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by Margaret Hartley


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Abundant bears

Two days before my teen girl left home, we went on a farewell walk on our favorite home mountain, the one she first went up in a baby carrier and has climbed dozens of times since she started hiking it on her own when she was almost 4.

This time, we saw something we’ve never seen there before: bears.

Shortly after we started our hike, we heard a rustling in the woods, something a lot bigger than a squirrel. We looked around, expecting deer, and saw two little bear cubs scampering away, their black fur glistening in the light.

My daughter was beaming. “They are so cute! I love how their fur looks loose and ripples when they run.”

For the rest of our hike the only wildlife we saw were chipmunks and squirrels, dashing about gathering acorns.

It’s lucky for the bears that we have a good crop of acorns this year. The dry weather made it a horrible year for berries.

Every year, on this and other mountains, we make July forays for wild blueberries. Usually we pick them by the pint and bring home bags full over the course of several weeks, for fresh eating and for the freezer. Usually there are so many that even after all the human picking, there are far more than the animals — deer, birds, bears, raccoons, squirrels — can polish off. I know this because in the spring there are still dried berries on the bushes from the summer before.

But this summer there were virtually no blueberries. The dry spring caused the blossoms to drop off before they fruited.

This time of year there should be lots of wild blackberries on the mountains, also a favorite for foraging wildlife. But all the berry bushes I’ve seen on my mountain hikes have had just a handful of berries, most of them dry and shrivelled from a lack of rain.

Poor bears. There are very few apples too, since so many trees flowered early with the warm weather in early spring, then lost their blossoms to a late, hard frost.

Black bears are pretty much omnivores, eating nuts and berries, tree fruit, grubs, leaves, insects, rodents, bird feeders, garbage, corn — they are not what you’d call picky eaters. As big as they are (adult males can be more than 300 pounds and females a little over half that) they are agile, and facile with their paws, claws, mouths and tongues. They can root out an in-ground yellow jacket nest to eat the larva, scrape off tree bark to get to grubs, pull apart a beehive to get to honey and bee larva, or sit down in a berry patch and use their front paws like hands to pull branches loaded with berries toward their mouths. They are good swimmers, runners and tree climbers.

And while I’ve never seen them so close to home before, I’ve seen their work — a deep excavation where a yellow jacket nest had been, claw marks on trees, some of our beehives torn apart by something sharp and powerful.

I’m not sure if there are more bears this year or they are just more visible, coming more into areas where people are because food is a little harder to come by in the deeper woods. Last month a bear visited the Skidmore College campus in Saratoga Springs, and in May a bear wandered through Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood.

Certainly this year people have a lot of stories about bears.

When my daughter and I got down from the mountain, we started telling people about our encounter. My daughter’s friend in Greenfield Center said she’d seen one in her backyard the day before. The shopkeeper we know in town said a mama and two cubs had been seen in their field just days earlier.

“Mr. Know-it-all saw them,” he told me, apparently a little skeptical of his source.

My friend the painter, who is also one of my major hiking buddies, was excited about our cub story. But the next day she had one to top ours.

During an evening hike on a little mountain near her house, she heard scratching in an oak tree and thought it was a porcupine. As she and her hiking friend stared up the tree — which was, by the way, raining acorns, leaves, sticks and branches — they saw a bear, very high up.

My friend thought it was a frightened cub and, being kind, tried to comfort it. “Don’t worry, little fellow. We won’t hurt you,” she called up to the black blob at the top of the tree. She heard a lot of crunching, as if the bear was stuffing acorns into its mouth by the handful.

Then it moved, sticking out its head to look down at the people. Its huge head. It was no cub, and as my friend and her friend backed away from the tree the bear turned head-downward and charged down the trunk. About 15 feet from the ground it turned around, slid the rest of the way down, hit the ground with a thud and ran off.

My friend estimated its weight at around 300 pounds — “a papa bear,” she said. Once she stopped shaking, she felt privileged to have seen it up close, and thankful that it ran away so quickly.

Up at Adirondack Loj, a campsite in Lake Placid and a staging point for many hikes in the Adirondack High Peaks, there have been more bear sightings than usual this year. The person at the visitor center told me a mother bear and her cubs have been in the campground almost nightly, and that she’s been hearing about bears in the backcountry regularly all summer. She attributes it in part to the warm winter, which might have helped more bears survive, and the dry summer, which has bears foraging for food closer to humans.

Of course, black bears have long found humans handy as food providers, hanging around landfills and Dumpsters, where all manner of tasty goodies can be found.

Sometimes they take unusual measures to get to that food. When I told my big city friend about our cubs, he had a better story for me: A friend of his was working in his yard in the Catskills and heard a crashing sound inside the house. Going in to investigate, he found a mother bear and two cubs nosing around, inside his kitchen.

I know bears are smart. But I didn’t know they could cook.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

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