Black Bear Encounter
I grew up in Foxburg, a small town nestled in the confluence of the Allegheny and Clairon Rivers in the Allegheny Forest in Western Pennsylvania. It’s not uncommon to see black bears fishing in the rivers, especially in early spring when they have just woken up from their long winter’s nap.
Occasionally, one or two will wander into town during the evening to plunder garbage cans. When I was a child, I’d see them at the dump when my friend Artie, my grandpa’s handyman, took me with him. They always left when we drove up in his rickedly truck. I was taught to be respectful of them, but not afraid. My friends and I spent hours i
n the woods: building forts, climbing trees, picking wild berries. We were never afraid of the critters that lived there. We had no need to be. They respected us, too, and kept their distance.
During the 1980s, my childhood friend, Marilyn, and I bought a 100+ year-old house on 5 acres of forested land that was two and a half miles from town via a dirt road. The Allegheny River was a 3 acre walk from the house, through the forest. Trout streams on two sides flanked our property. Each spring the abundant water attracted fishermen and bears. I mean, who doesn’t like fresh rainbow trout?
When I opened up the house each March or April, I’d sweep the bugs from the screens, and doors, and make sure the basement, with its thick stone wall was free of critters. I posted our small acreage a NO HUNTING zone. Unfortunately, hunters had no respect for the designation. They ignored the signs, or tore them down completely. Each spring I’d replace them, and notify fish and game that the property was posted.
The bears made their presence known to me immediately. The second day I was there, I put some sunflower seeds out on a tall, sturdy wrought iron feeder for the birds. The following morning, it was lying on the ground, bent into the shape of a pretzel. Clearly it was not the work of birds. Within a few days I started to see signs of them in the woods occasionally: small sassafras trees with the leaves chewed off, broken bushes, and bear scat. Once my summer neighbor and I saw one watching us from the top of the hill. It was just standing there observing us. I imagine it was thinking, “There goes the neighborhood.”
And, they DID live there before anyone else. They wintered in the many caves throughout the forest, a few of which were above my house. As a kid we called them the Indian caves. It was only a matter of time before our paths crossed.
One spring morning I went into the woods after a rain to forage for mushrooms. I was hoping for morels or chanterelles, but figured I’d be happy with any thing eatable. I had read the Humane Society book on bear safety when I moved in. I knew not to run or turn my back on them. I had a push-button umbrella in the back pocket of my jeans so I could pop it and make myself look bigger than my petite 5ft 3in-height¸ 125 lb. weight. I carried a small wicker basket lined with a paper towel, a paring knife to cut the mushrooms out of the soil, and my mushroom identification book. I have never owned a gun, nor would I consider it.(Not that I think responsible people shouldn’t )
So there I was, crouching under an oak tree identifying a batch of fungi when I began to feel I was being watched. I stood up and slowly turned around. A large black bear was on the path, observing me. It was close, no more than 10 or 15 feet away. I could clearly see its face. Its dark amber eyes (similar to mine) were looking directly at me, and seemed to be eye level with mine. Fear seized me. I looked directly back at it. I forgot about the umbrella. I starting talking. Fast. think car salesman.
“ Hi,’ I’m here looking for mushrooms. See. I put them into this basket when I find them. I live down there in the red house. I bet you live in the caves. You’re probably going to the river. Well, go on ahead. I’ll just stay here. Here, have some mushrooms to go with your fish. Good luck fishing. I know you’re hungry.” I put the basket down in front of me. “ I can’t move until you leave. You have to go first. We’re neighbors. Are you the bear that wrecked my birdfeeder? It’s ok. Of course it is. How silly, of me. You can probably do anything you want. You’ll be happy to know that I have posted my property ‘No Hunting.” At some point in my monologue, the bear cocked his head, as if it was confused, or was trying to understand the words, or just pondering the crazy person it had encountered on the path. Then it turned toward the river and sauntered down the hill.
I began to tremble as if I had just had a near fatal car accident. I gave up mushroom hunting for the day. I walked home through the woods and poured myself a glass of wine, never mind it was still morning. This glass was medicinal. I sat on the back porch, sipping my wine, looking at the forest. I decided I had to continue to roam the forest, that I would go back the next day. I told myself that we, my burly neighbor and I, had reached an understanding.
And so I did. Although I spent part of most days in the forest, during the five years we owned the property, I never encountered another bear up close.
Currently I live in the high desert in California. The drought is forcing critters into town for food and water. One bear was in my neighbor’s yard a month or so ago. Although it didn’t harm anyone, and probably had no intention of doing so, fish and game killed it.
Many folks come to Sequoia National Park, and the areas surrounding Lake Isabella to camp. Bear awareness classes are taught, and a couple of weeks ago someone posted a bear aware list of things to do (or not) in the paper. Most of the advice made sense.
1. Don’t keep food in your tent.
2. Hang your food or put it into a bear-proof locker.
3. Keep fresh food out of your garbage can until trash day.
4. Don’t run if you encounter one.
5. Make yourself look big.
6. Be loud, wave your arms, and shout at it.
Then I got to the confusing part.
7. Don’t wear the same clothes to bed that you cooked dinner in. I assume this was directed at campers, but it wasn’t clear. I frequently cook supper in my jammies. I live alone, and eat whenever I want.
8. Lock your doors at night. What? Sometimes I don’t even shut mine.
I’m thinking the person who wrote the article had obviously taken The Three Bears too seriously. If a bear wants to enter your house, it’s unlikely it will use the doorknob. Even raccoons, with their nimble little fingers that could pick a lock with a paper clip if they wanted to, don’t use the door. They split the screens with their razor sharp nails. but, that’s another story.
Black bears do not want to hang out with you, or eat you. They might want to soak in the hot tub on your deck, or have the left over pizza you left in your trashcan for breakfast, or eat the sunflower seeds on your bird feeder. Mostly they want to feed themselves and their cubs, be respected and left alone. Try that. We can share the same neighborhood. Times are tough. Water is scarce, but we can still live in harmony.