Close Encounters: It’s Been a Big Year for Bear Run-ins
by Elizabeth Folwell
A bear walks into a bar. Really.
Raquette Lake’s Tap Room had an after-hours break-in a few weeks ago, a black bear who passed the beer cooler in favor of the deep fryer. The animal gorged on gallons of fat and left huge greasy paw prints behind; unfazed by the disturbance, the celebrated watering hole was up and running the next day.
A home in Long Lake lost its kitchen door to a marauding bear in search of garbage. In Inlet, a hungry bear opened a car door to get to the stash inside—only to have the door shut firmly behind him. The animal destroyed the interior in a frantic escape effort. In Blue Mountain Lake, the episode was benign; on the morning of August 19 a yearling was spotted by staff arriving for work as it was sunning itself near the Adirondack Museum office door. It scampered up a nearby tree and was photographed by Paige Doerner, marketing assistant.
Our Adirondack resident bear is Ursus americanus, which can reach 500 pounds or more, attaining that weight by consuming all kinds of berries, nuts, grasses, other vegetation, insects, carrion and more. Dry conditions in July contributed to less-abundant berry crops and some animals moved closer to towns and campsites in search of a meal.
“Bear problems are high this year,” says New York State Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife biologist Ben Tabor, based in Ray Brook. “Bear-human conflict is often an issue when humans are complacent about our garbage, bird feeders and camp food. If items that might attract bears are available across the landscape, the bears are likely to be drawn to human locations,” traveling miles following enticing scents.
Bears have a remarkably keen sense of smell—one comparison is that if a human’s sense of smell is the size of a postage stamp, a bear’s range is the size of a four-by-eight sheet of plywood. Bears can smell food from a mile or more way. Researchers in the Northwest buried two cans in dirt more than a foot deep, one containing plain old sand and the other salmon, and guess which one the black bears dug up? Apparently they can tell what’s inside that sealed metal shell.
Since July black bears have become more bold in the High Peaks and other favorite backcountry destinations. Typically these are young animals, one to two years old, who no longer have their mothers for help with finding food. The sows have new cubs to care for, so the juveniles may turn to easy pickings rather than a wild diet.
Backpackers in the eastern High Peaks are required to use bear-resistant canisters for storing food, and these high-impact plastic vaults should be in any camper’s gear assortment.
Here’s some advice to help you avoid close encounters:
• Store food, toiletries (bears like toothpaste) and garbage in a bear-resistant canister away from the campsite or lean-to.
• If you don’t use a bear resistant canister, hang your food, toiletries and garbage at least 15 feet above the ground and 10 feet away from any trees.
• Prepare food away from the campsite or lean-to, and prepare and eat food well before dark.
• Take food out immediately before preparation and/or eating.
• Take out only as much food as will be eaten.
• If approached by a bear, make a lot of noise, wave your arms and make all reasonable efforts to keep bears from obtaining food, but do not risk physical contact. Back away from the bear, don’t run.