Along the trail, peril comes in small packages

Along the trail, peril comes in small packages
John C. Lorson

This woodchuck, or groundhog, is proving true to his family tree as the largest member of the squirrel family. Somewhat surprisingly, the obsessively digging, ground-denning mammal enjoys a good swim now and then as well. At this time of year, the woodchuck works full time at the business of eating in preparation for hibernation.


I might have created a bit of a stir in the past few weeks while writing about a suspiciously large wet spot I found on the trail during one of my rides.

The idea it might have been the work of a roaming black bear seemed to pique the interest of a number of readers. And even though the theory was uncorroborated by any additional evidence, it hasn’t stopped readers and writers from commenting. One of my favorite responses was from a woman who, upon recognizing me as we passed each other pedaling swiftly in opposite directions on the Holmes County Trail, yelled out, “I bet it was a black bear.”

Other readers were less excited than they were concerned. More than one reader asked if the possibility of a bear encounter made it dangerous to head out on the trail. My emphatic answer to that is no. The fear of a bear encounter should not keep you from the trail.

At this point in history, the chance of coming face to face with a bear along a rail trail in Central Ohio is almost unimaginably small. And even if black bear were present in any sort of numbers, they are notoriously shy and will easily flee if they sense man is about. This is not to say those odds won’t increase in the future. After all, if you’d told me 30 years ago that I would pass nesting bald eagles on my ride to work in Millersburg each day, I’d have said you were nuts.

As black bear populations continue to grow in the far eastern part of the state, it’s not difficult to imagine an increase in the number of adolescents wandering this way looking for resources. Nature is incredibly resilient, and if there is a void to be filled, something will always step up.

Ironically, if you’re worried about trouble with critters along the trail, you’ll find a handful of infinitely less exotic creatures are much more likely to present a peril than a chance meeting with a bear.

Let’s start with the largest. I’ve had plenty of close encounters on the bike with deer over the years and have even made some evasive maneuvers to avoid collision, but I’ve never made contact with one. At the other end of the size spectrum is the diminutive chipmunk — two of which have dashed to their deaths under my spinning wheels in just the past few months. Next, we come to rodent cousins of the chipmunk: the squirrel and the woodchuck.

Squirrels, whether red, gray or fox, are an ever-present distraction at the trail’s edge. Inexplicably drawn to nuts on the other side of the trail, squirrels will, I have found, run all the way across rather than directly off of the trail no matter how near to the edge they may be as you approach. My best advice when encountering a squirrel ahead is to simply cover the brakes and stay the course. You’re far more likely to crash while trying to avoid a squirrel than from running into one.

The woodchuck is a different story. Even though born weighing less than an ounce, the woodchuck (or groundhog) packs on weight like a feeder steer. By the time momma hog kicks the young of the year out of the den in late July or August, they are already well on their way toward living their truth as the largest members of the squirrel family. The eating only increases from there.

As a true hibernator, the groundhog instinctively experiences a condition called autumn hyperphagia — or insatiable hunger in preparation for its long winter’s nap. This drives the varmint to spend nearly every waking moment eating, thinking about eating or — most consequentially for bicyclists — crossing the trail in search of more food.

Trust me: You cannot simply “thump-thump” over an 8- or 10-pound groundhog as you would a chipmunk and pedal happily off on your way. I speak from the experience of leaving skin, paint and handlebar tape on the trail when a hunger-crazed ‘hog torpedoed me from out of the rough without a split second of warning. When encountering a groundhog on or along the trail ahead, it’s best to brake a bit, create as much noise as possible and make yourself look big, then watch the critter chubbily race for safety. (I’m told the same works for black bear, just in case.)

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email

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