Early natives of the far north were said to believe that bears were another species of man, albeit a dangerous one. According to arcticwebsite.com, when the natives encountered a bear they would stop, raise their arms, slowly back off and apologize to the animal for intruding on its turf. If luck was on the side of man, the ploy worked. If not, things could turn dicey in a hurry.
I met up with a Maine black bear this past week while on my daily ramble over the countryside. A real Maine black bear, not the domesticated species that plays hockey or baseball for the University of Maine.
It had to happen, I suppose, since in my roaming I have encountered nearly every form of wildlife native to our northern clime except mythical Bigfoot the Sasquatch, and I half-expect to bump into that storied apparition before I permanently hang up my walking shoes.
As I approached a boggy area near a farm pond, a gaggle of geese on the water began to raise an unholy ruckus over some perceived infringement upon their domain. When I tried to determine what they might be squawking about, I spotted the bear racing along a farm road bordering the pond. It was the same critter I had watched through binoculars several weeks ago in a nearby area, although not nearly as up close and personal as now.
Because we were on a collision course, I halted. Seconds later, the bear crossed the highway some 60 feet ahead of me, disappearing into a roadside swamp and presenting me with a decision: Should I continue my walk alongside the wooded area where the bear might be lurking while sizing me up as an enemy to be dealt with, or should I diplomatically retreat and take the long way around the spot?
I chose Plan B.
As I back-tracked, I happened to glance at open farmland on the far side of the swale the bear had entered moments before and saw him running toward a distant woodlot. Problem solved. I continued on my original route while casting an occasional over-the-shoulder glance at the world behind me.
Several years ago, after an unnerving staring contest with a majestic coyote at the edge of a broccoli field and a strange encounter with a sickly looking fox who seemed overly friendly, I took to carrying a sawed-off broomstick as a minimal weapon of protection while in my meandering mode. I call it my Mad Dog and Rabid Fox Equalizer, and I never leave home on a hike without it.
The book on surviving a bear attack says humans caught in such a plight should shinny up a tree if possible — as a hiker mauled by a bear in Alaska did last week to call for help on his cellphone — or drop to a fetal position, remain still and cover the head and neck with the hands.
Even if the bear bites, we should continue to play dead — a disciplined maneuver that would seem far easier said than done. Once the bear realizes we are not a threat it may leave, a midcoast game warden once told me, the key word in that sentence being “may.” When I suggested that the beast might just as easily decide not to leave, the warden did not disagree. One never knows what turn an encounter with an unpredictable wild animal might take, he acknowledged.
A bear may attack a person if it is surprised, has cubs, feels it is
in danger or is protecting its territory. Experts who know what makes the average bear tick, counsel that if we unexpectedly encounter a bear in our travels we should make sure it sees us, then talk to it while backing off. Talk softly and carry a big broomstick, you might say. Or not. Above all, we should not run, because the bear will likely give chase. And guess who is going to win that contest.
Smart hikers make a lot of noise when hiking in bear habitat. Some periodically shout, some wear bear bells and carry bear spray, and others sing.
Singing would seem just the ticket for the musically challenged. If marching through bear country while belting out “99 Bottles of Beer on The Shelf” full-throttle and off-key wouldn’t stop most bears dead in their tracks and cause them to reverse direction — from sheer embarrassment for the singer, if nothing else — I can’t imagine what might.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is email@example.com.