Chapter Sixteen: Bear Tales

NOTE: "Semi-Rough: A North Country Journal," is now available as a complete book, that includes these on-line essays and more. If you'd like a free pdf to download to your computer, send me a note at and I'll email you a copy.

21 July 1997- "In the evening, I walked out the logging road to the fork, then straight ahead along the edge of the 'lodgepole forest.' Very quiet; almost no bird song. Then, I heard some loud sniffling noises in the brush near me. When I came over a little rise, I surprised a bear maybe twenty feet ahead of me. She woofed, and crashed off into the brush. At the same time, two cubs were suddenly shinnying up two side-by-side dead snags. They climbed fifteen feet or so in no more than two seconds! I was concerned that Mama Bear might be more aggressive once she got over her fright, so I didn't stay around to observe."

6 June 1999- "After lunch, I started to walk my swamp-glades loop. I'd only got about a quarter of the way north when I came on a sow bear and at least two [and almost certainly three] cubs. As happened the other time I disturbed a family of bears, two little ones shinnied up trees just as fast as they could go. I think a third cub did, too, but I lost track of some of them. The sow reared up on her hind legs and kind of swayed around, apparently trying to pinpoint the threat. I'm not sure she ever located me because I immediately moved back out of sight, and then returned to the house. When the cubs scampered up the trees, there was an immediate reaction from several blue jays and several robins, all squawking around the vicinity."

* * * *

We like our bears wild. We enjoy seeing them, but we expect our encounters to be brief, to be unplanned by either us or the bear, and to be over fairly quickly. Observations like those above have been rare for us, and so they add extra spice to the North Country experience. More common, but still lots of fun, are the many 30-second sightings of a bear crossing our field from the woods on one side to the woods on the other. Those are great ways to see bears.

Even under fairly natural conditions, bears can be pesky. In early spring, before their wild food plants begin to grow, they may come around houses seeking food from garbage cans, bird feeders, and dog food dishes. In midsummer, mother bears chase away their yearling cubs, so the adults can devote all their time to their new families. Then, the yearlings may seek easy pickings around homes and camps. It happens every year, but it is always "news" when a bear turns up in someone's backyard in downtown Berlin. We try to be careful, but we have done our share over the years to contribute to "bad" bear behavior. For example:

20 June 1996 -"At 8:50 p.m., Sally spotted a bear in the field near Calista's little apples. As it had on another occasion, it lay down in the field so we could barely see it. It poked around for 5 minutes or so, walked up to the top of the field, then ambled down past the small pine. It found the bird feeder, stood up next to it and sniffed at the sunflower seeds, then made quick work of pulling the whole feeder over and dragging it up in back of the roses. We had most of the windows closed because of the midges, so we couldn't see or hear it for five minutes or so. We decided to go outside to see if the bear was still there. It was. Twilight had deepened to the point at which we could only see shapes, so don't really know what it was doing. It had obviously been sitting eating sunflower seeds, and when we came out it dragged the feeder pole away from us and made some noises that we were too sure about, so we retreated to the house. We lost track of it for awhile, then about 9:30 it reappeared near where the feeder had been, and was still ambling around in back of the roses when it got too dark to see about 9:35."

We stopped feeding the birds after that, and put the bird feed away in our woodshed. That should have been the end of the story, but...

29 July 1996 - "When we got to camp from our Canada trip we found that the woodshed door was wide open, and there was plastic trash strewn everywhere. I had been storing a lot of recyclables and non-recyclables in the shed. A bear (obviously) had pulled the hook-and-eye out of the wood frame of the door, and had a jolly time strewing things around, looking for edibles [not much there, but there was the sunflower seed bag, with a little seed left in it].

"From 6:30 to 7:00 p.m., I walked out the logging road to the powerline and back. Pretty quiet, except for robins and hermit thrushes. Mosquitoes and black flies were pesky, but not so bad that I couldn't do a little bird watching. While I was gone, Sally went down the field to 'the loop' to see if the orchids were blooming [they are erect now, but blooms not open]. When she got back to the house, she saw a bear on the path to the outhouse. [She thinks it was the small one with a limp, that she had last year.] It hung around the field for about a half-hour, lying on the outhouse path, scratching on Sally's apple tree, and eventually wandering out of sight into the glades at the north end of the field. I got back just in time to see it from near the hawthorn until it went out of sight. Sally said it didn't act aggressive, but didn't show any fear, either.

