Lion and tiger and bears, oh my!
I’ve got lots of stories about wildlife encounters. There was the giant black snake on the Appalachian Trail that I swear was twenty feet long. Then there was the tarantula that lived in the front yard of our New Mexico mountain cabin. And the eagle that insisted on soaring over me as I hiked down from a Colorado fourteener, that’s a fourteen-thousand- foot mountain, for you flatlanders, on my fiftieth birthday, six weeks before I pinned on the eagles of a full colonel.
Then there was the rattlesnake on Sandia Mountain, which overlooks Albuquerque, New Mexico, that my wife and our yellow Lab blithely stepped over never noticing. I didn’t know I could high step like a Radio Hall dancer until I spotted that six-foot mottled brown monster slithering across the hiking path. Luckily it was cool and I suspect it had just eaten so the slow mover just ignored us, even when I came back to snap the “prover” photo with my phone.
Seems like we’ve had lots of adventures on Sandia Mountain. There was the time not more than a couple of miles, as the crow flies, from our cabin, as we hiked up the mountain and heard the unmistakable cough of a mountain lion. Freezing in our steps, younger son Alex and I placed Annette behind us as we backed down the mountain all the while brandishing our hiking sticks to make ourselves look bigger in case the mountain lion was stalking us.
Then there are the bear stories. Bears, at least black bears, as compared to grizzlies, are more a nuisance in bear country than a real danger, although they do have big claws and big teeth and can be fearsome if backed into a corner or protecting their cubs.
During one of our many visits to that New Mexico mountain cabin a bear mauled an older woman to death, a few miles over the mountain, when the bear broke into her house searching for food.
Then, of course, there are always the idiot tourists who think feeding bears is cute. Not cute. Not smart. It causes bears to associate humans with food, which leads to bears getting destroyed as dangerous nuisances.
Although bears are more commonly associated with the mountainous regions of the Appalachians or the Rockies, we recently had a young male bear roaming the suburbs of St. Louis. Wildlife biologists speculated that he likely roamed from his native Ozark Mountains’ habitat in search of a mate.
My first close encounter with a bear, not counting visits to the St. Louis Zoo, occurred several years ago in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Yeah, I know, they’re not real mountains, but hey, if Michiganders want to call an overgrown set of hills topping out at 1,958 feet mountains so be it.
Younger son Alex and I were on a week-long backpacking trip in the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness with his Boy Scout troop. After hiking through the heavily forested slopes while swatting mosquitoes, eating dehydrated meals and seeing not a soul, we came down off a ridgeline to the sparkling waters of Lake Superior, a two-lane state highway and a country ice cream stand serving, joy of joys, hamburgers and French fries as well as ice cream.
Dropping backpacks, the half dozen or so teenage hikers, the Scoutmaster and I lined up to order burgers and treats. The four or five picnic tables outside the tiny stand offered splintery, faded to gray, wooden seats. Our only seats other than rocks since we’d entered the wilderness.
As we sat devouring our burgers, we spotted a black bear amble out of the wood line fifty yards behind the stand. He headed for the green dumpster, paused, lifted his nose to smell the grilled onions and burgers and headed our way.
We calmly watched as he approached. Realizing he was after our food, we jumped up and backed away from the tables. He calmly clambered up on the first table and began wolfing down the burgers. One hungry Scout wasn’t about to let the bear eat his lunch. Before we could stop him, he bolted up to the table next to the one occupied by the bear and grabbed his burger basket, all the while, yelling at the bear.
The cook, hearing the commotion, glanced outside, grabbed a broom and came running out yelling at the bear and swatting at him with the broom. Now mind you this wasn’t a cub this was a good-sized bear who even on all fours came well up past my waist.
This dance between white cap and apron clad cook and hungry black bear looked to be a familiar one. The bear shuffled off the table and with a few more broom slaps broke into a run for the woods. The cook told us the bear had become a pest that summer frequently haunting the dumpster and coming up to the little restaurant.
Finishing our burgers and fries we hiked off into the woods…in the opposite direction the bear went.
A few years later and half a continent away, younger son Alex, wife Annette and I and another couple vacationed at a trout fishing lodge in Northern New Mexico. The proprietor cautioned us to lock our trash in a shed, which looked like nothing so much as an outhouse, forty feet behind our log cabin. She warned that we should put trash out every night as remnants of dinner left in the cabin served as irresistible bait to bears.
An hour or so after putting our dinner leftovers out in the trash shed, we heard a loud BANG, BANG, BANG coming from the rear of the cabin. The cabin’s bathroom featured the only window to look out over the shed. Peering through the screen I could just make out the form of a huge honey brown bear sow angrily slapping her plate sized paw against the door in an attempt to get at the remnants of salmon housed in the shed.
I yelled “You gotta see this!” to the others. We crowded round the bathroom window to see the sow and her two cubs, barely visible in the full darkness. The sow turned to glare at us. It took only a moment to realize there was naught between us, her cubs and her angry disposition but a flimsy window screen! We backed away, closed the window, not that it would stop much, left the bathroom and pulled the door to.
A few more fruitless, frustrated slaps at the bolted shed door and she herded her cubs off for more lucrative opportunities. Several minutes passed before we heard the echoing booms of a twelve-gauge shotgun. The next morning the proprietor explained the she bear had strolled a half-block down to the only restaurant in fifty miles to try her luck at its dumpster. Foiled by the fence enclosing it, she prowled around the restaurant trapping the vacationing trout fishermen inside.
The restaurant staff called the proprietor who came down with her shotgun and its full load of blank twelve gauge shells. The booming report of shotgun served to frighten the mama bear off.
A few hours later mama bear’s massive paws crashed through a resident’s garage door to raid the horse feed stored inside. The next morning we walked past as the owner surveyed the damage. He explained that with the repeated incursions the Department of Natural Resources would be out later that day to trap mama to remove her and her cubs to an even more remote area miles away. “I’m afraid she’ll be back,” he mused. “And that’ll really be bad because she’ll teach her cubs to go after human food, then all three will have to be destroyed.” A sobering thought.
I can attest that it’s easier to raid a dumpster than catch a trout. We left that afternoon without a fish caught but with a bear tale in hand.
Audio production by: Tom Calhoun, www.paguytom.com