As a bonus post today, here is a new article of mine that will be published in the Glacier Park Foundation's The Inside Trail magazine in February or March 2014.
THE WEST GLACIER BLACK BEAR: AN UNUSUAL FRIENDSHIP
When I came to Glacier National Park to work seasonally in the summer of 2012, I was already something of a self-taught bear expert. I had read dozens of books on the subject and even worked with captive grizzlies in Alaska, so I reacted with less dread than some of my colleagues at the news that a 400 pound black bear had taken up residence in town two years prior and was especially enjoying the cornucopia of huckleberries and dandelions that were growing around the employee cabins where I would be living. “He’s a sweet bear,” I had been assured by some who had already been face to face with him on more than one occasion.
Despite all the stories I had been told, the bear – who had been described to me as “enormous” – remained elusive. I can recall lying in the bed at night and listening to a large animal moving around outside, snapping sticks as he foraged. Then one evening, while watching a movie in the dark, the bright flickering light of the screen on the window drew him to the cabin and he stood up, placing his paws on the glass, peering in at the light. Whereas others may have reacted with fear and panic, the exhaustive research I had done helped me to understand a bear’s curious nature and I knew he would not be able to resist investigating this new phenomenon. After a few moments at the window, I heard his claws slide off the glass and he resumed about his business.
We finally met only a week or so later. It was a late mid-August evening and thunderstorms were threatening in the thick summer heat. A friend and I were returning to the cabins from our favorite hangout spot along the river and were greeted by a large black shape coming up the road toward us.
My friend was excited but nervous and asked me what we should do. Considering the drive to the cabins was very narrow, I advised we should move back and allow the bear plenty of space and a way out lest he feel cornered.
We backed away near a street light (it was dusk at this time) and watched in awe as the silhouette of one of the largest animals I had ever seen casually passed in front of us, taking the exit we had given him and simultaneously giving us a clear path back home. The stories I had heard were all true: this bear was huge! With a heavily muscled, trim body and thick tree trunk legs, this guy could give just about any grizzly in the park a run for its money in the size department. Needless to say, my friend and I spent a very late night excitedly chatting up the encounter.
Some days later, I was walking alone down the drive to the cabins in early afternoon and had almost arrived home when suddenly from what seemed out of nowhere there was a large animal moving through the thick brush off trail, just about to emerge onto the path right in front of me. I calmly and firmly called “Hey, bear!” I couldn’t see him in the brush but he instantly stopped moving, clearly startled. “It’s just me, bear!” I announced, by now assured that my voice was well known in these parts due to the many late nights I had spent walking this trail in the dark after work, calling out the whole way. At that, the bear made a slight course correction and instead of popping out on the trail, he followed it until he was behind me, then crossed, giving me only one casual glance in the process.
I only saw him once more that first year. He returned to the cabins in September with a mysterious foot injury and spent several days bedded down in the woods nearby while he healed. In all the time he had been down there, we had never been aggressive towards him or tried to haze and frighten him away, so he clearly felt this was a safe place and that he was welcome.
Truth is, he was welcome all over town. Each morning it was not hard to find excited talk about where the bear had been seen the previous evening and what he had been doing and if he failed to appear for a few days, concern for his well-being spread throughout the little community. Never once did he damage property, raid garbage, or ever attempt to gain access to anything other than natural foods. Never once was he exposed to human violence or aggression and he returned that respect to everyone he met, even during unexpected close encounters. Perhaps there’s a valuable lesson there that should be taken to heart in our dealings with bears elsewhere.
When I returned to Glacier in the summer of 2013, the issue of his whereabouts was the first and most burning question on my mind. By this point I had used my experiences with Glacier’s bears the previous summer to deepen my knowledge, had written two articles and a book on the subject, and considered the black bear of West Glacier to be a rare enigma, a fascinating and complex creature, and I wanted to know more about him.
Apparently he felt the same way about me because, inexplicably, he began seeking me out.
