I promised charismatic megafauna, and it’s time I delivered! The American black bear (Ursus americanus) might be THE local example. They’re starting to be seen more often in nearby populous areas like Bethesda and Rockville, occasionally attaining local celebrity status. They’re large, adorable, a little scary but actually not all that dangerous, and have a tendency toward human-like actions. The smallest bear in North America and the least threatened bear in the world, they are also much less dangerous and aggressive than grizzlies and polar bears. Nearby Shenandoah National Park has the highest population density of black bears in the country, and I see at least one there almost every time I visit.
Often it’s easy to spot bears in Shenandoah because of the vehicles stopped in the middle of Skyline Drive, passengers either all pasted against the windows on one side or physically out of the car at the edge of the woods. You’re not supposed to do this, and the rangers will lightly scold you and break it up if they see it, but when confronted with an actual bear to observe this can be a hard rule to follow. The Drive is after all the most likely place to spot bears, since one covers a lot of ground quickly and the animals aren’t afforded enough time to sneak off. I’m comfortable with this rule being bent or broken as long as one isn’t openly harassing or feeding the animals. I can’t stress enough how bad it is to feed a wild bear, though. Just… don’t.
One such encounter came about because a driver in front of us had stopped to look at some deer in a field on the opposite side of the road. As we approached and slowed, the other car started moving again but I heard some rustling branches out my open window and asked Laurel to stop. I grabbed my camera and stepped out of the car, expecting perhaps an opportunity for a photo of a bird or other small animal. As I took a couple tentative steps toward the pine in front of me, a furry black face emerged from the needles. I was startled, but the bear only looked my way long enough to see what I was before it resumed browsing. It was only a couple arms’ lengths away but couldn’t have given less of a damn about me. I watched for a moment, snapped a couple of hurried photos, and got back in the car. In terms of pure excitement, this was about the best thing that could’ve happened. That said, I shouldn’t have been so close to a wild bear – for my benefit and its as well – and had I known it was there I’d have stayed in the car, content to observe briefly and quietly from there. I’m still glad of the experience, though. It’s always oddly gratifying when a wild animal is aware of you yet unconcerned.
By far our worst bear encounter didn’t even involve seeing the actual bear. Instead it was Franklin seizing an opportunity to roll in one’s feces while Laurel and I were distracted by something else (a small snake, if memory serves). It was during a long weekend camping trip, and we had little choice but to share our tent with him. The best we could do was give him a sponge bath, hold our noses, and refuse to snuggle him. I’ve never seen the little bastard so pleased with himself. I’m certain he brags about this to Oscar every time we go camping now. All of our other bear encounters have pretty much been textbook observation.
American black bear links
I bearly restrained myself from all the ursine puns I wanted to make. Really stuck to the bear bones. Saved myself the embearassment. Bear in mind that I did this for you; it was quite unbearable. I can be pretty ursinine.