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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Unexpected meeting with our sow and cubs

We awakened to another glorious summer day. It's warm and comfortable, although smoke is in the air from faraway fires, reminding us of the scary part of summer.

The flowers are bursting to life. During our ride, K and I swooshed through a meadow dotted with Golden Banner flowers. Soon, Golden Banner will paint the entire meadow yellow.
Later, when I was riding alone, I noticed the enticing combination of bluebells and Golden Banner.
There's a remote meadow that I often ride through alone. Based on tracks, it appears as if I'm the only human who ever visits the meadow. Just a few days ago, I speculated in my mind that it was a perfect place for a bear to forage because of the abundance of Golden Banner (a bear food) and the solitude.

Today, I silently glided down a smooth and steep path into the meadow at high speed. As I glided, I heard a loud snort - an explosion of air from a mammal's nostrils. Before I could look for the source, I heard another sound - the scrabbling of small claws against a pine tree's bark.

When I stopped, here was the first animal that I saw - our sow.
Knowing that "our" sow has cubs and I'd heard claws on bark, I looked up. I saw the silhouette of a cub high in a Ponderosa Pine tree.
I've met this sow in past years when she's had cubs, and she and the cubs have galloped off into the forest together, giving me just a brief view of their rumps. However, all of those encounters were late in the summer, when the cubs were much bigger, stronger, and faster than these little ones who we've seen on my wildlife cameras over the past two months.
So, today, the sow couldn't flee because her cub(s) were up trees. I never saw the second cub but the odds are that he/she was up a nearby tree, and I was too distracted by the sow to spot the cub. Instead of fleeing, this good mother snorted and stomped. She ran back and forth, always keeping a good distance (30-50 yards) from me but clearly trying to scare me away from the cub's tree without having a direct conflict.
I took out my pepper spray and stood still to see which way the sow wanted me to go. I was a little worried that I was heading toward the second cub who might be further down the trail. However, in the sow's flurry of sprinting back and forth, she gradually gravitated slightly back toward the cub who I'd seen in the tree. I surmised that the second cub was somewhere close to the one who I'd spotted.
Based on that, I decided that the best course of action was to walk my bike down the trail, away from the treed cub, keeping my pepper spray out with the safety off and keeping one eye on the sow. The sow trailed me at a good distance, still making lots of noise to scare me away. I've never heard so much snorting in my life! After I walked about 100 yards away from the cub, she turned and ran with amazing grace toward her cub.
The sow was gorgeous. She rippled with muscle and had plenty of fat reserves. Her coat was shiny and sleek. I wanted to freeze time and imprint her beauty in my brain.

My actions were based on tons of reading about black bear behavior. Although the popular belief is that mothers with cubs are the most dangerous bears, hard data show that they are not. They rarely attack. Instead, they bluster and try to scare away any human or animal who is threatening their cubs. Keeping a calm demeanor and slowly moving away from the cubs is the best advice that I've read.

I was happy with my reaction today. I stayed very calm. When I pulled out my pepper spray, I even remembered to notice the wind direction so that I wouldn't have the pepper spray blow back in my face (but I never truly believed that I was going to need the spray). Despite the excitement, I remembered that the sow had a second cub somewhere in the area and tried to figure out where that cub was based on sow's behavior. It all worked out fine. This is a good bear, a bear who is afraid of people but uses her "bear behavior" rather than force to scare us away.

I came away feeling truly lucky to have seen the bear family in person. I felt guilty that I'd caused them so much stress but I didn't do it on purpose. As soon as I realized what was going on, I tried to manage the situation as peacefully as I could.

It was a day that I'll never forget because I love having bears in our forest.


  1. oh wow! What an adventure you had!

    Its so good to know you are experienced and knowledgeable about your beautiful bears. So many wild animals end up getting killed because of the dumb actions of people. Its not the animal's fault! They are just being animals. Its usually our fault for not understanding their signals & signs. They just want us GONE.

    Thanks for sharing..the pictures are amazing!

    Murphydog's Mom

  2. My Vickie loves your blogs. I know I have told you that time and time again, but it is so cute how she grins and giggles as she reads about all the cool experiences you have.

    You are like Sonny Daze only a lot younger and a girl.

    Nature is in your blood and your heart sings its song to all of us.

    Thanks so much.


    Oh yeah, and keep being careful and thoughtful. We like you to live to tell many more experiences.

  3. I cannot believe you got such fabulous photographs of the bears. I fear my hands might have been shaking too much for a clear picture. Indeed the memory of this lucky day will stay with you.

  4. Wonderful pictures of the bear and her cub. I think for me that would be closer than I would ever want to come to a bear. I guess I will have to rely on your fabulous photos for an up close view of them.

  5. I held my breath while reading your post!! At a moment when many (including me) would have panicked, you remained cool and calm and got pictures! I really admire you for that, and for an amazing encounter that has just about left me speechless, which is hard to do! :-) Wow....

