always been areas where the forest cover was gone, perhaps killed by fire or insect invasion, maybe a ferocious windstorm, and where the ground is covered by wee little tree seedlings, grasses, and shorter shrubs.  These meadows are the areas that attracted the dancing bears – you can’t do it right in the big timber.  Picture your backyard after a passel of grandchildren have romped and frolicked around.  Grass tends to be a bit stomped down doesn’t it?  Perhaps a flower or two has been trampled.  Well what do you suppose a meadow looked like after a passel of bears had danced the night away?  Over time even the very soil beneath the grass and seedlings got stomped away, or carried away on big bear feet.  Little drops of water eventually make up mighty rivers.  Little grains of sand make the mighty ocean.  Hundreds of stomping bear feet over the eons since the mountains appeared and the bears came to live in them slowly and surely turned some of those meadows into nothing but rock.  Eventually they got too rocky to dance on, and the bears had to move along to another meadow.  With nothing but rock remaining, these old areas have stayed barren and empty of even a blade of grass.

I don’t know about you, but I can picture it clearly.  I can just see those  bears dancing arm in arm, whirling and twirling, waltzing and reeling, sashaying and stomping.  Can’t you just see it too?  Whoa now, what’s a dance without music – you just can’t do it can you?  I can see a couple of those 600 pound papa-bears playing their big bass fiddles.  I can see a couple of those smaller, dainty, lady bears, making their smaller fiddles scream and shout.  The middle-size bears are belting out a riff or two on their mouth harps.  It’s all accompanied by clapping paws and stomping feet – big bear feet.  I’ll bet those bears have doughnuts for snacks while they dance too, don’t you?  

I don’t suppose that any person, living or dead, has ever been lucky enough to catch a peek of such a frolic, but I know I’d trade my new pickup truck and a whole truck load of firewood, maybe even throw in a chicken or two, for the opportunity.  Now I know some of you out there are still a mite suspicious that maybe I’m just making this all up.  That would be an untruth.  I can look you in the eye and tell you that every word is the gospel truth.  How do I know?  Because  my Grandpa told me.  Now you can think I stretch the truth if you wish to, but you better not be casting any aspersions on Grandpa.  Grandpa was an honest man.

So the next time you’re driving or hiking along through the mountains of our beautiful Commonwealth and come upon a patch of rocks on the side of the ridge, stop and look closely for the claw marks.  Just close your eyes and imagine what that area looked like by the light of the moon, full of bears whirling the night away.  Yep, Pennsylvania is a special place.