Bears I have known

By Dennis Chastain
For The Courier

It was the middle of December, and bears were the last thing on my mind. Like most people, I was under the impression that by mid-December bears were snuggled in their beds with visions of white oak acorns dancing in their heads. I was wrong.

Bears I have known

Bears I have known

I was deer hunting up in the top third of a nearby mountain. The situation was pretty tight in there. I was sitting on the ground, actually sitting right in a deer trail at the narrow, V-shaped head of a hollow. I had plopped down on the deer trail itself because it allowed me to watch another, more promising, deer trail at the bottom of the hollow which was all torn up with rubs and scrapes. The morning was going smoothly until a big, bulky, 400-pound black bear showed up walking along the deer trail where I was sitting cross-legged.

By the time I saw him he was not more than 50 feet away and closing in fast. I stood up and shouted in the most intimidating voice I could muster, “Hey, get out of here.” He stopped walking, now about 30 feet away, and looked at me sort of squinty-eyed like he wasn’t real sure what I was. I shuffled my feet in the dry leaves to let him know I meant business and took two aggressive steps toward him and stomped the ground. “Get out of here,” I growled once more. The bear showed no reaction whatsoever, and after a minute or so of staring at each other he took two more steps toward me. We were both now getting way too close.

I realized that I had to do something to convince him that it was not in his best interest to come any closer. I took my lever-action rifle and worked the lever to shuck a shell and make a sound that would leave no doubt that I was a human and not to be messed with. It worked. I could see the wheels turning, it was as if he was saying, “Oh yeah, that’s right. They have guns.” The big bear turned and walked about five feet and then turned around and squared up with me again. I took about five rapid steps toward him, shuffling my feet in the leaves and shouting once again, “Hey, I said get out of here.” He turned again and walked out of sight on the deer trail.

Five minutes later, he showed up about 75 yards behind me coming down the slope toward me. I realized I was going to have to run him off for good or I just might as well go home. I took off up the slope and chased him for several hundred yards and went back to my deer stand. The rest of the morning I spent more time looking over my shoulder rather than down the hollow where I should have been watching.

There is an important lesson to be learned from this bear encounter. Every bear is different, and every bear encounter if different. If somebody tells you, “here’s what you should do any time you encounter a bear in the woods,” they don’t know what they are talking about. You have to size up every situation and make a decision on what to do. Sometimes the best thing to do is to just turn and walk away in the opposite direction from the bear. Sometimes you’re better off just standing your ground, and sometimes nothing will work except to be assertive and run them off.

For example, there was the bear that was following me in the dark as I made my way up an old logging road on Horse Mountain. It was turkey season, and I was doing everything I could to get up to the top of the ridge by first light. I heard the bear walking in the woods about 50 yards inside the woods. I stopped and shined the flashlight in there and I could see that it was a young bear, about 150 to 170 pounds. I tried to scare him off in a voice low enough to get his attention without spooking the roosted turkeys. He did not react one way or another.

I continued on, and the bear followed, step for step. If I stopped, he stopped. If I walked, he walked. I tried a couple more times to shoo him off, but apparently he was really curious about what I was up to or just didn’t have anything else to do. I could envision spending the morning trying to figure out where the bear was and where the turkey was, so I decided I was going to have to run him off for good. I climbed the steep bank of the road and into the still dark woods. I went running toward the bear and he took off, but stopped about 30 yards away. I did this a couple of more times and he finally got the message and slipped off into the dark of the night.

During the third week in October, I am a bear hunter. I honestly don’t know many bears I have killed over the years, but it’s a bunch. For every bear that I have brought back to the house, I have had at least three or four encounters during the offseason. I am a great student of black bears and try to learn something every time I encounter a bear in woods or in my backyard. I can distill most of what I have learned so far into three things.

First, black bears are not grizzly bears. Grizzly bears see humans as food, just as they do elk calves and roe-laden Sockeye salmon. Black bears do not consider us a prey species, and despite what you may have read or seen on TV, black bears are usually pretty timid and do not attack humans, with the exception of a few extremely rare cases.

Next, just as I said earlier, every bear encounter is a unique situation and you just have size up the threat level and make a decision about the best way to avoid a confrontation. Your options are: 1) stand your ground and do everything you can to make yourself intimidating. Shout, raise your arms, and stand on your toes to make yourself appear larger than you are. In short, do whatever you can to intimidate the bear. Sometimes it helps to shake a bush or sapling or even pick up a stick or a rock and throw it in the bear’s direction. 2) Sometimes, as they say, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” In other words, quietly retreat from the area. Finally, in some rare situations, you may have to be assertive and actively run them off. Consider this as a last-ditch option when nothing else works.

And one more thing, this business of female bears with cubs being the nightmare scenario is simply not true. More times than I care to recount, I have found myself in between a sow and cubs. All of those encounters ended up with me safely returning to the truck. In most cases, the sow will send the cubs up a tree and amble off in the opposite direction. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.

I can recall one time when I ran up on a sow and three cubs in the dark heading to my deer stand. I was already way too close when I realized there was a bear in my vicinity. I heard a bear huff, which is a sound somewhat like that of a mule. In the total pre-dawn darkness, it sounded like she was about 30 yards into the woods on the side of the logging road. I could hear the cubs scrambling up a tree. I stopped and shined my light over in that direction. The bear came charging out of the woods and did what is called a “bluff charge.” She came running at me full speed and then slammed on the brakes at about 10 or 15 yards. She dropped her head and started slinging it from one side to the other, a sure sign that the bear is about make a lunge at you. I quickly realized that the best thing to do was to back track while keeping an eye on her. Keeping my flashlight focused right on her head, I slowly walked backwards down the logging road from whence I had come. Problem solved. She disappeared into the night, and I proceeded on my merry way, just by a slightly different route.

Then there was the time that archeologist Tommy Charles and I were exploring a huge rock shelter up on Pinnacle Mountain and I found myself with two five-pound cubs standing at my feet squalling their lungs out and mama bear about 10 feet away, mad as a wet hen with the hair on her back standing erect like a junkyard dog. It really doesn’t get any worse than that, but ultimately it had a happy ending. That is, I survived to tell the tale. And then there was the time here at the house when I had a 300-pound black bear in the back of my truck sorting through three bags of garbage I had put out there the night before. And then there was the time… Oh well, that’s enough bear stories for now, maybe later.