Sunday, June 26, 2011

Grin and bear it

........I wrote this a few years ago for Muskoka Magazine...
For years we celebrated each rare Black Bear sighting. That muscular figure, loping confidently across a quiet gravel road. The lush black fur of a mother and cub moving in and out of the shadows at the far edge of a green field.
Last year that all changed. We were living in a state of siege, on the alert night and day for the enemy. Probably the bears agreed. After all, we had unwittingly moved into their territory, the ancestral bear grounds of Sprucedale. Or whatever they call it amongst themselves.
During spring, 2005, my husband Frank and I completed building our new home, situated on 100 acres just outside Sprucedale. The property looked fantastic. All during the previous year, Frank had planted grass and clover in the clearing. By summer, a real scorcher by anyone’s standards, the ground was parched and our grass was suffering. But rising in triumph above it were lush areas of verdant clover, covering about a third of our one-acre clearing. We had lots and lots of clover. And the word got out around.
By mid-July they had arrived. Bears, bears and more bears. Not passing through like our beloved bears of the past. No, these bears had moved in. Well, OK, we had moved in. And planted an ursine salad bar. The first time one stopped by, we ran for the camera. My gosh, would you look at that. He’s eating the clover. That one was a Big one.
Next came two others, Small and Medium, who arrived together. Bears would often turn up right around suppertime, although a Medium Large once came at sundown, lay down and grazed from a recumbent position until morning. Every so often he would lick his paws like a cat.
When we looked up Black Bears on the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) web site, this didn’t seem extreme. It said that some bears actively feed for 20 hours a day, ingesting as much as 20,000 calories. And while they prefer the berry crops of late summer, they obviously felt that our clover could tide them over nicely.
During this period of intense cohabitation, we were able to test many so-called bear deterrents. So, there’s Yogi chowing down 15 feet from the dining room. First we had the Fox whistle test. I leaned into the window screen and blasted away with all my might. It hurt my ears. The bear didn’t even look up. Next we beckoned my dog, Stella, an aging, semi-fierce husky, who used her famous bark/scream. The bear twitched an ear and went back to the clover.
Many people have commented to us on the efficacy of dogs of any size in addressing bear problems. My Chihuahua treed a bear. My terrier came back with a mouthful of black fur. If the bear even smells the dog it will go away. Uh huh.
At night, we often tied the dog out, her summer house tucked under the edge of the back deck. I figured that with a noisy canine right there in the yard, that would be it for the bears. Right. One night I looked out from the upper hall window. There was Stella in full voice. Twenty feet away was a Big Bear having a munch. Not only that, but the porker was filling his face in the precise location preferred as a latrine by my fearless guard. So much for conventional bear wisdom.
The only thing that ever really did the trick was when Frank went to a window with a good-sized, hardcover library book, opened it to the middle and snapped it shut. Bye bye, Bruno. And thank you Ian Rankin. Well, I guess that begs the question. No, we don’t own a gun. And I have to give the bears credit for helping us put off the gun decision. They did not wreak destruction on our nice, new house, and they did not bother the dog. The very first Big one went around to the back door and casually tipped over a large barrel planter. We later picked it up. That was that.
Some nights, the dog worked herself into an absolute frenzy of barking, and we imagined numerous bears circling the clearing trying to make their way to the Elysian Fields. But, later that fall, a friend who is in the wood business came with his young son to clear some more trees for us. We met up for a chat mid-morning and he asked if we knew we had a moose hole. Well, that was an easy one. He explained that the male moose, to attract the girl of his dreams, paws away at the ground to create an ever-widening mud-hole, a process that he facilitates by urinating all over it. I flashed back to those nights of relentless guarding. What if it hadn’t been squads of bears? What if, all along, it had been Bullwinkle peeing and tap-dancing in the moonlight?
So how many bears visited us last summer? We really have no way of knowing, as we couldn’t identify individuals, just general sizes. An MNR map showing bear population density indicates that our part of Ontario has 40 to 60 bears for every 100 square kilometers of land. Thank goodness they didn’t all come by for a meal!

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