THE hounds are running somewhere up on the desolate gray humps of the east side of the Blue Ridge, where Virginia's Rapidan Wildlife Management Area intrudes into Shenandoah National Park near Wolftown. This is prime bear hunting land, where armed men dance intricate territorial steps -- in and out of their pick-ups -- for control of the hunt.

"Bar's up there, somewhere's," said the old man with bad teeth and a greasy red hunting cap. His wrinkled face protruded from the window of his shiny four-wheel-drive.

A bear certainly is somewhere up there. Not just a bear. The bear. "My bear," in the mind of each of the hunters, because no matter whose dog is first on the trail, the purpose of the day is clear -- lining up a telescopic image of the bear in the cross hairs of a 30-06 rifle. An image chased down the mountain to the dirt road by who knows whose hound.

The hunter will squeeze and the bullet will fly and explode an ursine heart. The bear will be his then, dying, great teeth snapping at a bloody wound, long claws scrabbling in leaves and dirt, as helpless as any other animal in the face of death.

The adrenalin rush, the pounding heart as the animal crashes through underbrush, the intensity of a moment, blood -- all seem to mean nothing unless the hunters are convinced the bear is ferocious, a dangerous ravening beast. The kill is nothing without first the fear.

The black bear, deserving or not, is the east coast wilderness remnant of ancient terrors, the reflection of all the bumps and knocks in the night, shadows on the wall, screams and shuffles and roars beyond the campfires of story and memory. Everything the child's teddybear comforts against.

In some place of his own choosing the bear lurks, solitary, unknowing of the why he is hunted, perhaps uncertain yet that he is hunted. The coursing dogs could be just another noisy aggravation in the brush and ledges, an intrusion into his mountain, until they come close enough to make him run. The bear chooses to be alone, driving away all company of his kind unless the early summer mating urge is in him. The female avoids all but her young, driving even them away after the first year. Food and solitude, if you please.

The bears and dogs were in the woods. The hunters on the dirt roads. Jack Raybourne and Irwin Reynolds followed the roads, but they were a presence between the main actors on the first day of the real bear season on the Rapidan, the day the dogs were allowed, the first Monday of December.

Raybourne, a game biologist, and Reynolds, superintendent of the Rapidan Area, are officers of the Virginia Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries. They were present as a reminder of the rules, talking bear and weather with the hunters but checking hunting licenses, too.

Raybourne listened with everyone else for the sound of the hounds. His heart was with the bears, yet he hoped for the steady baying that would indicate a hot trail and the possibility of a kill.

The bear the dogs finally jump and run would more than likely be one of his. But it would be his in a quiet, practical manner. It should have one of his tags in its ear, placed there because Raybourne had drugged and hauled it from a trap, his hands in the thick warm fur, his fingers pulling back slack lips from the teeth.

Raybourne is fond of bears, but the affection takes nothing away from his alliance with the hunters, who are, after all, just another factor in the bear environment. A kill would bring him more information.

Yet he would be happier if the hunters, whose license fees pay his salary, would understand bears better.

"The bear is not a vicious animal," he said. "It won't attack a man unless it's cornered. I've handled bears more than a thousand times, and all they want is to get away from you. They'll head for the first daylight they see, even if it's between your legs.

"Of course a bear can be dangerous if someone fools with it."

A solid, muscular man of average height, Raybourne projects authority in the woods. The hunters acknowledge Kenyon and the pistol on his hip, respect his position as keeper of their woods, but they also defer to the biologist. He is the bear man, on more intimate terms with the fascinating beast.

The bear man is content.He says he could work elsewhere for more money, but it wouldn't be as interesting.

As a game research biologist for Virginia, Raybourne can live in the Shenandoah Valley, "one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen." He follows the changing population of wild animals in the northern part of the state, where the pressures of human population force intricate management techniques into use to preserve the bear and other game.

Raybourne and Kenyon follow the roads through the patchwork sections of the wildlife area, stopping at each occupied pickup for talk and license checks. The dogs are still up there, but they aren't finding anything. An occasional yap floats down the mountain and everyone who hears it stops in mid-sentence. The wind blows it away.

Bears are more intelligent than most animals, Raybourne claims. "They're much smarter than any dog you'll ever meet," he says. "A bear is able to adapt to almost anything."

As illustration, he tells about the intensive bear-trapping program at Shenandoah National Park to study the density of the animal. Soon after trapping began, he suspected human sabotage.

"We thought someone was releasing trapped bears, someone who thought the research was harassing the 'poor dumb animals' and was letting them go."

Then the trappers discovered the bears had taught themselves how to spring the trapdoor mechanism from outside the cage, letting it slam shut. Then the bears could turn the trap on its side and reopen the then safe entrance to steal the bait.

"We finally had to drive 6-foot steel stakes in the ground at each corner of the traps to stop that," said Raybourne.

Hunters began to talk about what a bad day it was for hunting bear. Most of them had been in the woods since dawn and the dogs had not called. A heavy rain had fallen the previous night, washing away all but the freshest scent. The day was "too hot for the dogs." Many hunters just sat in their pick-ups, listening for the dogs or a report on the CB, and watching the gray sky darken to the shade of the ridges.

"Shenandoah Park is like a big reservoir for bear in this part of the state," said Raybourne. "Without the park I doubt we'd have any bear to speak of around here."

Before Raybourne's bear survey no one knew how many bears were in the park. Guesses put the number at about 50. "We caught 96 bear in the first two weeks we trapped," he said. "So their guess blew out the window."

The estimate is now 300 bears -- one every square mile -- the highest bear density of any park in the country. "And the bears know the park boundaries better than any person," Raybourne said. "They know they aren't hunted up there."

Bears, looking for room to be alone, wander out of the park into the forests nearby where the hunters wait.

"I'll bet they're killing some big bears in their trucks," Raybourne said.

"Oh, yes," laughed Kenyon, lighting his pipe again. "Some of those old boys' bears get pretty big on a day like this. They'll spend all day out-lying each other."

Most bear hunters look down on other hunters, Raybourne said. Some of them won't hunt anything else, waiting all year for bear season, keeping and training expensive dogs, meeting in clubs, talking about bears.

Dogs are necessary for the hunt. Without the pack a man would need exceptional luck even to see a bear.

The day had run down, lunch long gone and the thermoses emptied of the last drops of coffee. The ridge lines became indistinct. Soon no one would be able to see the bear if it came.

A pickup stopped on the road and the weathered driver turned down his CB to talk.

"It's been a damned dry run of a day," he said. Then there was the cry of running dogs up on the mountain.

Everyone moved to a small clearing beside the road to look up the slope on the other side of the river. Radios crackled and popped, as if the Great Hunter had finally poured milk in the Rice Krispies. Trucks roared down the road, their drivers guessing where the bear might appear.

The sound of the dogs faded as the chase dropped into a hollow, then rose on a nearer ridge, stopped, then picked up again with more dogs joining the chase.

A truck skidded to a stop at the clearing. The dogs were coming this way again. The dog with the big voice seemed hot on the bear's trail. The chase came down the ridge directly toward the clearing, seemed sure to splash across the river and the road.

But the bear turned, and the sound of the hounds followed the far bank of the river back toward the high land, then faded from hearing.

An hour later Raybourne and Kenyon were almost out of the woods, nearing Graves Mill on a paved road, when they got a call on the radio from a game warden still in the woods.

"The bear came back down," he said. "One of the boys got a shot at him."

Kenyon waited long moments before he thumbed the mike switch. "Did he get him?"

"No. It was a long shot. Bear's long gone and they're calling in the dogs."

Raybourne grinned and settled back in his seat.