June 27, 2016
IN THE COMPANY OF BEARS
MONTPELIER – But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.
Most of us can recall being assigned Emily Dickinson’s “The Snake” in grade school or high school. If the class was coed, you can probably recall the girls pretending to shiver, and saying, “Oh, I hate snakes!” and the boys blustering, “I ain’t afraid of ‘em.” Well, maybe; but we all must admit to that “tighter breathing” the moment one of them appears suddenly beneath our feet. It’s a natural survival reaction older than even the Book of Genesis.
Quite a few Vermonters, after an extraordinarily warm winter, are this year having a similar experience, but it’s got nothing to do with snakes. It’s bears. They’ve always been with us, but this spring and early summer they’ve been reported and filmed on cell phones everywhere. Almost every day on Facebook features another.
Our younger daughter, Martha, was standing at her kitchen sink a few days ago, facing through a picture window looking out at her yard. One of the side windows was open, and bacon was frying on the stove. Suddenly she was face to face with a “really big bear covered with burdocks standing up to look in the window.” She tried to holler “Bear!” to her husband in another part of the house, but all that came out was, “Buh! Buh! Buh!” The old Jack Russell beneath her feet was going crazy, and the horses out in the field were on full alert, watching the house. The bear dropped back onto all fours and was gone almost as fast as he’d appeared.
Who can forget the story told by our doughty Vermont governor who, just over five years ago, neglected to bring in his bird feeders in the spring. Spotting a bear by the back porch about dawn, he shooed it away. Then, realizing it would be coming right back if he didn’t take down the feeders, he went back out to get them (all this in his birthday suit). The bear came back, all right, at a dead run – she had cubs with her – straight for the governor, who got inside and slammed the door shut just in time. Then he made his third mistake: He recounted the experience to a group of newspaper reporters and editors.
One of the first books I read as a kid was my dad’s copy of The Bears of Blue River (Charles Major, 1901), which describes the improbable adventures of a young 19th-century Indiana frontier boy. Balser Brent never manages to encounter anything but grumpy, even homicidal, black bears. Naturally, he dispatches them all. Those stories did two things: They fired my imagination and desire to be a hunter, and they made out bears to be disagreeable and dangerous.
I’ve never found that to be the case. Every bear I’ve ever met has shown nothing but an obvious desire to get away as fast as possible. There is the occasional exception: a bear that’s become habituated to campers and their food supplies, notably along the southern portions of the Appalachian Trail; and the springtime bear, who wants nothing to do with us, but knows that we can be sources of nourishment when he or she is feeling especially peckish. Thus the hungry bear at our daughter’s window, with its nose leading it irresistibly toward the aroma of frying bacon.
I e-mailed an old friend, a retired game warden, to see if he had any thoughts about so many more bear sightings this year. Here’s what he answered, in part: “Why this year is worse than others? My guess is the warm winter interrupted their hibernation and they used more fat than usual getting thru, thus they are in a hungry state. The other possibility is a heavy crop of cubs. Last fall was a very good mast year for beech nuts, acorns and apples. When the sows go into the winter fat they give birth to lots of cubs. The bottom line is we have lots of bears in VT, when they are hungry you see more of them.”
I was crossing Ledyard Bridge one day a few years ago, headed into New Hampshire from Norwich, Vermont. There’s a big hill leading up from the bridge into Hanover, and there were several people on the sidewalk beside it. One of them had what looked like a big black Newfoundland dog. “Gee,” I thought, “she ought to have that thing on a leash, with all this traffic going up and down.” All of a sudden the Newfie turned ninety degrees and dashed across the road. Pretty good-sized, glossy black bear; and as I passed up the hill, everybody was on his cellphone – calling 911, I suppose. Why, I’m not sure. That bear was halfway to West Lebanon by then.
Another place it’s easy to see bears is the Arctic, mainly because there are no trees. And I did meet a Barren Ground grizzly there who didn’t run away quite as fast as I’d’ve liked. I was fishing a beautiful char hole near the mouth of a river, when I heard my buddy Alex, up at the head of the hole, shout. He was gesticulating, as if to say, “Turn around!” I did, and right behind me, about five feet higher at the top of the sandy bank, was a big old boar grizzly, alternately peering at me and waving his nose in the air to pick up my scent. I don’t think he knew what I was.
“Look here!” I said, with more authority than I felt, “I’ve got a 3-ounce fly rod here that could do real damage before you get me. But if you give me just a couple of minutes, I’ll be gone, and you can have your fishing hole back.” He turned and walked slowly away, parting the willows as he did. That retreating rump was, paradoxically, one of the sweetest sights I’ve ever seen.