It was late June/early July before we met again. I was sitting on the porch of my cabin after a long day when I looked up to my left and saw him fifty feet away watching me with a gently curious expression framed below his Mickey Mouse ears. He reacted almost apologetically, as if he were saying “Oh, sorry to bother you”, and moved on with his usual calm demeanor, disappearing somewhere behind my cabin. “I bet he bedded down back there,” I remarked later to my friend from the previous year. To this day, I don’t know why I said that and I don’t even know if I was serious but I certainly couldn’t have predicted how ironic that statement would become.
I was catching up on email late one night when I heard the familiar cracking and snapping of sticks that marked the bear’s approach. I listened as he sat with a whuff outside my bedroom’s back exit. He leaned his massive frame against the door, the wood creaking and groaning, then slid onto the ground. After several minutes I heard deep breathing and then light snoring as the bear slept. I was amazed, overjoyed, and more than a little bit mindblown. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me! Once in a while, I would hear him shift positions, swat at bugs, and even moan in his sleep before the soft snoring resumed. A not unpleasant animal odor was present throughout and when I awoke sometime later after dozing off, the smell was gone. So too, I knew, was the bear.
When I related this experience to my colleagues, they didn’t seem too surprised. “Of course he came to you,” they said. “You’re the bear man. He likes you.” Initially I laughed this off but I had heard more than one bear researcher say that even wild bears seem to be like cats, able to identify their benefactors and that they even sometimes gravitate to these people. Could that be the case with this black bear? Was it just coincidence he ended up at my door or was he picking up on something?
I’m only aware of two or three other occasions in which he slept outside my door, but I often awoke in the middle of the night to thumps, bumps, and scrapes on my side of the cabin. I checked the area for a daybed or any natural foods that may be growing there and found nothing that would hold his interest. His choice to sleep there seemed completely random.
Because of the unusually dry summer, the huckleberry crop was very meager and with its failure, the bear abandoned the cabin area and moved on to greener pastures. I spent one evening around dark standing on the beach at the river watching his enormous silhouette patrolling the high bank of the far shore. Otherwise, he seemed to have disappeared.
The last time we met in broad daylight was in late September. The summer season was ending, fall was coming, and I was getting ready to move on to another job. I was walking along the road and, to my surprise, found the bear sitting upright alongside a small pine tree next to the road, watching me as I approached.
I stopped some distance away and let him see me, then I slowly pulled out my camera. When he saw the strange object pointed at him, he jumped into the road and started running.
“It’s okay, bear,” I called out to him. “It’s just me, bear!” At the sound of my voice, he stopped and turned to look at me, cartoon ears raised high. “It’s okay, buddy,” I implored, kneeling down in what I hoped would be a peaceful gesture. “Don’t be afraid.”
He visibly calmed, mouth dropping open, a body language sign of total relaxation. I snapped a couple of bad, blurry photos and then we watched each other for a few minutes. He made full eye contact with me for a long moment, with an expression that I can’t quite define, then walked away, coolly as ever, and followed the railroad tracks out of town. I watched until he rounded the corner and disappeared from view.
It was not long thereafter that I moved across town to take a new job. All my things had been transferred to an apartment on the roof above my place of work and the old cabin was empty. Near closing time on my second night of work, one of my fellow employees came in to tell me that a very large black bear, “the size of a small car” was hanging out near my apartment.
It can’t be, I thought and I followed him out to take a look. There, in the dark, was the familiar silhouette of a large healthy bear with thick tree trunk legs and a white patch on his chest. I couldn’t help but smile. “Don’t worry about it,” I said to my slightly shaken colleague. “I know this guy.”
With winter just around the corner, I expected the bear would move on to a den soon, though probably one not too far away. Going to bed late one night, I switched off all the lights in my apartment and looked out the door. There, to my astonishment, on the roof of the building, was the bear following the wooden walkway up to my door. He came straight to the glass and we made eye contact through it. He put his nose to my face and curled up right there for a nap. My jaw was on the floor and I was too blown away to sleep. He was actually on the roof! Why would he come up here? Perhaps he really did know I was his benefactor and felt that he should stay close. Maybe he was just saying hello or goodbye for the winter. Either way, I could no longer use the word “coincidence” to explain away these encounters.
With a big grin on my face, I raised a toast to this remarkable animal. “Have a good winter’s sleep, bear,” I told him. “I’ll see you next year.”
Copyright 2013 Chris Nunnally