(This column first appeared in the July 19, 1999 Buffalo News.)
The lean-tos in which Jim DeWan and I stayed along the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies three years ago are shed-like structures, three side walls constructed of logs, the roof boarded and covered with tarpaper. One wall of the shed, hopefully the one downwind, is missing. Along that open side the large log that characterizes Adirondack lean-tos is replaced in the Smokies by a floor-to-roof chain-link fence. You enter the lean-to through a gate in this fencing -- a gate with a stronghold lock. Inside, the lean-to has a double-decker arrangement of wooden floors that serve as hard beds for twelve hikers.
The reason for that chain link fence -- bears. Inside you find yourself in a kind of reverse zoo. At night the bears own the mountains. As you doze off you have the feeling that they entertain their families by gathering the cubs and visiting these cages amused by the snoring primates.
Bears are not just common to the Smokies; they are also widespread in the deeper forests of western New York. Local hunters consider Pennsylvania the heart of bear country but our Southern Tier has its share of these big ursines as well. And as recent news reports confirm, at least one yearling bear has ventured into Buffalo suburbs.
I write this now because a warning is in order. Bears are not cuddly pets. They are powerful animals that represent a real danger to those humans who interact with them. It is the grizzly bear of the west that receives bad press for its attacks but our eastern black bears are in some ways even more dangerous -- they can climb trees.
In the first issue of an interesting new magazine, Bears and Other Top Predators, Kathy Etling summarizes the North American bear attacks recorded in 1998. At least five of the twenty she describes were black bear attacks and, while most were in the Western United States, one took place in Wayne County, Pennsylvania. In that episode a man inadvertently came upon a sow bear with a cub feeding at a dumpster. Ms. Etling continues: "The man backed off, grabbed a tree, and started climbing. The bear went after him, biting him from just above the knees down to his feet. Basically, she bit the pants right off of him." That may sound funny but, when the bear finally left with her cub, the man needed 325 stitches to suture wounds that were so deep they exposed muscle tissue.
Commenting on a similar attack, Colorado Division of Wildlife Officer Tom Beck told Ms. Etling, "Climbing a tree to escape a [black] bear is as bad as trying to outrun one. When bears fight, the loser often runs up the nearest tree to escape. Climbing a tree initiates the chase mechanism as surely as running."
Another of the 1998 attacks shows that trying to swim away is just as ineffective. Only yells from a man on shore finally distracted a bear swimming after a woman who tried that after she was chased into the water. The bear, paddling faster than she could backstroke, had approached so close that she was already kicking it to fend it off.
These episodes and others like them send a clear message: Avoid confronting any bear! And if you do meet one, back off slowly, not making eye contact that would challenge it.
According to state bear specialist Lou Berchelli, in 30 years there have been only four bear attacks in New York, most the result of inappropriate human behavior -- for example, a youngster picking up two cubs to take home.
So enjoy any bear sighting but treat the animal with respect. -- Gerry Rising