  6. She is a beautiful bear. Have you ever had one snap her teeth at you. I had it happen to me a couple of years ago. Instead of snorting she kept snapping her teeth together to warn me off.

  7. Great pics!

    The only encounter I've had where they weren't running the other way, was on an ATV in the UP of Michigan. We saw a cub run across the trail right in front of us. We stopped and looked back...the cub stood on the edge of the trail, unconcered and the momma never showed.

    I've not experienced a sow standing her ground. I think the first encounter would be pretty harrowing!

    Nice post!

  8. If we were comedians, there are a lot of "bear" jokes that we could make. We can bearly contain ourselves. Instead we will just thank you for the wonderful photos.

    Any day that a bear encounter ends with just photos, is a great day.

    Mogley G. Retriever

  9. You handled that situation with so much poise and respect for the bears. I admire you! I would have been shaking and probably would have been too nervous to read the bear's signs accurately. Guess that's why I live in NY and you live in the mountains!

  10. Wow, wow, wow!!! What an adventure! Thank goodness you are so knowledgeable and levelheaded in your thinking. Just out of curiosity, how much good would that pepper spray if a bear did come after a human?

    On a much different topic, those Golden Banners are beautiful and the blue of the bluebells go so well with the yellow of the Golden Banners. The yellow flowers are also a great backdrop for K's gorgeous furs.

  11. Your pictures are so much clearer and better framed than the ones I took a few weeks ago from my Black Bear encounter. I was a little more focused on removing myself from the scene than taking pictures, so most of my photos were blurry or poorly framed. Hopefully, next time, I will be able to safely get some clearer pictures.

    And thanks for the link to the NYTimes article. I, too, had always thought of mother bears as the most dangerous. And since I live in Black Bear country and NOT grizzly country, I can ignore that Grizzly Mom stat.

  12. I'm glad it all worked out peacefully! I'd probably have had to walk the bike all the way home because I'm pretty sure my knees would have started knocking after I realized I'd gotten clear of the protective mother. Hopefully she and the cubs will have a peaceful summer and you won't have any more close encounters! At least, not that close!

  13. WHOA! That's intense. I can't believe you stayed so calm - and were even able to get pictures!

    Your pal, Pip

  14. What a moment! Such a good looking Mom and cubs. Great to see that they're so healthy. Glad you knew what to do when you came upon them! Good show! :)

    Waggin at ya,

  15. Unbelievable encounter! Oh how scared I would have been - not the calm presence that you obviously had! Glad to read that there are still bears who are scared of people - our Sierra bears are mostly not, unfortunately. That is truly a gorgeous bear - not scruffy like some we've seen in documentaries or books - so impressive. But all that huffing would have frightened the heck out of me!!! Thanks for the splendid photos of flowers/fauna - that lil one in the tree is almost irresistible!!!
    Hugs xoxoxo
    Sammie, Avalon and Mom

  16. I certainly enjoyed reading his post! What an amazing experience for you!

  17. That was fun!! Reading your adventures is like reading a very good book with pictures!! The only times I have run into bears in person is when I was in a car going slow. The first time I saw a bear, I stopped the car and watched it run up the other side of the mountain to get away from me and I sat there is awe! Thanks for sharing those with us!! Lots of love, Debbie & Holly

  18. Whatta ride that was! The late actress Ethel Barrymore once said:

    "The more you learn, the more you have when anything happens."

    You are such a perfect example of that!

    Stella (and Jo)

  19. Kia ora KB,
    What a great adventure and photos! Such a beautiful bear, and a great mom to boot. I came across a few black bears in the Boundary Waters, curious about food, which is why food is cooked and hung away from camps as a general rule, but never ever felt under threat. Your poise and calm and rational decision making makes me smile KB, a reflection of your own grace in the wilds. Kia kaha.

  20. WOW!! I think it's great how you've trained yourself on the proper way to handle situations with wildlife. How cool is it that you were able to stop and snap some shots. And, how smart of you to think of the unseen cub, and determine the best way to move forward. Very cool!!

  21. Wow, wow, wow! Your encounter was scary but you managed it well.

  22. All I've ever seen of bears in the wild are what you described... their tail ends rushing away from me. So this series is just incredible. What a great experience, both the bear's behavior and yours. And thank you for setting such a wonderful example. Hopefully many, many will come to understand bears better because of your work.

  23. Wow! What an amazing experience... love the photos that you got of the bear family. So cool!

  24. YOu are by far the nuttiest Mo-fo I ever read... ok, not really... but darn girl! I think I would have fainted easily. and I wouldn't have had the frame of mind to think about wind direction. no way. i would probalby have the safety off and in my right hand... but there's no way i'd have had the head that you did...

    yes, i loves me the bears in the forests too... i loves 'em more when i can't see them! ;)

    great shots. you're my superhero!

  25. I'm reading this thinking about my upcoming camping plans. I've been wondering about how to avoid a bear misunderstanding. It sounds like being prepared but staying calm and taking cues from the bear is the best bet.


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