They were snug inside a tent, dozing after a long day's hike along Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains when the bear approached. Tom Dougherty froze in fear. Pat Perrine pulled her sleeping bag over her head. And Mocha, a chocolate-colored Labrador retriever, buried his nose between his paws and trembled.
For the rest of the night the bear thrashed around their Shenandoah National Park campsite, growling a little here and chewing on a backpack there. When dawn came, the bear went. But before the campers could pack and leave, it returned for another face-to-snout encounter.
"We banged on pots, yelled 'Go away bear' and 'Don't bother us bear,' but it didn't seem to have any fear of people," said the 26-year-old Dougherty, a student at Temple University in Philadelphia who was introducing his friend Perrine to her first camping experience. "That was one brazen bear."
The bear that terrorized those campers last week may have been more romantic than mean, Park rangers and state wildlife officials say. This is mating season for the black bears that live in mountains on both sides of the Appalachian Trail. During the next few weeks, while bears court and spark, rangers are offering this caveat to campers:
Beware a bear in love.
"There are a lot of love affairs going on right now," says Jack Raybourne, chief of the Game Division of Virginia's Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries. "This time of year male bears tend to roam large areas."
Park rangers from Virginia to the Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee are reporting more than the usual number of incidents between bears and campers.
Most of those encounters involve nothing more serious than the loss of a picnic lunch or a $100 backpack ripped to shreds. Occasionally the consequences are more serious.
The three injuries to campers caused by bears so far this year are the most "than at any time within my recollection," says Robert R. Jacobsen, superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, which has more bears per square mile than any other park in the United States.
An estimated 300 eastern black bears share the 300-square-mile park with 2.5 million visitors each year, and peaceful coexistence is not always the rule.
One man and his two children were hiking a park trail this year when they surprised a female bear with two cubs. The mother slashed the intruding adult with a swipe of her paw before herding the cubs into the woods.
"That was strictly a defense response and didn't indicate any aggressiveness on her part," Jacobsen says. In two other incidents, bears reached inside tents to nibble on sleeping campers.
"One camper was bitten on the ankle," Jacobsen says. "Another person was nipped on the buttock. In both cases the bears immediately left the site when they realized they had hold of more than just a peanut butter sandwich."
Bears have been known to go a long way in search of a bearable mate.
During summer mating seasons the last five years, bears have been sighted three times in suburban Washington. Last year two black bears, one with two cubs, were seen near the Capital Beltway in Fairfax County.
National park officials say bears, whether on the Beltway or in the woods, are unlikely to attack unless surprised or tempted by food.
"People are responsible for most of the problems," Raybourne says. "When a camper leaves food in his tent or the campsite he is inviting bears in. The animal is naturally going to eat if he finds literally a banquet in a picnic basket. Compared to what he finds in the woods, a pack of bacon or hot dogs is durn good pickings."
As a wild bear develops an unhealthy appetite for camp food, Shenandoah rangers say, it overcomes its fear of humans. When that happens, the bear must be captured and transported out of the park and into the George Washington National Forest.
While hunting is not allowed in the park, there is a limited bear hunting season in the forest. As a result, the tamest of the bears are usually the first to be killed.
"People cause the problems that end up costing that animal's life," Raybourne says.
But even the most timid bear is not always safe in the Shenandoah Park. Although there are no accurate figures, rangers say illegal poaching in the park is regularly committed by local hunters with dogs.
Four years ago Shenandoah National Park Ranger Douglas Bowen shot and killed three hounds that were chasing a black bear down a mountain to a valley outside the park where hunters were waiting.
Bowen's house in Madison County was surrounded by bear hunters and his life threatened. Park officials hid Bowen and his wife, then transferred him to another park in Arizona.
To avoid unpleasant encounters with hungry or amorous bears, Park rangers give each person applying for a backwoods camping permit a pamphlet with some woodsy advice. The first rule is to leave food outside the tent, suspended from a tree.
"I admit I made a fundamental mistake by not hanging up the packs," says Dougherty, who left some food in his backpack just five feet from the tent. "That was one of those million-dollar experiences you wouldn't pay a nickel for."