Next to poisonous snakes, people fear encountering bears in the outdoors. Even some of our hunter friends are bear-shy. But ever since black bears returned to our mountain, back in the 1980s, I’ve relished every experience I’ve had with them. So far, they’ve been exciting but harmless.
Last spring and summer, I saw more bears than ever before. And it all began on April 18. On that day, the temperature reached the mid-eighties, which finally brought out our hundreds of daffodils. Because Bruce and I were away for the day, we missed the advent of our resident female bear and her four cubs from the previous year. They drank from the stream below the guesthouse, and our son Dave, who lives in the guesthouse, had wonderful views of them from his front porch. One of the cubs was cinnamon-colored, and all of them looked healthy.
I was upset that I had missed this close encounter. But the following evening, our family was sitting out on the veranda after dinner.
“What’s that up in the field?” our daughter-in-law Karylee asked.
I grabbed my binoculars and immediately ascertained that the sow and her cubs were back.
“Get the scope,” son Steve said quietly to Bruce. In the meantime, I trained my binoculars on the family foraging up in the corner of First Field.
Bruce set up the scope and we all took turns watching the little family. Despite our granddaughter Elanor’s high-pitched talking, playing, and banging in and out of the front door, the bears continued feeding, seemingly oblivious or at least unconcerned by us.
No doubt, this was the same calm sow that I have encountered in other years with her family. Never once has she acted threateningly toward me when I have accidentally run into her. She and the cubs have always run off together.
On this evening, they not only ate but they played. First one cub, then two, and then three cubs climbed high up in a black locust tree and out on branches that looked too slender to hold them, perhaps playing their version of “king of the mountain.” Even the fourth cub joined them off-and-on, but it usually stuck close to the sow instead. Once a pair of them faced each other, all four of their legs curled around the trunk, and alternately nuzzled each other and batted back and forth, like prize fighters in training.
Sometimes one or two of the cubs would move close to the sow as if trying to see what she was eating. As she dug in the ground, they all crowded near, but I couldn’t tell if she was giving them food.
I was particularly interested in observing the uncommon cinnamon bear, and I noticed that another cub had a slight cinnamon cast too. I couldn’t remember seeing a cinnamon cub here before, but Dave claimed that there had been one several years ago.
We watched them for more than an hour until it was too dark to see them. I was elated, because that was the longest observation time I had ever had of a black bear family.
The next day we found muddy bear paw prints on our back porch door. Then Bruce discovered more, five feet from the ground, on the window over the kitchen sink. The bears had been giving our kitchen, at least, a thorough examination, and we worried that they might get even more familiar. But I was no longer feeding the birds from feeders hanging on the back porch, believing that winter feeding is the wisest course when living close to bears. Even so, I always bring the feeders inside every evening during November, December, March, and early April, when some bears are liable to be around. And, as it turned out, that was the only interest bears showed in our home even during the summer when only a screen door separated the kitchen from the outdoors.
It rained hard the morning after we watched the bear family. I waited until there was a break in the weather and hurried up to the corner of First Field to look for bear sign. I paced back and forth where I knew they had been and could find no sign, not even of the digging the sow had been doing. If we hadn’t seen them with our own eyes, we wouldn’t have believed they had been up there.
But we found fresh bear scat on all our trails over the next several weeks. Often I followed in the footsteps of bears because I would find many large and small rocks wrenched out of the ground and overturned on our trails as the black bears searched for ants.
Then, near the end of May, I wandered through the spruce grove and sat down at the edge under a spruce tree, hoping to locate what I thought was a crow’s nest. The crows flew in and scolded, but still I couldn’t see that nest in the dense tops of the spruces.
Then I heard a crashing below the grove and thought, “Uh, oh. A bear.”
I remained seated, but as the bear lumbered up the field trail, I grew increasingly uneasy, especially when he turned and headed toward my spruce tree. I inched my way around it and the bear heard me. He followed behind me around the tree about 20 feet away. Knowing that bears don’t see very well and that I shouldn’t run from him, I turned around, faced him, and yelled, “Go away, get out of here, buddy.” He paused for a second and then ran off through the grove.
He was a large male and probably on the prowl for a female. I suspected that our resident sow was in heat and the youngsters on their own.
The next day I walked Greenbrier Trail, listening to birdsong. As I rounded one corner, I spotted a black bear on the trail ahead with its head down as it plodded along. This one too appeared to be a big male bear, maybe the same one as the day before. Luckily, he hadn’t seen me.
