Monday, October 24, 2011

Lions (no), Tigers (not really), and Bears (really, but just one), Oh My!

This post is about our recent encounter with a member of the Eastern Black Bear species (Ursus americanus).

First, I need to provide some background to set the stage. Above our house near the garden, there are a set of cliffs about 20-30 feet tall. They are just below where we harvest chanterelle mushrooms, and the area is covered largely with shagbark hickory. On these cliffs, there is a completely flat rock shelf about 3' deep by 10' wide, backed by a sheer rock wall about 6' tall. It faces eastwards and thus is sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds, which can be particularly brutal in autumn and winter. It is a wonderful place to sit and look out and downwards into the forest. It is quiet, easily accessible, and just the right size to seat a couple of people on portable chairs. In fact, it is the absolutely perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine. Since discovering this place last winter, we have occasionally packed up a bottle of white wine, some glasses, and various antipasti, and along with a couple of folding chairs, headed up to the shelf to relax at the end of the day.

This past Saturday, we packed a bottle of Grgich Hills chardonnay, some chorizo and parmesan cheese, and some tuna salad made with Spanish tuna, chopped onions, dill pickles, and lettuce. Plus some crackers. These all went into an insulated carry bag, and we headed up the hill. We usually bring the dogs, but they are too restless to sit and relax, and thus are largely a nuisance. They stayed behind this time. Luckily.

As we were heading up the trail to the garden, we spotted a large black bear snuffling along about 100' above us. When he spotted us, he hid in a stand of trees to assess the situation. We had stopped dead in our tracks. Both of us were wearing neutral colors, and bears don't have the best eyesight, so after several seconds he decided to move from behind the trees to get a better look. He actually sat down and calmly looked us over. After a bit, he decided we weren't very interesting, and headed off to our left at a slow jog. We continued on our way, thrilled that we had seen a bear. This was only the third time in 10 years we have seen a bear on our property, although we see bear scat everywhere.

The Eastern Black Bear generally stays away from people and roams widely over the mountains. They are not particularly dangerous to humans, unless you get between a sow and her cubs. Most often people see the back-side of the bear as it retreats into the forest. In the fight-or-flight spectrum, black bears run away rather than attack, whereas grizzly bears do the opposite. Black bears are medium sized, ranging between 150 and 500 lbs. The one we had met was probably 350-400 lbs.

(As a note, this has been a particularly good year in West Virginia for mast, especially hickory nuts, and we had a bumper crop. Bears, as you may know, eat about anything, and will gorge themselves when a particular food is ripe. It is common to see bear scat full of blackberry seeds in August, apple seeds in September, and full of crunched up nuts later in the fall.)

We set up our picnic, opened the wine, and relaxed in the gathering dusk. After 30 minutes or so, we started hearing an animal shuffling through the leaf litter uphill along the cliffs. Deer are very active at this time of day, and they will search out nuts and other edibles on the forest floor, so this was not particularly surprising. We were absolutely quiet listening as this animal slowly made his way along the top of the cliffs towards us. As he got closer, we could hear him loudly crunching hickory nuts. We had headlights with us, and they contain a red light that animals don't see very well. As the animal came closer and closer, we kept looking to see what it was, using the red light. Realize, this animal is coming towards us, but was above us on the top of the cliff face, so standing up we were pretty much face to face with anything with its head in the leaf litter. We kept looking and looking, but couldn't see anything.

Finally, as the animal was almost on top of us, I moved one of my feet and snapped a twig. The crunching immediately stopped and up from the forest floor popped a big bear head, looking right at me, no more than 15' away. He couldn't see us, because we were shining a light into his eyes, so he just stood and stared, wondering what the heck we were and why we were in the forest in near complete darkness. After a few seconds of this stare down, I gave a couple of clucks like you do for a horse and slapped my pants loudly several times, just so he knew we were there, and he turned and headed off away from us. Wow, just plain wow. Face-to-face with a bear, literally. A big bear, in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, while sitting on a shelf on the sheer face of a cliff. Certainly a most blog-worthy event.

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