Bear With Me

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The bears are back in town.

I’ve been hiking in my wooded neighborhood since we moved here 16 years ago.

One of the best parts of Guilford, CT., is the beautiful trails winding along rivers and streams and through forests. People ask me all the time if I’m worried about getting Lyme disease in the woods. We live within spitting distance of Lyme, CT., where the first cases of the tick-borne disease were reported in the early ’70s.

The answer is no. I know plenty of people who’ve contracted Lyme disease in their backyards while doing yard work, or in urban areas where there are few deer. It’s a terrible disease – I have one friend who was undiagnosed for years and suffers with arthritis and is on antibiotics most of the year – but I refuse to live my life in a bubble.

I’m careful and take precautions, but I love hiking in the woods with my dog. We live in an area where you can let your dog off-lead, and my dog enjoys jumping into ponds, rivers, streams and puddles while I contemplate my navel or listen to the “Hamilton” soundtrack for the umpteenth time.

Hiking in the woods releases your mind in a way that’s impossible on roads while avoiding oncoming hulks of metal. Some of my best ideas have bubbled up while hiking alone. And hiking with friends is a special kind of therapy, a chance to vent or listen and be assured that what’s said stays in the proverbial vault.

Most of the people I see on the trails are moms like me with their dogs. After the business of mothering is finished in the morning or afternoon, moms hit the trails to collect their thoughts or forget about life for awhile. In a world of schedules, mom taxis and meeting others’ needs, a trail hike is often the one spontaneous act a mom can carve out in her day.

There’s only one thing that scares me about hiking, and it’s black bears. Bear sightings off Interstate 95, in condominium complexes and in trees in nearby neighborhoods make me nervous because bears are scary, unpredictable and dangerous, particularly mother bears with cubs.

I refused to let my daughter run through the woods to cross country practice because of bears. And I haven’t set foot on a trail since bear sightings began showing up on the town’s Facebook page last week.

The whole thing became official when this sign was posted at my favorite hiking trail up the street:

Everyone is very sympathetic toward the bears and I get it: they’re animals and have every right to share the Earth with us. I’d just be very happy if our paths never crossed.

Some of my previous surprise encounters with wildlife haven’t gone so well. I’m one of the few people who’s experienced a squirrel jumping into and onto her head full-force, and I’m here to say it hurts (and requires a round of rabies shots).

The black bears behaved and went into hibernation over the winter, but they’re returning in force like campers in their Winnebagos at nearby state parks. Over the past few days, several people have reported bears around town, forcing me to reevaluate my hiking routine.

Do I hike in the woods armed with my copper bear bell and pepper spray knowing there are bears in our midst, or stick to roads and populated areas to be on the safe side? Do I dare go out alone, or drum up companions, which is often difficult with kids home for the summer and vacation traveling?

I’m trying to outsmart the bears, figuring out places that they’re least likely to be. But as I learned last fall when they descended upon us, I have no idea how bears think.

I abandoned hiking in the woods when some large bears were spotted in our area last November, opting for a four-mile loop through a nearby suburban neighborhood.

I was feeling very pleased with myself until a bear was spotted in someone’s yard in the very place I was walking. “Bear spotted on Bartlett Drive,” The Curmudgeon texted. “Keep dog in house. Tell (our 18-year-old daughter) to go outside.”

All joking aside, I panicked because the bear was exactly where I thought he’d never be. I thought he’d prefer the woods with an ample supply of trees, streams, berries and privacy, but I was wrong. He was smack in the middle of suburbia having his way with a bird feeder.

As Connecticut residents, we know black bears are in the state, particularly in the northeast corner. Despite this knowledge, we panic when bears are spotted because they’re still relatively new around here.

We know people in other areas of the country deal with bears, and we’re a little in awe of them. We don’t know how they peacefully co-exist or deal with the knowledge that there is always the chance of encountering a bear. We’re ignorant dealing with bears, operating on sheer instinct, our natural fight or flight response and state wildlife officials tip sheets.

This is the only Bear I want to see on a hike: My friend Christi’s Bernese mountain dog named Bear.

One of the more surprising tips is not to play dead if you encounter a bear, and to fight it off with any and all means possible, including throwing things at it. I’m not sure I could do that. During a recent knife- and axe-throwing event on vacation, I learned my throwing arm and aim aren’t great. And let’s face it, if you’re throwing objects at a bear, you don’t want to miss your target.

There are some people who bravely videotape or photograph bears that stroll into their yards or cross their paths along the highway, but have no interest in seeing one. Though wildlife officials tout seeing a bear in the wild as an extraordinary event, I’ll take their word for it.

I’ve been up close and personal with a squirrel, which is enough to scare me off any future wildlife encounters. I’ll be very happy going through life without seeing a bear, but I’m not sure it’s really up to me.

If a bear is going to cross my path, I’m pretty sure I don’t have a lot of choice in the matter. It could happen in my driveway or at the local Dairy Queen, where one was spotted last week. But just to be on the safe side, I’m going to avoid the woods for now.

I’m not happy about it, but it seems like the reasonable thing to do – at least for this week.

9 thoughts on “Bear With Me

  1. I lived in Vermont for 7 years, where black bears are plentiful. I came face to face with one on my back deck one evening, as I was about to bring in my bird feeders, which were a favorite nighttime target of bears and raccoons. I opened the back door and there s/he was, about 5 feet from me. I quickly backed into the house, closed the door, and watched her/him amble off into the woods behind my house. That’s as close as I ever want to get to one. I think staying out of the woods on your walks is a good idea. Don’t tempt fate.

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  2. Interestingly, the Audubon Society in our area says to leave out bird feeders only from late November to early April—though I think DEP stated to take them down in late March. I reluctantly did so because of bears.

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  3. Encountering a bear would make me very nervous too. And the advice about how to deal with a bear who seems threatening feels counter-intuitive. We’re always been told to leave wild life alone and it will leave us alone, so throwing things at it and yelling seems provocative. I’m sure it isn’t, and that the bear experts know what they’re talking about, but I would have to force myself to behave that way.
    BTW: if you ever feel so inclined, I’m curious to hear more about that squirrel attack. We don’t have bears where I live, but we have tons of squirrels!

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