I have fed chipmunks peanuts from my palm, stalked beaver around the lake in a canoe, tossed bread to wild ducks from the dock, caught and thrown back more fish than I could count. I’ve admired the flight of a bald eagle, a great blue heron and a twittering hummingbird. I’ve seen porcupines shoot quills, white-striped raccoon tails glow in the dark and deer dart gracefully through the woods. Part of the appeal of the North woods is this privileged relationship one develops with the forest animals. Living so closely to wildlife teaches respect, but in all my summers spent in Wisconsin, I’ve never considered what to do if a bear comes calling at my cabin door.
The locals at Summit Lake recount bear sightings every summer, but we had heard it so often, it sounded like folklore, the bear being like the Hodag, the mythical beast of the old lumberjacks of Rhinelander.
Still when living in the woods, bear is always in the back of your mind. When I grill out and hear a thrashing in the forest, I think, “Bears, burger, me…dead meat.” Just as I turn to run, I’ll see a white tail flip up in the green brush and a deer dart across the path.
So one drizzly afternoon, when my mom exclaimed, “Oh my, there’s a bear!” at first it didn’t register. I reluctantly put down my book and looked out the picture window in front of the lake. Not more than 15 feet away, a bear stood on his hind legs sweeping a clumsy paw at the bird feeder. His black coat was sleek and glossy from the rain and made him look slim. He had a cute, round snout and beady, black eyes. Standing five feet tall, he didn’t look that big or that bad. Before I could grab a camera, he lumbered back into the woods towards the lake leaving us with nervously reassuring one another we weren’t hallucinating.
“I thought it was a big, black squirrel climbing the tree!” my mom said in disbelief.
“Are you sure it was a bear?” my daughter asked skeptically.
“We couldn’t all be wrong,” I answered, pointing to my parents and sister who looked a bit shell-shocked from the sight.
“I don’t know,” Nat speculated. “How good are your eyes – you all wear glasses.”
Next morning, my sisters and I were apprehensive when we walked down our wooded lane, stopping to chat with our neighbor the local woodsman.
“Nothing to be afraid of,” Steinie said. “Those are black bears, not grizzlies. Won’t bother you. Just give a holler. Tell ‘em to git and they’ll go on home.”
Yep, July 19, 2001, the day a bear came to call was etched in my memory. Over a decade passed before I saw another one. Sure enough Dad and I did a double take as we watched a smaller black bear look right as us then amble back into the woods.
Since ghost walks and flashlight tag were now out of the question, we spent summer evenings peering out the window. Every shadow looked like a bear. When it was too dark to see, we recounted bear stories over again as if to reassure ourselves that it wasn’t just some apparition of our imagination.
A lot of folks tell tales of hitting deer darting across the highway, but leave it to a Frenchman to boast of being hit by a bear. My husband swears that a big ol’ black bear ran right into him after he swerved on highway 64. Of course, the only witness was the bear, so we’ll never know for sure. Sounds like one of those fishing stories where the catch gets bigger every time you tell the tale. But it could be true. One neighbor asked for advice on how to shoo a black bear out of his garage with a yard rake. My sister, Karen, was sitting on the dock admiring the lake when a bear ambled out of the woods aiming to hang out at our house until her dog, Kizzie barked.
It is one thing to see bears in a zoo, but another to see them in your front yard. I know what a caged animal must feel like. While our bear roamed around his woodsy world in freedom, I stared at him from behind our glass cage. It was a humbling experience, a vivid reminder that I am just one little creature in God’s great kingdom.