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Pete Meets Bear


Don't you want to just hug him?

I've been a little quiet on the online front lately. Annie was in town from Saturday through Thursday before her big move to Hawai'i, and we spent Sunday and Monday canoeing down the St. Croix from Rush City, camping at one of the canoe sites on Sunday night. On the way down, we surprised a large animal on the west side of the river, and based on the noises it made back as it fled into the woods, it was probably a black bear. So I guess it's appropriate to follow up on my previous post and talk about my bear encounters!

The First Encounter

The first time was maybe ten years ago, one weekend in late May or early June. I had gone up to Jay Cooke State Park near Duluth, just to do some hiking, but no camping. Ironically, I was heading south from the swing bridge toward the "Bear Chase" trail, but never quite got there. I crossed Silver Creek and passed the nearby walk-in campsite, and then headed up a hill to a right turn in the trail. I wasn't looking far ahead at the time; my eyes were down on the trail for some reason (maybe none) and I noticed something in the upper periphery of my vision. My immediate thought was "I hope that dog is on a leash", having seen an illegally unleashed pet earlier that day. I raised my eyes to look for the owner, and saw a second shape - but it wasn't human. It was an interesting moment; my conviction that it was a pet clouded my perception for just a brief moment, and then things snapped into place and I saw both shapes were black bear cubs.

They were both nuzzling around on the trail with their heads down. Now black bears don't have particularly good vision, so right at the very moment I saw the situation, they lifted their heads and took a similar assessment. We were both so surprised we spent maybe three seconds just staring. Then I found the capacity to back up, and they found the ability to snort loudly and run off into the woods on my right, uphill.

As I literally walked backwards along the trail, I reflected that two cubs meant a mother around somewhere. I stopped after about ten feet to listen, and heard nothing but the fading crunches from my right. I backed up a little more and still heard nothing. Nevertheless, I decided not to continue down the trail since I had no idea where a mama bear might be. I turned around and took a different hiking route for the rest of the day.

Close up, bears actually seem to be pretty noisy. Some of it comes just from being big, however delicate their feet may be. But they also sound like they have a permanent cold, with lots of snorting and snuffling sounds. I'm not sure how much of it is direct communication, but it certainly is a sound much more often attributed to the swine family!

Not a Big Deal...

The second time I ran into a bear was along the west bank of the St. Croix, just below the campgrounds at Wild River. I had gone down the stairs to the bench and followed the indistinct trail north until it petered out, then continued through the open woods. Somewhere below the upper loops, I had a very similar experience - looking up to see a bear about ten yards away. This one was fully grown, and alone. But the result was the same - I stopped, and the bear snorted loudly, turned tail and ran.

This encounter wasn't that disturbing to me, because barring special situations like a mother with cubs, or a direct confrontation over a food source, most black bears will do exactly what I described - turn and run. In a way, it's too bad that you don't get more of a opportunity to see them up close. Still, it might be unsettling for some to realize that this encounter was only a couple hundred yards from a very popular and busy campground, during the height of summer. But, I think you'd have to expect that because the protected land that lines the St. Croix River acts as a essential habitat corridor. Plus, here in Minnesota we certainly don't have any concerns like they do in the northern Rockies, with a far more dangerous species of bear.

A Story

A final thought related to bear behavior - I remember reading this somewhere, but have to dig up a reference to see if it's genuine, or just a faulty memory. During the great Hinckley Fire of 1908 that burned the town to the ground, one resident survived the fire by climbing to the top of a hill (that alone seems fishy). As he ran from the smoke and flying embers, he saw a black bear running up the other side of the hill. As the fire approached and started to singe the sides of the hill, the two of them were forced to the apex, and eventually huddled up with their backs against the same tree, the bear on one side and the human on the other. After a short time, the intense fire burned through and both survived to go their own way.

To be frank, I wouldn't be surprised if that story were true. There was no reason for the storyteller to be concerned - it was just two animals doing what they needed to do at the time. There was no predator-prey relationship, no conflict over food or sex or young. There was just a common enemy. I wonder if people of that era, who must have settled in fully wooded land and had intimate knowledge of the local wildlife, had any more realistic views regarding their supposed "dangerousness" than we do now.