I haven’t seen many bears around here. When I lived in northern Maine, ten years ago or so, I saw bears all the time. All the time, as in almost every day of the summer and fall. I sometimes wondered if it was me or we just had a large population of bears.
Since much of northern Maine is becoming fallow, with old fields growing into scrubby woodland again, there is more bear habitat and better food opportunities. Sows are having twin and triplet cubs, probably because of the increased food supply.
Bears are fun to watch from a distance. When I first moved home to Aroostook County, I spotted a black bear in the field across the road, digging up potatoes left in the ground from the previous autumn’s harvest. I watched it through field glasses for about half an hour, until it had found all it wanted and ambled back into the woods. The northern black bear is a fairly small bear compared to western brown bears and grizzlies, but it still outweighs the average petite female human, and I wouldn’t want to be in a position of fending one off.
The next summer, I came close to doing that. I was alone in the early morning, hiking down a trail just a mile or so from home. I wasn’t expecting to see anything larger than a duck. But in some swamp, I encountered a young male moose, blocking the path. I don’t argue with moose.
I turned back, but stopped before taking another step. There was a bear on the trail behind me. It was about ten yards away, a little too close for comfort. I was caught in one of those situations sometimes described as “being between a rock and hard place,” but the rock could trample me and the hard place could maul me. The ditches on either side of the trail were about six feet deep and full of murky water. Bear and moose can outswim a human, no context. A bear can run as fast as a moose.
The given wisdom in dealing with black bears is to shout, wave your arms, and clap your hands. I felt like a right fool, performing gymnastic cheerleading on a dirt trail in the Maine woods, for the benefit of a bear and a moose. It did no good. Neither animal even twitched. I kept my eye on the bear. It kept its eye on me.
I suppose the bear was more interested in the moose, and the moose scent confused it. It decided to get a closer look at this strange creature walking on its hind feet. It started to close the distance.
In a bear encounter, never take your eyes off the bear. Even if a large bull moose is behind you, watch the bear. I started walking backward, closer to the moose. The moose decided it didn’t need to find out what the bear wanted, so it jumped into the swamp and waded off. That left me with the bear.
I was still walking backward, hoping I didn’t trip on a rock or branch. The bear halved the distance between us, stopped, sniffed the air, and ambled off down the trail, in the other direction, until it, too, disappeared into the trees. The scent of Deep Woods Off must have been a clue that I was not something good to eat.
I paused on the path until my heartbeat felt close to normal, then cautiously went back down the trail toward home. Yes, past the bear’s entry point into the woods, praying that it was not just duping me into a closer approach. I didn’t see it again, though, and I made it home at a regular hiking pace, let myself in the door, and thought to make a fresh cup of coffee. I got as far as the dining room when my knees weakened, and I had to lean against the wall for a few moments. Once safe, my body decided it had been brave enough, thank you, and I could very well enjoy that adrenalin it had been saving for a mad dash.
Oh, it doesn’t end there. A couple of days later, my (then) husband and I were on the trail in the other direction from town. We were supposed to be running, but he hadn’t worn the right footwear so it had become a jog, then a hike, and then a stroll. “Oh, how cute!” he exclaimed. (He is the sort of man who says ‘cute.’) “Where? What?” I asked, as the Maine woods is notably devoid of cute. Awesome, beautiful and terrifying are the more accurate descriptions. He pointed to a dead tree near the trail. There were two bear cubs in the tree.
“Nigck!” was my next comment, which is what a choked back scream sounds like.
When there are bear cubs no more than a few months old up a tree, it means mama bear is not far away.
“Tssst! Start walking back!” I whispered. “Don’t run, don’t go closer, just turn around and leave.”
“They can’t hurt us!” (And as he said this, I wondered if there are no bears at all in New Mexico, where he was raised.)
“No, but their mother can rip our heads clean off our bodies! Just quietly turn back before she knows we are here.”
