If you spend enough time outdoors in Northern Michigan, you'll eventually see a black bear (ursus americanus). These large bruins are typically shy and live in very dense woods and swamps, making them hard to find. However, problems can arise when they associate humans with food (garbage, food left outside when camping, etc), or when a sow (female) with cubs is surprised by a human.
Several years ago, I was fishing the lower Garden River near the Soo, Ontario for pink and king salmon. A few buddies and I had paid a tribal guide to fish on Garden River First Nation land. This allowed us to fish the river near the mouth, where we were likely to find larger numbers of fresh fish running up (rather than the upstream public stretches where the salmon were less fresh and less enthusiastic about taking flies. After fishing a run for an hour or so, and taking several nice fish from it, I waded to the bank to sit for a few minutes. I propped my rod against a bush, sat on the sand with my back to the dense underbrush and popped open a can of Guinness. Taking a long drink, I glanced down at the sand and saw a few large, fresh bear tracks next to me, along with some droppings. The sand displaced from the tracks was clearly visible, not having been rained on or walked over. The droppings looked like they may have been steaming. Feeling a bit of ice in my veins, I stood up and turned to face the brush. I realized that a bear intent on a salmon dinner could wander out anywhere along those banks, even if I happened to be sitting there. My pleasant sitting place no longer felt secure, so I picked up my rod and finished my beer knee-deep in the Garden River. I crushed my can, slipped it back into my vest and stripped off some line in preparation to another cast with a hand that shook just a little bit.
Though very rare, a surprise meeting of black bear and human can result in an actual attack, as was the case with 12-year-old Abby Wetherell in Wexford County, Michigan, earlier this month. The young lady was jogging on a trail near her grandparents' home when she saw a bear. She began running faster, and the bear pursued her, knocking her down. When the bear turned to leave, Abby got back up and started running again. The bear knocked her down again, and was finally startled and chased off by a neighbor who heard Abby's screams and came to investigate. Miss Wetherell was airlifted to Munson Medical Center (Traverse City) where she underwent surgery for a deep laceration on her thigh, and almost 100 stitches. She returned home within two days of the incident, a battered but very lucky young woman.
Chance encounters between black bears and humans do happen. It's important to remember that bear attacks are extremely rare. Relaxing will be near impossible if you are confronted by a bruin who thinks that your presence equals a meal or threat. Late summer and early fall are typically times when bears are feeding voraciously, packing on fat for the long winter hibernation just around the corner. This increases the chance that you may see them near rivers with salmon, garbage dumps or campgrounds. However intimidating these creatures may seem, there are safety tips you can use to minimize your risk when you are hiking, camping or fishing in areas that are home to bears.
Click on the link to see the safety tips - and remember, there's no substitute for common sense when dealing with a predator like a black bear. Tight lines!