Archived Story

Close encounters of the bear kind

Published 11:07am Monday, August 12, 2013

Every now and then, a press release will come my way that gets my heart pumping faster than is normally required for someone seated at a desk.
That happened Thursday when I opened an email from Keith Gauldin. The subject line said: “Black Bears Are on the Move in Alabama.”
My cardiovascular system kicked it up a notch.
Then I read the first paragraph: “While recent black bear sightings in Lee County have some residents concerned about their safety, wildlife experts say these animals tend to avoid contact with humans. The two sightings occurred in July: the first near a subdivision in Opelika and the second near Salem, Ala., approximately 7 to 8 miles from the first sighting.”
That really got the old ticker moving and negated the need for further caffeine.
Wild black bears (OK, I’m being a little optimistic) … At least one wild black bear is prowling around within a 35-minute drive from my home and just a few miles from my home county.
Nobody in New York City can say that.
I’ve never seen a bear up close and personal here in Alabama.
Back when I was younger and more foolish – between high school and college – I traveled with my friend Jeff Collier from Los Angeles to Vancouver with almost no money between us.
As a cost-saving measure, we slept on the ground in sleeping bags in a couple of locations.
One was in an empty field right on the coastline, and we woke covered in dew with cows munching grass all around us.
Another night we stayed in King’s Canyon National Park, where folks all around us had big campers and fancy tents. We let on to our fellow campers that it was invigorating to sleep under the stars, but I’m sure they figured out we didn’t have a tent when we unrolled our sleeping bags in the dirt beside our camp fire ring.
We fell asleep, and I was sleeping like a log until I heard a bunch of shouting, including my name.
I opened my eyes, rubbed out the sleep and realized that the people around me were all on top of their campers.
I heard my name being called again and realized Jeff was no longer in the sleeping bag on the other side of our camp fire – he was on the top of a camper, too, shouting, “Are you all right?!”
I issued a sleepy “yes” and quickly came fully awake as they climbed down and told me what had happened.
Apparently a large black bear came through camp.
The more alert people in our campground alerted each other, and everybody but me sought higher ground. I remained calmly asleep as my co-campers watched in horror while the black bear walked closer and closer to me, then put its big hairy bear paws on both sides of my head and leaned in close to sniff my face. Obviously, I didn’t smell like dinner, and after a few moments, the bear, unimpressed by his close encounter with me, continued his amble through the campground.
And that’s when I heard the shouts.
I never saw the bear, but I did see his tracks in the powdery gray soil beside my sleeping bag.
I’ve often wondered what would have happened if the hot bear breath on my face had woken me.
How would I have reacted when I saw a big black nose twitching above me? What would the bear have done when I screamed like a girl only inches from his soft, rounded, sensitive bear ears?
Sleeping is one of the things I do best, and it served me well that night.
But ever since, I’ve wanted to have a more conscious encounter with a black bear.
I know there will be at least a few of you who have worries about finding a bear in your backyard.
Our wildlife officials have a different take on it, more like mine.
“The black bear represents an important wildlife resource in Alabama woodlands,” said Gauldin, who holds the enviable job title Large Carnivore Coordinator for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. “Again, if you do see a black bear, don’t panic. Consider yourself lucky. You’re one of the few individuals to have experienced such a sight.”
The press release did say if you don’t want to attract bears, you should make sure Rover eats all his food before retiring. Leftover dog food on the back deck can bring ‘em in. But otherwise, the chances of actually encountering a bear are pretty slim.
I don’t care.
There’s a chance, no matter how small.
Wild black bears – sorry, I’m still excited – at least one wild black bear has managed to make its way to within walking distance of my bed. And I won’t be snoozing in my deer blind this fall, either. I’ll be keeping a sharp lookout.
Seeing a wild black bear on my home turf is nothing short of a dream.
I you do happen to see a bear, Gauldin said he’d like to know. Give him a call at 251-626-5474. For that matter, call me, too.
Boone is publisher of The Outlook.