When A Bear Comes Calling

What to do is mostly learned from doing the wrong thing first.

So, there I was. The night was temperate. Great sleeping weather, I thought. I was lying in bed eating goldfish crackers and watching Netflix, a fat kid reward for a day well done. The hour neared midnight and my mind strayed from the screen to flirt with slumber. But a large crash and thud startled me back alert. I sat up, feet slung over the side of my bed, ear aimed toward the windows of my front door. Thud, whoomp, thud, whoomp. And then, snort, snort, snort. He’s back, I thought. He’s come back.

I was certain the same bear that had visited my rubbish buffet the previous Monday evening had returned. It was a week to the day—garbage night. I sprang from bed and snagged a headlamp from the kitchen drawer…where I am assuming everyone keeps their headlamps, right? No matter. Palm torch at the ready, I crept toward my front windows. Just that day I had replaced the outdoor light, which I flipped on in haste. Drat!, I yell/thought. The bush blocked my nocturnal visitor from sight. Even my handheld headlamp could not illuminate the source of the racket. I could hear the thuds and the whoomps still. Hidden from vision, the monster grew in my mind’s eye.

Creative inspiration zapped into my brain with the furry and speed of Zeus hurling a lightning bolt. My gaze shifted from the scene outside and toward my desk, toward my car keys, toward the clicker thingy. With thumb readied on the rubber door lock button, I peered back outside on what would soon surely be my scene of victory. Click, click, honk, honk. Click, click, honk, honk. The visitor remained, so I tried once more. Click, click, honk, honk. Still nothing. My Subi’s high-pitched, passive mouse fat, pardon me, sir honk apparently had no effect on the shadowy grunting caller. The thuds and whoomps and snorts and tears and rustles continued, unchanged, unimpressed, and undeterred.

Was it in fact the bear or something else? Was there nothing at all out there? Was it just the wind, a specter, an apparition of the mind, a stomachache gone to the head, the result of too many crackers in bed? All these queries swirled about as I slid my feet into flip-flops. Nary a thought, neither of doom nor of concern, crossed these questions. It must be the bear, I supposed, and he must be thwarted. I made ready to exit my home and enter the night.

There I stood, not but eight feet from the wooly hunched beast. The black bear perched atop my downed garbage bin, tearing into his nighttime feast with brutish power, paying me no mind. “Hey, bear,” I barked with furrowed brow. “Get outta hear, bear. Get outta here!” The furry ogre looked up from his refuse nosh and locked his voracious stare upon me. And that’s when I became keenly aware that I was wearing nothing but flip-flops, boxers, and a very, very stupid look on my face. Crap, I thought. Crap.

I wondered if this bear would act similarly to my beloved and incredibly frustrating, devastatingly heartbreaking Chicago Bears. Surely if I painted a goal line between he and I across the sidewalk he’d have no idea how to cross it. But rather than chalk lines and don eye black and tackling ferocity like Dick Butkus, once more I yelled at the bear to leave my home and my garbage alone. I raised my hands, balled them into fists, and barked like a wild man. To my astonishment, following an I don’t really care about you but you’re being loud and annoying while I am trying to enjoy a late night snack snort, the bear, pigeon-toed, fuzzy, and I am assuming full, sauntered off to be greeted by the barks of neighborhood dogs whose fenced-in hubris allowed them to protect their territory in safety. I made sure he was gone before I returned to my home to find some pants and hopefully a clue.

On the other end of the phone, my town’s safety officer informed me that we’d been experiencing a higher than normal amount of bear activity this summer and early fall. It was morning now and in the daylight my evening bear taunt seemed a little stupid. Apparently, bears in Colorado have recently exhibited a growing reliance on people food and lack of people fright. Why forage in the forest when dummies like me leave meals out on the street for you?

I talked to my neighbors who told me that a bear lives in the tree by the library down the street. The town knows too, I gathered. A buddy told me of his bear B&E, the cat food cat burglar. He broke in twice. Try mothballs, ammonia, and bleach, I was told. Stow your trash in a shed and take it out in the morning. Try this or have you thought of that or maybe a little something or other. Everyone had ideas.

