Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bear With Me

I suppose it was inevitable that they'd find me here. I just wish they wouldn't break my stuff.
The black bear and I have a long history that doesn't seem as though it's going to end any time soon. We went from living in North Carolina's Coastal Plain, where bears are numerous and grow big, to the Appalachian Mountains, where bears are just as common if not more so, and in many cities and towns, they have become habituated to humans.
Claw marks on the tree.
The tree in relation to the back deck
I got to experience the local bear scene early last week, when an unseen visitor came through the backyard at night, climbed a tree that I'd hung a suet feeder out for birds, grabbed the feeder and squashed the wire field fence that's stapled to our split rail on its way out. It's my fault, I know. Putting a brick of solidified animal fat, chock full of peanuts, sunflower seeds and dried fruit, is just asking for trouble. Mountain black bears are busy trying to gain as much weight as they can put on before winter sets in and food sources dry up. It's not unusual for these bears to hibernate for several weeks and even months during the harshest periods - so they need plenty of fat to get them through their long nap. Our town of Black Mountain has a growing bear problem. As people move here and the community expands, the chances of human/bear contact increases. Add the fact that many people (me included) like to attract wildlife to their yards with bird seed, and you have a recipe for disaster. It's not just bird feeders. On our street, the garbage pick-up is Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. It would be nice to take the trash out Tuesday evening instead of trying to remember to drag it out first thing in the morning, but the bears won't allow it. Since we've moved here in June, our neighborhood bruin has dined on the trash of over-eager neighbors twice - and trashed the street in the process. We're going to have to learn to live with bears, or else it's going to end badly for both the bears and us. Some folks have the twisted notion to feed bears on purpose. The practice only habituates the animals to the point where they lose their fear of humans. That track eventually leads to aggressive behavior or an attack - which can end in human fatality and always ends with a dead bear.
I've had even more direct contact with a bear since moving to western NC. While driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway between Asheville and Weaverville, I hit one with my Volkswagen Jetta. It wasn't a big deal - just a love tap really. I was driving the speed limit (35 mph I think) and a young black bear just rolled out onto the road in front of me like a boulder coming down the mountain. I hit the brakes, but I couldn't avoid the collision. By the time I stopped and got out to look for it (a yearling - maybe 60-80 pounds), the bear was gone. I searched for blood, but there was none. The only evidence it happened was the handful of black hairs I collected from the front bumper.
Hey buddy, got anything to eat?
It's just another chapter in my ongoing love/hate relationship with bears. There are the bears that live in sanctuary at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge that come running at the sound of a gunshot as though it were a dinner bell. Every year, bears steal deer killed by hunters who have been selected by permit drawing to help cull the herd there. It's happened to  my friend, Brian, twice - most recently when he was following a blood trail on his hands and knees through thick pocosin, only to come face-to-face with the biggest bear he'd ever seen, feasting on the entrails of the doe he'd shot just minutes before. Brian thought about sending a warning shot over the bear's brow, but wisely decided against it. More often than not, we see more bears than we do deer during these two-day hunts. A lot of times it seems like they're just hanging around the tree stand, waiting for me to shoot something.
And then of course, there's my best bear story of all time. I was working as a field technician on a breeding bird study in Minnesota. After a morning of censusing birds along a three-mile transect across the spruce/fir forest, I was enjoying the sunshine and scenery during the hike out. All of a sudden, there was a thunderous crashing in the trees overhead. I didn't even have a chance to look up when there was a falling black blur and a heavy thump just to my right. From out of nowhere, a black bear had fallen from the sky next to me. I know everyone says not to panic when faced with a bear, but that's exactly what I did. I ran like hell, away from the crashing, thrashing bear. But the noise behind me was going the other way. I looked over my shoulder and saw the bear was doing exactly the same thing I was - running away. So I stopped. And so did he. And we looked cautiously at one another for a long time. The distance was 30 yards. I stood as motionless as possible and sized up my bear. It was a small one - less than 100 pounds for sure - and it seemed curious now that the excitement had passed. As best I could tell, the bear just happened to fall out of a tree as I was passing by. There was no ill intent toward me, just fear, and now, intrigue. The bear took a few steps forward, sniffed the air, and took a few more. In short order, the yearling had closed the distance to an uncomfortable 15 yards and shrinking. I started looking around for trees to climb - they were all too skinny. I looked for a fallen limb to swing or a rock to throw as a weapon, but there was nothing - just me and the bear, 10 yards now. I thought about how ridiculous it was going to be to be killed by this tiny bear. It was hardly a cub really. It was going to have to chew on me for quite awhile with those tiny teeth before I finally gave up the ghost. This was going to be painful - like death by a thousand paper cuts.
I decided at that moment that I wanted to live, so I did the only thing that was left to defend myself - I bluffed him. I spread my arms out wide and puffed my chest out. The bear stopped. "Alright you bear, you're really starting to scare me now. Go away!" I bellowed. The bear rose up on its hind legs and for a split second I thought I was a gonner. But the youngster turned tail and ran the other way like a bat out of hell.
Yes friends, now I've been around some bears. Looks like that's never going to change. 


  1. Jamie, have you ever thought of being a story teller a la Garrison et al? You have great stories and the few I've heard you tell ... well, you have talent.

  2. Thanks So Yung, but let's keep in mind that I have a weak, annoying voice. Perhaps it's better I stick to print.

  3. What a great story. I thought for sure you were going to spread your arms and yell " Garrrrrrrraaaarh" at the bear, though. Everyone knows you don't talk to a bear. They can't understand english, silly! ;)
    My closest encounter was at about 25 feet. Luckily, the bear was across a small pond at Amicalola State Park and was alot more interested in the trash cans on his side, than the plump, nervous fisherman on mine.