At least one black bear has been spotted roaming near the top of Katahdin recently, surprising hikers as it feasts on the many berries growing above the mountain’s treeline.
“It’s not common,” said Baxter State Park naturalist Jean Hoekwater. “People who see those bears are fortunate.”
The bear (or bears) is likely foraging for a variety of berries that are abundant above treeline, such as blueberries, crowberries, cranberries and bilberries, Hoekwater said. This time of year, bears practically eat nonstop to store fat before hibernating.
“It’s important, if people do see them up at those heights, they allow them to forage,” she said. “Give them a wide berth. The bear is pretty much focused on eating, so you could really startle it, and it could get hurt running.”
Two young couples from Bangor are among the hikers lucky enough to spot a bear on the mountain this fall.
Bangor residents Kaylie and Daniel Reese were hiking up the mountain’s Helon Taylor Trail on Sept. 17 when they caught sight of a black object moving near Pamola Peak. When they realized it was a bear, they decided to stay back and play it safe.
“It was my first time hiking Katahdin and the first time I saw a bear in the wild,” Kaylie Reese, a Bangor Daily News employee, said of the experience. “Neither of us were expecting to see a bear, especially that far up, so it was quite a surprise.”
“The bear was having some difficulty moving on the spongy terrain and was zigzagging across the path we were planning to walk,” she recalled.
As they watched the bear, the Reeses were joined by a few other hikers, and as a group, they decided to continue on the trail and pass the bear to reach their destination, Pamola Peak and beyond that, Knife Edge, a narrow ridge that spans between Pamola and Baxter peaks.
“Personally, I was far more terrified of hiking Knife Edge with my fear of heights than I was of the bear,” Kaylie Reese said.
“Our thought was having a larger group of people would be safer because black bears tend to be more skittish around humans, especially in groups, and it seemed preoccupied by the food it was eating.”
As the group hiked along the trail, the bear picked its head up every once in a while and looked in their direction before resuming its foraging.
“We exercised caution, having read some literature about what to do when encountering a bear,” Kaylie Reese said, “and it turned out to be a very positive experience overall.”
Another young couple from Bangor, Stephen Rothwell Murdoch and Becca Marino, spotted what may very well have been the same bear 10 days later while hiking on the same trail.
“I was floored to see him,” Marino said. “It really wasn’t too far from Pamola Peak.”
Though fairly close, the bear didn’t seem to mind the hikers’ presence and appeared to be just “sniffing around,” Marino said. So the two got out their camera phones and took the opportunity to snap a few photos.
“It wasn’t too big,” she said. “I don’t think it was a cub, but it didn’t look like a big bear.”
Hoekwater says that while visitors spot plenty of wildlife in the Baxter State Park, black bear sightings are infrequent. Unlike the celebrated park moose, which roam wade through ponds and forest clearings, black bears tend to travel through dense forest and are mostly active at night.
Bear sightings in the park are most frequent in the fall, she said, when the animals are in hyperphagia, a period of excessive eating and drinking to fatten up before hibernation.
“We tell people who worry about bears to follow clean camping practices and Leave No Trace principles,” Hoekwater said.
Because bears have a keen sense of smell, they can detect food, as well as other aromatic items, such as soap, beverages, toothpaste, bug repellent and sunscreen.
Baxter State Park Authority instructs campers to place all unattended food, garbage and other “smellables” in their vehicles, with the windows rolled up.
“Because visitors are taking precautions, we generally don’t have a problem,” Hoekwater said.
If campers find their food or gear has been tampered with by wildlife, the vast majority of the time, the culprit is a mouse, a chipmunk or a squirrel, Hoekwater said. It’s the small critters that tend to do the most damage.
Over the years, the park has had to deal with the occasional bear breaking into tents or soft-topped vehicles for food, but in general, bears leave park visitors alone.
“We just don’t have a problem bear population,” Hoekwater said. “I give campers and rangers credit for that. Also, I think it has to do with the habitat and abundance of natural good available. We concentrate our camping in very specific places in the park, leaving the rest of the wilderness to the animals.”
A few years ago, a bear became a nuisance at Baxter’s Nesowadnehunk Campground when it was attracted to raspberry-scented insect repellent, Hoekwater said.
“Whoever made that repellent was probably trying to make it more pleasant to wear, but it was a bad idea,” Hoekwater said.
For backcountry campsites — those not reachable by vehicle — the park has erected bear lines to encourage campers to hang their food in bags out of the reach of bears and other animals. Another option for backcountry campers is to place food and garbage in bear-proof canisters. Just last year, the park began loaning out these containers to campers interested in trying them.
“Occasionally, when a bear shows up, we try to make a lot of noise and make it uncomfortable for them,” Hoekwater said. “We’re interested in helping them retain their natural instincts. They’re curious and are definitely interested in the easiest meal possible.”
“It’s not just about wanting to keep them wild,” she added. “We want them to be healthy. If they get into a bag of insect repellent, soap and deodorant, we’re going to have a very sick animal.”
Baxter staff asks visitors to report any bear sightings, at campgrounds or while exploring the many trails of the park.
“People are often really excited when they see an animal and want to get closer,” Hoekwater said. “But the park has a regulation against harassing animals or feeding them.”
So how close can you get? Hoekwater said a good “rule of thumb” for observing larger animals, such as deer, moose and bears, is to hold your arm straight out and put your thumb over the animal. If you can see any part of the animal outside of your thumb, you’re too close and need to back up.
To learn more about Baxter State Park, visit baxterstateparkauthority.com.