Mikel B.Classen
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Bear Encounters & You

Bears! You determine how they behave

By Mikel B. Classen

            It was the middle of the night at a cabin at Mirror Lake in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. I was photographing the moon when the Black Bear showed up. I was with a couple of companions and we all backed into the cabin while the bear politely waited for us to vacate the campfire circle. We appreciated his patience. As soon as we were out of the way, he went to the campfire, searched it for any dropped food, I think he's realized that if he makes an appearance, anyone around the fire will drop the food and run. He looked under a white pickle bucket we were using as a seat. He went down to the boat, some of the cabins come with boats, and looked where fish are cleaned or left on a stringer. Then he searched the back of the cabin, many campers throw their grease there. Upon finding nothing satisfactory he moved on to the next cabin. It was an overwhelming display of how, we, as park users, determine how bears behave with our own behavior and habits..

            From a cabin log in the Porcupine Mountains: "It followed us down the trail. There was six of us and he didn't seem bothered by our numbers. We tried to pick up the pace, but he loped along behind us. We were getting nervous , not knowing what he'd do when we came up to one of the cabins that the park has. We all looked at each other and decided to run for it. The bear ran after us. Three of our party ran and locked themselves into the outhouse that was behind the cabin. Two climbed onto the roof of the cabin and I ran down to one of the boats that was on the shore of the lake-of-the-clouds, pushed it out and watched the bear rummage through the cabin site. After about an hour he went away"

            This is one of the countless tales of wandering Black Bears in the Upper Peninsula Parks. This particular one came from the Porcupine Mountains, but they are being reported in virtually every park. This is also a tale of people in the park that have absolutely no idea about what to do when encountering bears in the woods. Care at your campsite is of the utmost importance. You determine how a bear will behave, by your camp habits and behavior.

            Bear encounters in the parks are frequent. It is imperative that visitors to the U.P. know how to deal with bears. They are a part of the parks and its experience. Having a bear encounter can be an exciting and rewarding moment, but without the proper precautions, it can be dangerous and life threatening.

            Bears can seem human at times, partly because of their high intelligence and because they can stand and sit like we do . Their diet is similar as well, so fruit and nut shortages are problems for them just as they were for our primitive ancestors.

            In years of crop failure, black bears (the only bear that is native to the U.P.) are almost as quick as chipmunks to overcome their fear of people to seek food. They are extremely adept at getting it. They have color vision, acute hearing and a keen sense of smell. They learn quickly and can remember feeding locations for years. They climb trees, bend open car doors and pry out windshields. Bears readily swim to island campsites and they adapt their lifestyles to the availability of food, becoming nocturnal to avoid confrontations with humans rather than sleeping at night like they're supposed to do.

            The number one rule to avoid bear molestation is to keep a clean campsite. The less food odor in your camp, the less chance the bears will rummage when they make their rounds. Wash dishes immediately and dump the water away from the campsite. Completely burn any edible garbage including grease, rather than burying it or throwing it in a latrine. Keep nothing remotely related to foods in your tent. (This includes clothing that smells like food and toiletries.) Store food in your car trunk or hang it sealed in bags suspended from a line between two trees (suspended bags need to be at least 12 feet off the ground and 10 feet away from the tree itself).

            If a black bear shows up, it is not a cause for great alarm, but it does require caution. Most are timid enough to be scared away by yelling, waving and banging pans. Always keep them in sight and never turn your back on a bear. Make sure the bear has a clear escape route and rush to no closer than 15 feet. This works really well if there is more than one person. Bears are much harder to chase after they have begun eating. Never feed or try to pet bears.

            As a last resort and you feel you are in a situation, Capsaicin spray (commonly called pepper spray) has proven extremely effective. It blinds the animal without causing any damage. Most bears immediately turn and run, then stop to rub their eyes. No bear has ever attacked someone using the spray.

            Black bears can injure or kill people, but they rarely do. Even with cubs they will usually retreat. With care and precaution, bear encounters can be what they should be, an exciting moment close to nature.

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