Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Aug. 31, 2007

Bear with me - NOT!

"A bear has been here," husband Art said matter-of-factly.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up.

"How do you know that?" I asked, raising up from the blackberry bushes ever so carefully. We were collecting wild raspberries and blackberries in the Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin's North Woods, just as we have for the past 15 years.

"He left his calling card here on the ground," Art replied.

He then began to explain how you could tell from the "card's" shape as well as the way the branches and brambles had been trampled and swiped aside that something far larger than a human or deer had been through the bushes.

He was talking. I was checking to see how far we were from the car.

I like animals, but coming face to face with a black bear, well that's not something I want to experience. Five years ago, one came up to the edge of the highway and that was close enough. At first, I had thought it was a big black dog - with a very large snout. The bear looked from side to side as if to check traffic and then loped across the road after we had passed.

This year, a friend's son was walking the family's golden retriever when a bear crossed the road behind him. He decided to take the long way back home - as far away from the bear's path as possible.

Art's cousin Claudia and her husband Karl live a few miles from our cottage and they have seen bears several times, most recently a couple of weeks ago, not far from where we were gathering berries. She told us about it in an e-mail message.

"A nearly grown bear crossed in front of us and looked back at the car as if to say, 'What are you doing in my area?'" Claudia wrote.

That night, Rosie - their black Labrador - woke them up with one big bark and a loud growl.

"The next morning we found a bear had torn down our hummingbird feeder next to the living room windows," Claudia continued. "It left two big sticky smudges on the windows. That is near where Rosie sleeps so we guess that she heard it and scared it away. The suet feeder was missing, but the little house feeder was still OK . . . We're hoping the bear has decided to go where there are no Rosies around to scare it away."

Her message sent shivers down my spine. We enjoy watching the birds at their feeders and the thought of a bear being that close to their house is a bit disconcerting.

Every time Art and I go out berrying, he warns me there's a chance we might run into a bear, but he also says bears are as wary about meeting us as we are about meeting them. So, I do my best to make our presence known. While Art likes us to spread out so we more efficiently cover the berry-picking territory, I don't get too far away from him or the car. A bear can hit 30 miles per hour while running, but I can't!

So I sing any song that comes to mind or jabber about this and that just to let them know there are humans about.

Art's 50 years trout fishing in the woods, along with what he learned from his dad who was very experienced in the woods, means he isn't jittery about wild creatures like I am. And, he has a deep respect for them and their territory.

Last fall Art was on Alvin Creek in northern Wisconsin and there was a strong southwest wind. Windy times are bad, he said, because a bear cannot hear as well, increasing the chance of it being startled by accidentally running into a human.

Branches are always cracking when it is windy, but this time the noise was heavy and constant and moving directly toward Art, as if something was lumbering along. To make matters worse, it was upwind. He knew there was nothing else in the woods that moves in that slow, steady way with no concern about being heard.

Art began yelling and suddenly the cracking stopped. Then, a moment later, it began moving off in the opposite direction.

Wisconsin has about 11,000 bears and 54,000 square miles. That means that there is about one bear for each five square miles. But most of the bears live in the northern third of the state, increasing the number to one per every two square miles where we pick berries. The thought of meeting a bear probably isn't enough to keep me from our annual quest to get as many of the ripe, juicy berries as possible, but I'm still mindful of the fact that I'm in THEIR territory, not the other way around.

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