The next day, I went to a sporting goods store. They tried to sell me a gun, but I bought an airhorn instead, the sort that are sold to people who want to repel muggers. I doubt they would work well on a determined mugger, who will just break your arm and take your airhorn along with your wallet, but bears do not like loud, sudden noises, and will, according to many reliable sources, flee.
And a week later, a friend visiting from Germany (where they don’t seem to have bears anymore) came to supper with me. We went for a walk in the cool evening air, looping out the walking trail a short way. We were no more than a quarter-mile from the village, and I hadn’t brought my airhorn.
“Oh, look,” she said. “Is that a dog ahead of us?”
No. “It’s a bear.”
“Oh, great! I have always been wanting to be seeing a bear!”
I picked up a rock. She picked up a rock. “There,” I said, “We are ready.”
“Are they magic rocks?” she asked. “I don’t think we can throw them strong enough to hurt the bear.” This was true, but we still held onto the rocks. I shouted and waved my arms. She gave a piercing, two-fingered whistle, very impressive for a young, seminary educated Lutheran pastor. The bear ran away. We hurried back to the village, still clutching our rocks. At the door of the house where she stayed, we dropped our rocks, looked at each other, and laughed. “Our magic rocks saved us!” she said.
I wasn’t the only one who had close encounters of the third kind with black bears in that area. I had gone to a parishioner’s house on the lake to help her pack in preparation for moving to her daughter’s house in the village. I packed box after box of books and kitchen ware. I stacked boxes on the back step for her son-in-law to load into his truck. After a few minutes outside with his son, he called in the door, “Do you think you could go upstairs and get the shotgun?”
I went to the screen door. He was watching something next door. “What do you need to shoot?”
“There’s a bear trying to get in next door. I’ll scare it away.”
While Emmaline went upstairs for the gun, I went outside. There was a half-grown bear clawing at the neighbour’s screen door. A tantalizing fragrance of beef stew was in the air, wafting from their kitchen. I stepped up to my truck, opened the driver’s door, and blew the horn. Chris joined in with his truck horn. Little bear took off at a gallop.
“Well, why didn’t I think of that?” Chris said as Emmaline returned with the shotgun. Chris left it on the driver’s seat of his truck, though, until we were all loaded and everyone out of the area, first closing the neighbour’s door until they returned from a brief walk up to the corner store.
Another neighbour’s son had heard that there was a large bear in his father’s area, so he drove out one afternoon to see if he could find any tracks and to warn his father to stay indoors with his dog. As he pulled up to his father’s house, he saw his father asleep in a lawn chair just inside the open door of the garage, with his fat old retriever asleep on the garage floor next to him. Just outside the garage wall, out of sight of the old man and his dog, was a large black bear, also asleep.
Although I raised Shetland sheep up there on the mountains of Stockholm, Maine, I never lost an animal to a bear. One day I was checking my fences to make sure moose hadn’t pulled any down – a common event – and smelled a pungent, musky odour at the back of the pasture. Just outside the fence was a large old pine tree, with branches touching down around the base, forming a living green tent. That was where the odour was coming from. It was obvious as I examined the protected spot that a bear was camping there from time to time, with scat and tufts of shed fur mixed into the pine needles. The sheep seemed to have no fear of it, and it had never attempted the fence. My neighbour a couple of miles away, on the other hillside, had lost two ewes to a bear that had reached over the top of a solid board pen and lifted them out, one by one. Only a lamb survived, probably because it lay down flat, out of the bear’s reach.
The native Americans call black bear “Grandmother.” It is considered a wise animal, a messenger from the other world. I dreamed of bears quite a lot in those days, and I wondered if it was my fear. I tried to run from a huge black bear in my dreams, and always woke just before the bear caught up with me. While at seminary, a friend suggested to me that what I needed to do was not run from the dream bear, but to turn and face it. I did that, the next time I dreamed of the bear. And in that dream, the bear stopped, dropped to the ground, and looked up at me. I didn’t need to run from the bear; the bear was me.