I backpedaled fast because the trail was too steep on both sides for me to get off it. After a couple hundred feet, I reached a flatter area, left the trail and plunged into the underbrush. Breathlessly, I waited and waited for the bear to pass on the trail above me, but he didn’t appear. I heard no sound either. I reasoned that he must have heard me crashing down slope through the dry leaves and retreated. Still, the waiting and indecision were worse than the previous day’s encounter.
Should I return to the trail and continue on my way or retreat down the mountain through thick underbrush to Ten Springs Trail? I sat on a log trying to decide as birds sang and flies buzzed around me. Finally, I opted for the open trail where I wouldn’t be surprised by a sudden appearance as I (and he) would be in the impenetrable brush. I picked up a big stick to hold above my head so that I would present a tall silhouette to the bear should I encounter him again.
The trail was clear. Apparently, the bear had heard me and gone the opposite direction. When I reached a muddy area on the trail, I spotted large, fresh bear tracks bigger by a couple inches than my hand span, thumb to little finger.
After that, I began to see more of the young bears than I had bargained for. In mid-June, I sat on a log at the top of Pennyroyal Trail at the Far Field. After awhile I walked on and, in the thick underbrush to my right, at least two bears ran off — one went left, the other right — still in the thick underbrush. I guess they were resting in the deep shade as I was.
As I continued walking, I kept peering into the underbrush. Was that black mass a bear? Indeed, it was, and again it ran off as I said loudly, “It’s okay.”
Three days later, during an evening walk, Bruce and I surprised a young black bear as we descended Laurel Ridge Trail. It was ripping apart a log and looked up at us in obvious confusion. Finally, it decided we were not its friends. It turned around, ran down the trail, and disappeared in the underbrush.
Near the end of June Dave saw two of the cubs on Laurel Ridge Trail. One was cinnamon, the other one was black. He had been trying to photograph a black-throated blue warbler when the cubs appeared. He was so excited that he didn’t know which creature to photograph, and, in the end, he didn’t capture any of them on film.
Throughout the summer, we continued to see bears and bear sign nearly every day. Several of the power poles had fresh scratches on them where the bears had left their messages for other bears. Massive piles of bear scat, first filled with huckleberry seeds and later with cherry pits, were deposited on our trails on a daily basis. All of this kept me on high alert, especially along the narrow trails that wound through thick underbrush that had grown up because of the January 2005 ice storm.
On July 24, I found an enormous, fresh bear scat on Laurel Ridge Trail. I continued on to the Far Field Road and then turned back home. I practically stumbled on a bear rubbing itself all over a small red maple tree at the confluence of Laurel Ridge, First Field, and Far Field trails.
The bear saw me seconds after I saw it and stood up to peer nearsightedly in my direction before starting toward me.
“It’s okay,” I said to it, and it turned around and ran down Laurel Ridge Trail. Then it paused and looked back at me.
“It’s okay,” I repeated. “I won’t hurt you.”
Finally, it bounded on down the trail. Undoubtedly, it was one of the cubs that was growing up fast.
Two days later, I was wandering back along Laurel Ridge Trail picking huckleberries. Suddenly a strong smell wafted past that caused me to pause and look carefully around, but I didn’t see anything. I knew that the bears had been eating the berries and had read that you could often smell a bear before seeing it. Then, as I walked on, humming “The Hills of Home,” a bear loomed up ahead of me on the trail. It spun around and ran off.
So I had smelled a bear. Now I knew what bears smell like or at least that bear. Probably if I hadn’t been humming, I would have had a closer look at it.
The bear sightings continued. In mid-August, during an evening walk, as Bruce and I crossed the powerline right-of-way on the Short Circuit Trail on Laurel Ridge, I caught a movement at the top of the Sapsucker Ridge portion of the right-of-way. Through my binoculars, I watched a black bear slowly amble down the slope. Just before it reached the base, it disappeared into a small ravine.
Five days later, as I neared the Far Field, a crashing off to my left alerted me to a black bear. At the same time, blue jays spotted it or me or both and set up a terrible ruckus. The bear kept trudging along until I lost sight of it in the underbrush. And that was my final view of a bear last summer. But the sign continued throughout the late summer and into late autumn before the bears went into hibernation.
“What about bears?” people continue to ask me when they learn that I go off by myself on our trails every day. Now you know. So far, I have enjoyed my peaceful coexistence with them. And I look forward this April to our resident sow appearing with her new batch of cubs.
All photos and video were taken on Brush Mountain by Dave Bonta except the last, which is by ashe-villain and licenced for free non-commercial use with attribution.