The mother bear who earned a reprieve from New Hampshire’s governor has been in my yard so many times I think of her as part of my extended family. I do not, however, consider her a friend.
And that’s the trick, if you will, to living in close proximity to large, furry, dangerous animals. I’ve probably been physically closer to her more often than anyone else has since we struck up an acquaintance seven years ago. I respect the mother bear, I’m thrilled each time she visits — and I’m just as glad she doesn’t tarry. I feel a bond because we see each other so often, year after year, but I always keep in mind that she could kill me with a stray swipe of her claws.
It’s a peaceful coexistence, but I never forget who has the upper paw.
My house is in the heart of bear country, little more than a mile and a quarter due south of the Dartmouth College campus. For safety reasons, I keep my garbage cans locked inside my garage, never put out a bird feeder, and wouldn’t think of setting up a compost pile. If everyone followed those three simple rules, it’s quite likely the mother bear and her cubs wouldn’t be walking into the open garages of nearby homes.
People, alas, are creatures of habit. The bears are, too, and that can combine for a volatile situation.
I suspect that the mother bear keeps her den in the thick woods near my house. At least that’s what the experts I’ve consulted think, because she and her cubs walk through my yard often — sometimes daily — as they go about their migratory rounds searching for food.
How often? I’ve spotted bears in my yard more than 150 times in the seven years I’ve lived in this house. Surely they’ve passed through far more frequently, when I was too busy to look out the window at the right time, or at night when they walk past and don’t trip the garage sensor light. Since I began photographing their visits about five years ago, I’ve posted some 25 albums on Facebook, and many more separate photos — so many I’m sure those on my friends list will complain, but they never do.
Most of us find bears fascinating and frightening, often in the same breath, and I’m no exception. One evening a couple of years ago, I stepped outside my front door to find I was at best 25 feet from three yearling cubs. Their mother — who was walking away down the driveway — stopped and took a few steps back toward me, sending a message so clear we didn’t need to exchange words (or growls, I suppose). I stood still for what seemed like forever, though it was probably 10 or 20 seconds, until she turned to walk away, her cubs close behind.
A month ago, I was on my back deck photographing the three cubs as they ran through the yard and vanished into the woods. The mother bear is habitually ahead of them, so when I heard a crunching sound to my right and swiveled to look, I was as surprised as she was that we were maybe a dozen feet apart. She was on the ground, just past the deck’s railing. I had time for one close-up photo of her face before she ran to catch up with her litter.
Why didn’t she attack me or try to get past to forage inside my house? Possibly because she was more interested in protecting her cubs, who were already in the woods, than in prolonging our encounter. Also, experience has taught her that there will never be any food around my house, so she looks elsewhere. There’s a lesson there for everyone whose houses are being visited. If you don’t leave food sources in the open, the bears will pass by, hold up a paw for a high-five (figuratively speaking), and be on their way.
Most times, I photograph them through a window. If I’m outside, I use a zoom lens. The mother bear is on her fourth litter of cubs since we first met.I’ve photographed the bears with snow on the ground and when they’re strolling through freshly cut grass. Once the mother bear sat in the backyard on her hind quarters, maybe 60 feet from where I knelt with a camera, and used a rear paw to scratch her right ear. Moments like that are pure magic.
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.