The last time I saw Mink she was stretched out on the forest floor next to a tree her cubs had climbed for a midday nap, safe from harm. Fur thick and gleaming, her front paws and claws folded next to her face, she dozed, too — eyes closed, even though she surely knew I was near.
When you spend more than a decade watching and photographing a more than 200-pound black bear, you hope your last encounter will be memorable, and it was — though I didn’t know in late June that I was shooting my final photos of her.
Mink’s decomposed remains were found in Lebanon, N.H., Tuesday about 11 miles from the woods behind my house, which for years had been one of her regular haunts. She appeared to have been struck by a vehicle and, as wild animals often do, tried to flee after being struck.
“Bears rarely die exactly where they’re hit. They often crawl down into the woods and die out of sight,” said Andy Timmins, bear project leader for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.
Wildlife officials are now searching for her three cubs, born several months ago. Mink had been fitted with a GPS tracking collar that alerted officials to her likely death — the transmitted data showed she hadn’t budged for days. The cubs don’t have tracking collars, but there have already been phone calls of reported sightings.
“I strongly believe they’ll surface, I really do,” Timmins said. “They may be robust enough to survive on their own, anyhow.”
Mink’s death brings to a close an unusual and uncommonly publicized story of a wild animal whose presence among humans was sometimes feared and often celebrated.
I watched Mink and various litters of her cubs walk through my New Hampshire yard more than 150 times over the years, and I photographed her often, always without incident. That wasn’t the case for everyone.
After two of her cubs entered a home through a sliding screen door three years ago, Mink and her brood were ordered euthanized. Then New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu granted a reprieve, and in doing so he made Mink famous.
But she kept raiding food sources near people, and two years ago wildlife officials moved her to northern New Hampshire, near Canada. She walked hundreds of miles over the course of a year until she made it back to the Upper Valley, a region of New Hampshire and Vermont that straddles the Connecticut River.
Seeing her stride into my backyard last summer, thin from her journey, offered a valuable lesson in how and where we choose to live. It’s worth walking for months, she seemed to say, if that’s what it takes to travel back to the place you call home.
I live about a mile south of downtown Hanover, N.H., home to Dartmouth College. In the town’s expansive sidewalk district roam 11 female bears of breeding age.
“I think all of them are Mink’s offspring,” Michael Hinsley, deputy fire chief and fire marshal for the Hanover Fire Department, told me in April.
He should know. Nobody invested more time studying Mink and making sure she stayed out of harm’s way upon her return to this area.
Hinsley often spoke with residents whose outdoor bird feeders and garbage cans might attract bears. And he helped persuade the property owner to post no trespassing signs in the woods behind my house when it appeared that someone or some people had cleared a couple of areas for photo opportunities, and had set out food to lure Mink into their line of sight.
“I attribute her success, when she returned, to Michael Hinsley’s work,” Timmins said Wednesday. “He single-handedly has really paved the way for that bear.”
In this year of endless grief, which I document as an obituary writer, it helped me to know that Mink and her cubs were around. And frankly, the heart-racing thrill of seeing her has never dimmed.
Each time I passed a window I looked outside to see if she was walking by. And on the morning hikes that replaced the closed gym, I always peered through the woods around me, just in case.
Mink and her cubs have been a part of my household’s life since my wife, Jill, and I moved here 11 years ago.
“She was our bear,” Jill said Tuesday night when I broke the news.
While some, such as Hinsley, could claim an even closer kinship, the news of Mink’s death was greeted by an outpouring of sadness that rippled through social media.
Black bears in the wilderness can live into their 30s, but “bears that live around people don’t live as long,” Timmins said.
By the time officials found Mink Tuesday, she had probably been dead about a week. They assume she was struck by a vehicle because “her front shoulder and front right leg on the skeleton looked like they had trauma,” according to Timmins.
There were no recent reports of a vehicle striking a bear, but a driver had reported hitting her two years ago. She lived through the earlier mishap.
Bears “can take a pretty significant thump,” Timmins said. “She’s been able to thread the needle and avoid mortality from motor vehicle collisions for a long time in a busy area. But sometimes luck runs out, unfortunately.”
One day this past May, while Mink’s cubs slept in the woods, I photographed her as she walked past, glancing back over her shoulder.
I look at the photo now and it feels like a farewell.
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.