Meeting Bears

I like bears.  I like a lot of animals, but bears are special and I have been fortunate enough to have a number of close encounters with bears in a great number of places.  Some of these encounters have been humorous and some exciting.  Mistaking a beaver carrying a log through the underbrush for a grizzly in interior Alaska in an area where grizzly encounters have been, well… grisly, was an occasion for much relieved laughter.  Waking up in the mountains of northern California to a black bear pawing my shoulder through the tent wall sent my pulse racing and elevated me into the small group of people who have actually punched a bear.  I briefly worked in Ecuador following and catching Spectacled Bears (Tremarctos ornatus) in the Andean cloud forests.  When I was little my nick-name was Little Bear due to my love of climbing trees and the immense amount of honey that I ate, and still eat to this day.

As I said, I like bears, they feel like family.

Spring has come to Vermont and all sorts of plants and animals are waking up.  The fields are green and full of flowers, and this greenery draws animals.  On Sunday I ran across a female black bear with a single cub in a field next to my house.  I was returning from buying groceries and she was eating hers, a mid-day salad of grass and dandelions.

Female black bear and cub

I pulled into my driveway, ran inside to grab my camera, and jogged back down the road to watch her.  Shortly after I arrived a car stopped on the road next to the field and the skylined car scared her.  She gathered her cub and retreated into the forest.  Roughly toward my house.

One of the secrets to following animals is to give them time.  If they are startled and you hurry after them they will run further.  It’s a little like when you meet someone you’re interested in, you can’t push too hard, people and animals need their space.

After lunch I strolled into the forest.  There are many ways of walking and many ways of looking.  My preferred way is to let my feet and subconscious carry me along at a slow, quiet pace.  Inevitably I wind up walking on subliminally visible game trails.  Frequent pauses to look, listen, and sniff the air set a broken rhythm that seems to set animals at their ease.

Every time I cross an environmental dividing line, an ecotone, I pause.  Standing in the shade of the trees before entering a field, for example, lets you and everything else adjust.

The little trail my feet had been following had a few piles of old bear scat and some odd little fresh tears in the duff layer… maybe from a playful cub?  The trail led to the edge of a small forested wetland and I paused, looking, listening, and smelling.

Momma bear in the woods

There she was.

Black Bears (Ursus americanus) are an amazingly successful species, despite all we have done to wipe them out over the years.  Bears in general are extremely successful, but black bears are apex generalists.  They are large and powerful enough that few animals will pester them, can eat everything from pine cones to grubs to freshly caught fish and small mammals.  If they find carrion they will happily eat that with no ill effects, and they are intelligent enough not just to raid our garbage cans, but to know what models of cars are easiest to break into and how to follow ropes to where they are tied when we hang food.  They are strong enough to tear logs apart and shatter car windows with a push, but delicate and dextrous enough to open clams they have dug up and tins of food they have stolen from humans.

They are faster than we are, can smell absurdly well, something like 7 times better than a bloodhound, but have poor vision.

This female knew I was nearby.  Her sharp ears picked up my sounds, but I was down-wind and she couldn’t see me clearly.  She looked for me, even climbing a short way up a hemlock tree to get a better view.

A protective mother looking for me

Eventually the wind shifted and she caught my scent.  She swiftly trundled off.

To me bears are the wild people of the woods.  Gentle, wise, powerful, and deliberate.

Often when we encounter bears it is in a context where we have invaded their space and they are turning their talents to adapt to the changes we have imposed on them.  In those contexts neither the bears, nor ourselves know the rules of interaction.  We are both caught wrong-footed and the reactions of both parties are not what they should be.

If you are fortunate enough to encounter bears in their own habitats, and if you are comfortable there, the interaction is something else entirely.  It is an interaction of mutual respect and wary curiosity, two potentially powerful creatures meeting, aware of each other’s strength, each wise enough to not push the issue.

When you meet a bear, it is a privilege.