For some reason (lookin’ at you John) there’s a lot of bear talk on this site. It might be due to Don’s burly nature, or the fact that “bear” almost spells “beer” or that a bear can totally kick a lion’s ass (science says so!). Whatever the case, it was all lollipops and giggles until I had a close encounter of the ursine kind this past weekend.
I live in bear country. Now, when most folks think of New Jersey, they think of the smelly paved-over mess around Newark Airport or meatheads with spray on tans. But where I live in the northern highlands is very different kind of place. My town is surrounded by state parks and reservoirs. We have no stoplights. Trees outnumber people 50 to 1 or more. It’s a place of ancient mountains that were the bedrock of a range that was once dwarfed the Rockies and where animals of all kinds continue to thrive. We have whitetail deer, coyote, foxes, wild turkey, and, yes, black bears.
Despite their success, seeing a bear is a rare thing in these parts. I’ve been in the area for 20 years and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually laid eyes on one. This past weekend was the latest sighting and by far the scariest. To my mind, it was more of an encounter than a sighting.
I was cleaning out my embarrassingly cluttered garage on Saturday to make a place for my new car to nest. I was almost finished, with just a few kids’ toys to tuck away a little sweeping up to do. It was sweaty work, and I was enjoying a couple of refreshing brews to keep my body cool and my spirits up.
The beer of the day was Yard’s Philadelphia Pale Ale, a 4.6% ABV ale that manages to pack a nice grapefruity hop burst and decent malt backbone in a beer that doesn’t bog you down. It was the perfect brew for the task. I also had Pandora blasting, rocking out to a playlist based on the fine works of the band Cake.
I found myself on the concrete apron just outside the garage, bending over to velcro the seat onto a toy highchair. The highchair was snugged up against the front bumper of my wife’s Honda Odyssey minivan, so my view forward way obscured by the mammoth mommymobile.
Then out of the corner of my eye, I spy an inky black form slide past the rear bumper of the van and sidle lithely up to a spruce tree about 10 feet from where I was standing. My first thought is “that’s either a dark deer or a really big dog.” But when I look up, I find a black bear looking right back at me. It has one clawed-paw on the spruce and regards me without fear. It’s more like “oh, you’re home today? You’re usually not around when I do this.”
After a beat, I retreat backwards into the middle of the garage, trying not to run (I recall you’re not supposed to do that) but certainly making haste to get away. Then I realize the garage is hanging open and our delicious garbage is in there, so I move towards the bear to kick a couple of items out of the path of the garage door so I can close it. The bear just watches, looking bored by the funny monkey hopping around as I roll the door shut.
I then cut the music, wanting to keep my senses unencumbered so I can hear the tearing of wood and twisting of metal that’s sure to come as this wild beast slices its way through the garage door. Wanting to get farther away, I pop into the house to find my five year old daughter playing in the family room. I mumble “bear…uhh…bear” a couple of times and she gets excited. She wants to see the beast!
I do too, because I want to know what it’s up to. I go to the front door and open it, peering through the full length glass screen, and here the bear comes around the corner of the house and into the front yard. I now have the screen door open a crack to get a better angle of view and the bear takes notice. It stops its stroll and looks right at me. This is when the crush of adrenaline finally hits my brain and my body starts squirming with nervous energy. I throw the screen door open and yell “get outta here!” (probably in a reedy girlish voice, but it feels manly in the primal moment) and the bear obliges, although begrudgingly. It slowly turns away, as if it’s saying “aw crap. He talked to me. Now I gotta go the other way. Them’s the rules.”
I went outside a few minutes after the bear trundled out of sight to see where it might have gone. Was it hanging around the garage? Was it climbing onto the back porch? Was it trying to have sex with my Mini Cooper? All of these seemed like very real possibilities.
But none of them were the case. It was simply gone. I heard a dog bark down the street, and walked to the sound, my head on a swivel, only to find an overturned garbage can and the sounds of something large crashing through the woods. It appeared that Yogi had found his snack and was headed back to the woods to hang with Boo Boo.
I know that we were probably never in any real danger, but the incident shook me up, mostly because the bear was so comfortable in my driveway. I was playing loud music, crashing things around in the garage and I’m a 6’5″/ 215 pound fella, not some kid on a swing set. But none of these things mattered to this particular black bear. When bears become that relaxed around people, bad things are bound to follow.
But not that day. I finished the job in silence, looking over my shoulder the whole time, and I continued to keep an eye out for the bear the rest of that evening and the next day. I never saw hide nor hair of it. Hopefully that continues to be the case, as I think I can go the rest of my life without another encounter with a bear.
It’s one thing to live in bear country – it’s a whole other thing to live with a bear.
Just ask Don’s wife. 🙂