Fans of the TV show “North Woods Law” have learned a lot over the years about the woods and waters of Maine and New Hampshire. Aired by Animal Planet, the reality show follows game wardens as they rescue lost hikers, catch poachers and help manage local wildlife. The show has also helped at least two fans who once found themselves in an alarming situation — face to face with a Maine black bear.
The following story was shared by Karen Greene of Ohio, for the BDN’s “Strange Stories from the Maine Woods” series.
A longtime fan of “North Woods Law,” Greene visits Maine twice a year for vacation. (She also plans to retire in the state.) During one of those visits, about four years ago, she and her friend Kathy Rekers decided to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail in the Rangeley Lakes area.
“We had just climbed up a steep rock face and were standing on the trail when we were aware of a warning sound from a nearby animal,” Greene said. “We looked at each other in surprise and said simultaneously, ‘North Woods Law, black bear!’”
“We’re both avid fans of the TV show,” she said. “They had just aired a piece about black bears and how to be aware of them when in the woods.”
She and Rekers didn’t have to look far to find the source of the animal noises. A bear was standing in dense vegetation close to the trail, and it was looking right at them.
“We were a little frightened but kept our wits about us and quickly walked away from the bear,” Greene said. “What we learned from the TV show was to respect the bears’ habitat, be aware of getting too close to them, know the sounds they make when stressed and to not carry food when on short hikes.”
The bear didn’t pursue Greene and Reker, so they continued hiking. In fact, the two hiked for the remainder of their vacation.
“We learned so much from that wonderful show about staying safe in the woods,” Greene said.
Maine game wardens starred in “North Woods Law” from 2012 to 2016. Then the show moved on to follow game wardens in New Hampshire.
Are black bears dangerous?
Encountering a black bear while hiking in the Maine woods is a rare occurrence, even though the state is home to a healthy population of the species. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife estimates the state’s current population of black bears to be between 24,000 and 36,000. For the most part, these animals flee from humans, but there have been exceptions.
“We’ve had a few people injured by black bears over the years,” said Jennifer Vashon, bear biologist for the Maine DIF&W. “There’s only a handful.”
[A summary of bear attacks that have occurred in Maine]
Maine has not documented any fatalities due to black bear attacks, Vashon said, but other states have. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management documented 59 fatal black bear attacks, resulting in 63 human deaths, in the U.S. and Canada from 1900 through 2009.
“A lot of the bear attacks have occured in Canada, and it’s because they aren’t familiar with people and haven’t had enough negative interactions with people,” Vashon said.
How to deal with a black bear encounter
“If you encounter a bear, the best thing is to back away so your eyes are on the bear and you know what it’s doing,” Vashon said. “Then, if the bear starts to approach you, raise your arms to make yourself appear bigger and make noises to scare it off.”
“They have really small eyes and really bad eyesight,” she said. “So if they come toward you, they’re trying to see if you’re a threat.”
Unless you think you can get to a nearby shelter, don’t run, Vashon said. Running could encourage a bear to view you as prey, and the species can run up to 30 mph. In contrast, the fastest human, Usain Bolt, was clocked at just under 28 miles per hour in the 100 meter dash.
If uncomfortable or alarmed, a black bear will often make warning noises by blowing air through its nose and popping its jaw, like the bear did during Greene and Reker’s encounter.
“That’s good when a bear makes noise,” Vashon said. “When you see a bear that’s quiet and stalking, that’s a dangerous bear. It’s sizing you up.”
While hiking in areas where black bears are common, Vashon suggests carrying a walking stick, which can be used for defense and to maintain balance if backing away from a bear. She also recommends leaving dogs at home or keeping them on leash, since a correlation has been made between hiking with dogs and bear attacks. In several cases, dogs have found bears, then led them back to their owners.
[Dog owner during bear attack: ‘I stuck my finger right in its eye’]
It’s also safer to hike in a group.
“Fatal bear attacks are more common in parties of two or less,” Vashon said. “So if you go hiking, stay together. Don’t let kids run ahead.”
“And,” she said, “If a bear is intent on hurting you, fight back.”
Do you have a strange story from the Maine wilderness?
While spending time in the Maine outdoors, have you ever seen or experienced something that was amazing, amusing or strange? If so, you can submit your story and any accompanying photos to Aislinn Sarnacki by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If your story is selected for this series, you’ll be notified beforehand. All stories are lightly edited for clarity.