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Column: Of black bears and old fools

  • (Jonathan Stableford photograph)

  • Jon Stableford. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 6/26/2020 10:10:19 PM
Modified: 6/26/2020 10:10:11 PM

Through May into June, one of the threads running through the Strafford Listserv and local social media pages has been bear sightings, posts ranging in language from sober warnings to zoological field notes. A black bear has an enormous range, so it’s likely some of us are seeing the same bears, but there has also been plenty of variation in the reports — a mother with two cubs, a mother with three cubs, sometimes a single bear — to suggest there are a lot of bears running through our woods. At our home we’ve had three encounters, and after two of them my wife sent off texts and emails as if she were announcing the birth of a new grandchild.

We saw our first bear from inside our Toyota one evening as we returned home at dusk. We live on the top of a hill, and as we rounded a corner in sight of our house, the bear bolted down from the high point of our land where our garden sits. It crossed the road right in front of us and continued through a row of apple trees, over a stone wall, and into thick woods. It was a large bear. Once the wonder wore off, my next thought was that I should never try to outrun a bear.

A week or two passed, just long enough to give up hope for another sighting, and then the second one appeared. Again at dusk, but this time we were inside the house while the bear stood under an apple tree just 30 feet away. I had removed all our bird feeders but the one filled with thistle seeds and ignored by the birds all winter. I left it up because in summer, goldfinches develop a taste for the seeds and they look like fiery sparks around the feeder. The bear, likely the same one we had seen before, crouched beneath this feeder (still intact I thought) eating what I believed to be sunflower chaff left over from the winter.

We were hardly silent as we scrambled for our cellphones or as we tried to take pictures through a glass door, but the bear continued feeding, unperturbed. It turned out to be too dark for anything but shadowy pictures until I thought of the headlamp I use when I walk our dog at night. I put it on and slid the glass door open, flooding the yard with light; and for most of a minute we clicked away with nothing but a screen between us and the bear. At the end of that minute the bear flopped onto its belly and laid its head down as if for a nap. I took this as my cue to slide the screen open and step outside onto the grass like one of those people you read about out West, mauled by a mountain lion or gored by a buffalo, all just to get a better picture. Before I could take mine, the bear sprinted away. The next morning I saw toothmarks on the feeder and the bottom popped off and lying on the ground. The bear had been eating thistle seeds after all, and it had gone prone beneath the feeder not to nap but for a better angle to lick up the last few seeds.

Our third bear sighting was the best of all. I woke one morning at 5 and saw our dog standing rigid on our bed, staring eye-to-eye with a bear not 6 feet away through the bedroom window. This bear was a little smaller than the first two, but still easily a weight class or two above me. When it saw me moving to wake my wife, it began a slow amble along the south side of the house. We sprang for our cameras — this time I grabbed my Nikon for its zoom lens — but by the time we were armed, there was no sign of the bear. I went to the front door for a final look and was startled to see the bear on the porch even closer than it had been through the bedroom window. I fired off two shots as the bear slowly threaded its way between the porch swing and a geranium pot, but both were spoiled by reflected light from the flash bouncing off the window. So naturally, with the bear still on the porch, I opened the door and stepped outside.

I rationalize this foolishness by saying I was thinking about the phoebe nest in the rafters at the end of the porch, of the five eggs a bear might consider a worthy breakfast, but the truth is that once again I ignored obvious danger for a better picture. Luckily, the bear jumped from the porch and was completely out of sight before I could focus my camera, and I was left on the porch with nothing more than a hammering heart. I reentered the house a little wiser and a little sadder.

In the future, when the bears leave their winter dens, I’ll take down all the bird feeders and be less likely to step out onto a porch with a bear. Sadder, because it felt like we had seen our last bear until next year.

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, sitting on the porch swing with my 4-year-old granddaughter, I heard her say, “What’s that? ... Oh, a fox!” She pointed where the grass meets the woods 50 yards away to a red fox, still bristling with its winter coat. We watched it trot purposely until our sight line was blocked. Half a minute later it reappeared, now twice the distance away, but still in clear sight. It stopped and poked at a woodpile, I presume to flush out rodents. Not once thinking of my camera, I watched through my granddaughter’s eyes until it turned and took a long look at us and then vanished.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.

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