"At 11 p.m., I had been dozing and Sally had been listening to the Olympics on the radio, so we hadn't heard any noise outside. I went out for a final 'constitutional,' and found the woodshed door wide open. I shined my light down the outhouse path, and there was the bear eating the rest of the sunflower seeds left from its last depredation. I made a lot of noise, shined the light on it [no effect], and threw a stick of firewood at it. It ran off, but came back shortly. I went inside for about fifteen minutes, then went back out again. The bear and the sunflower bag were both gone."

* * * *

After 1996, we limited our bird feeding to nectar for hummingbirds. That is usually safe, but not always.

27 June 1999 - "Our day started early. At 2 a.m., some unusual noise woke us. I glanced over at the dining room window, and saw a medium-sized bear trying to get at the hummingbird feeder. I yelled and Sally yelled and it retreated over toward the upper pine stump. I got dressed and went outside to take down the feeder. While I was out, Sally heard - then saw - the bear going down the path toward the dump. We yelled some more, and we later heard it crashing in the brush below the outhouse. I brought all three feeders in for the rest of the night. This is the first time a bear has paid any attention to any of the hummingbird feeders, but we know that other people have had trouble with them.

"We put one feeder back outside in the morning, and took it down again in the evening.Neither of us slept very well after the bear episode, and we were up and around shortly after 6 a.m.. Interestingly, Dixie[our cat]slept through the whole business."

We never stopped feeding the hummingbirds, but took the precaution for awhile of bringing the feeders in each night and putting them out again the next morning. This drove the hummingbirds crazy, because they like to begin feeding long before sunrise [and I don't usually function that early], but otherwise it did the trick. There were bear tracks near the house a week or so after the above episode, but we had been able to keep the bear from developing an expectation of finding food at our house. We didn't have any of that kind of trouble in subsequent years .

* * * *

Bear problems were very bad in 1997 and 1998, when folks in the vicinity were feeding bears on purpose. The feeding began incidentally by putting out seeds and scraps for the birds, squirrels, and snowshoe hares. When bears first began to show up for the handouts, it was fun and exciting to see them, and soon the feeding emphasis changed to purposely attracting them. More and more bears came for the dependable grub, and soon about twenty were appearing regularly. With continued easy pickings, they became "tame," then fearless, then aggressive. Clearly, they began to associate food with humans, and soon we and other nearby residents were beset by bears looking for treats from us, too. We stopped walking in certain areas of the woods in the evenings, because there was too much chance of running into these marauders. Could we have been hurt by them? Who knows, but big, fearless animals acting aggressively around one's front door can be off-putting. . .

22 July 1997 - "We had a bear at camp around 8 a.m. It came up the field from the north, foraging down beyond the hawthorn for awhile. It then started walking up the old road on the lower edge of the field. I crept out and around the apple tree, and took one picture. It saw me, and started to run in my direction! I shouted at it and it stopped, then ran into the woods. It started moving toward the house again, inside the woods, so I yelled again and it went off down toward the old dump."


(I'm glad I didn't want to use my mower just then.)

* * *

17 July 1998 - "Last night's bear episode was disconcerting. Around 9 p.m., a black bear came down out of the woods by the upper pine stump. I ran out, and yelled. The bear immediately ran off into the woods. However, a few minutes later, we heard noise below the house and soon saw the bear just below the outhouse. I yelled and threw sticks at it, almost hitting it a couple times. It just sat and looked at me. We went back in the house and it immediately came up the outhouse path, across the lawn, and up to the upper pine stump again."

The feeding came to an abrupt end in August of 1998, when the bear-feeders got a major scare. The story that circulated around town was that one of the bears made a serious attempt to break into the feeders' house while they were inside. Apparently what really happened was that the bear, while trying to open an ice chest that had been left on their front porch, swung it around and hit the house with it, tearing a window screen in the process. Whatever occurred, it was adequate scare to convince them to discontinue the Great Bear Picnic. Even so, it took quite awhile for the bears to outgrow their "tameness." It was very pleasant to once again be able to write journal entries like the following ones.

12 May 2000 - "We had a bear in the field in late afternoon - after we watched a minute, I scared it off. It very satisfyingly ran off as soon as I yelled. We like to see them, but don't want them to "feel at home" in the field."

30 May 2000 - "There was a small bear in the field, not far from the house, at dusk. Probably a yearling, based on size. We watched it a minute, then I 'whooped' it away into the woods below the field."

1 June 2000 - "There was a large bear down the field before breakfast. It ran away quickly when I gave it the 'banshee run' [running toward it, waving my arms, and whoop-whooping]. Dixie [the cat] doesn't like me to do it, but it is effective with bears."

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