A PHOTO CAPTION SUNDAY INCORRECTLY IDENTIFIED A NATIONAL PARK SERVICE RANGER CHECKING FOR EVIDENCE OF BEARS IN THE C&O CANAL NATIONAL HISTORIAL PARK. SHE WAS SUSAN ALBERTS. (PUBLISHED 07/13/99)

The tracks were in the soft dirt at the bottom of the empty canal bed, just below the dark opening of an old limestone cave. The forest was quiet, save for the whistle of a wood thrush. The place seemed perfect.

Park ranger Douglas Stover squatted to look, ran his fingers over the spot, and muttered, "Dog." Yeah, said his colleague, Dianne Ingram, you can see the pad prints.

This was not a bear.

Farther on, a mile or so down the canal towpath, the bark on a dead river oak had been ripped off at just the right level. Bears love to tear into dead trees hunting for scrumptious bugs. This tree, alas, bore only the work of a woodpecker.

Somewhere, though, among the rocky woods of hickory, maple and papaw along the Potomac River, where deer bound and groundhogs stand in fields of mowed oats, the American black bear has abruptly returned.

Eighteen sightings have been reported by park rangers, campers and cyclists in recent weeks in the area, where the Antietam Creek flows from the famous Civil War battlefield and into the Potomac outside Sharpsburg. Park officials could remember only two such sightings in the last decade.

The bears are probably yearlings--sort of like human teenagers--who have been kicked out by their mothers during mating season. They have been driven from the mountains by the drought and down to the river in search of water and more food, experts suspect.

Bears have been seen swimming in the Potomac, scurrying along the canal towpath, raiding bird feeders and crossing highways, sometimes with disastrous results. A young bear, scarcely bigger than a large dog, was struck and killed by a sport utility vehicle June 24 across the river in Jefferson County, W.Va.

Two bears were recently seen wandering along a street in Martinsburg, W.Va., and last month another was spotted walking through back yards and parking lots in Germantown.

But the concentration around the C&O Canal National Historical Park, which parallels the Potomac, has been most arresting, especially along the stretch between Harpers Ferry and Sharpsburg.

Late last week, rangers, who were drawing up a flier, "Bears and You," to alert park users, expressed both excitement and concern over the development.

"People around here are not used to this kind of thing," Ingram said. "I don't want to alarm anybody. I don't want it to sound like they're going to get attacked by a bear.

"I just don't want anything bad to happen," she said.

Ingram, who studied bears extensively as a national park biologist in California, explained that the ones being seen are most likely 1 1/2-year-old bears "being dispersed from their mother this time of year."

"That's the normal cycle of bears," she said in an interview in C&O Canal National Historical Park headquarters in Sharpsburg. "They're born in the winter in the den. Then they stay with their mother for a year. Then that next summer they're kicked off on their own."

These bears, which can live about 10 or 15 years, are basically adolescents. They stand only about three feet high and weigh less than 100 pounds. "They're the ones that get into trouble. They're out roaming around. They find people. They find back yards. They find garbage cans. They find campgrounds."

Especially when it's dry and food and water become scarce.

So far, she said, the bears have caused no trouble.

News of bear sightings raised eyebrows last week among campers, whose food, the rangers said, might be a tempting target for creatures alert enough to spot it in a car, strong enough to rip out the windows to get in and smart enough to teach other bears how to do it as well.

"I'm really happy now," said Laura Caplan, of Charles Town, W.Va., who learned of the bear sightings moments after setting up a riverside camp with her husband, Sid, and three children.

They're only black bears, her husband said.

"It's still a bear," she said. "We better give the kids a quick course in bear survival. And not let them out of our sight."

Local residents, though--the people who live in the stone farmhouses, tend the fields of chest-high corn and advertise "roasting pigs" for sale--were skeptical.

"It sounds hokey to me," one woman said as she hung laundry on a clothesline outside her century-old home, a one-time railroad inn, along Canal Road by the riverside.

"We've been here since 1986. I've never seen a bear. Never seen a sign of a bear. Never heard a bear. . . . I've seen chickens, cows, goats and whatnot. I've never seen a bear."

About a mile away, Bubby Crampton, 70, stood on his front porch Friday, pushed back his baseball cap and thought.

His father had seen a bear once, while he was coming home from the night shift at the Fairchild factory. But that was years ago. Crampton himself had never actually seen one.

Nor had Lynn Flook, 45, of Sharpsburg, who climbed out of his gray combine last week after mowing his oat field along the canal. He'd heard that bears migrate through the area, but he'd never seen one.

Besides, bears don't bother anything, he noted. Foxes are much more trouble. Coons, too. They eat ducks and chickens.

The most troublesome creatures ambling among sycamores and moss-covered stone blocks of the long-abandoned canal locks can be humans.

"I think the bears are too smart to hang out here," said the woman at the clothesline. "I don't think any self-respecting bear would be anywhere near this place. My only complaint around here is the people."

CAPTION: Douglas Stover, chief of resources management for C&O Canal National Historical Park, checks a man-made quarry for signs of bears.

CAPTION: Park rangers Douglas Stover and Dianne Ingram check a tree for bear claw marks only to find that a woodpecker did the damage.