I talked to my fellow AJ staff writers for their bear experiences. Justin said, “I generally consider black bears to be about as threatening as a housecat (I as well, for what it’s worth), but when in griz territory I’m convinced I’m about to be ripped limb from limb at any moment (me too). When I spent a couple months in the backcountry at Kings Canyon years ago, I went from being alarmed when bears strolled through camp in the evening, to yawning and peeing next to them in the middle of the night while they stood on the NPS bear boxes that contained our food.”

Abbie told me that her encounter was a notable one, most notable for cuteness that is. “My first-ever bear encounter was deep in the North Cascades. A friend and I were on a kayaking trip, and we saw the cutest scene: a mother and two tiny cubs eating huckleberries on an island, her paddling across a channel with them on her back, the three of them plodding in a line across a trail bridge. We gave them a good berth and I decided it was the best first bear encounter possible…until, ten minutes later after we had pulled out for a day hike, a little cub tumbled out onto the trail right in front of us. We sprinted the opposite direction, yelling and banging sticks, and spent the rest of the hike wary of anything rustling in the trees.” Notable and adorable and terrifying all together.

I am not new to Colorado, nor is this my first encounter with a bear in close proximity. But this experience did give me the ole face palming, you idiot reaction. A $30 Ace Hardware visit supplied me enough u-bolts, wire cable, ammonia, and shop rags to jury-rig a bit of bear proofing. At least, seemingly bear resistant, I think. He has since not returned. When it comes to bears, animals that I love and respect, the little I know helps a lot. Bears are strong enough to rip a door off its hinges without thinking twice. One destroyed my pal Frank’s car to get to a fun size candy bar. Surely, they’re strong enough to tear through the hulking stupidity of an underpants-clad skinny fat Irishman yelling like an imbecile in the dead of night. But maybe looking up from one’s meal to see a jiggling, mostly naked, screaming ski bum is enough to spoil even a bear’s appetite. If this bear returns, I’ll probably put some jeans on before I go outside. Or maybe I’ll just call the cops and let them deal with it. ‘Cause like, ya know, it’s a flippin’ bear, man.

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Showing 6 comments
  • Coop

    Nicely written. I’m moving to bear country and that was an excellent primer.

  • Kat

    Ummm I don’t know if you should be advising your less-experienced readers that black bears are as harmless as a housecat. That false sense of security is what gets people into trouble, and god knows common sense isn’t that common (ie, watching a tourist get out of their car six feet from a black bear in Banff to take pictures…).

  • Zigy

    I live in Boulder (CO), and after 13 yrs of tolerating a stinking garbage can in my south-facing garage all summer, and getting up early to put it out just in time for the garbage truck, I finally got a bear-proof (at least we only have black bears here) garbage can that I can leave outdoors all summer.
    Worth the extra few bucks per month for no stink and more sleep.
    Also: not so to the “harmless as a housecat warning” bit, even though my local ursines are as easily frightened as a squirrel.

  • Zigy

    Upon first seeing the photo that accompanied this article, I assumed it would be about dealing with brown (Grizzly) bears.
    When it became clear that the article was about the author’s experience with black bears, a much less dangerous bear, I became really angry at both the author, but even more so AJ.

    I live in black bear country (see my previous comment) and anyone with any outdoor experience knows you don’t go out into the dark when a bear — and especially a Grizzly — is grazing in your garbage, but my concern is that someone without such experience/knowledge will not be aware that they shouldn’t do that after reading this. I think a photo of a black bear would have been more appropriate to indicate that the article was about them and not Grizzlies.

    In addition, the author’s friend’s cavalier comments about his lack of concern around those Grizzlies in his campground,
    “I went from being alarmed when bears strolled through camp in the evening, to yawning and peeing next to them in the middle of the night while they stood on the NPS bear boxes that contained our food” was absurd and should not have been included without a serious warning that this behavior is stupidly dangerous; how did he know that one of those was not a mother with cubs wandering around? As the author notes, the average National Parks visitor is utterly ignorant about Grizzly behavior, and I worry that this attitude could cause some urban idiot to think Grizzlies are not all that dangerous and do something equally — or even more — dangerous.

    Hope this guy will not try this in Griz country, and glad his ursine visitor was not a mother black bear with her cubs, which might have had a very different outcome than the humorous one he describes

    • Kyle

      Great points, Zigy. In defense of the article, the quote from his friend Justin mentioned that he was in Kings Canyon, which means black bears, not grizzly bears…ot that safety isn’t required around all bears.

    • JW

      Jesus, lighten up.

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