Home Homepage Featured MY HIGH COUNTRY: Bears on the brain

MY HIGH COUNTRY: Bears on the brain

By Rah Bickley. September 13, 2019. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Visits to our little cottage in the High Country used to be so carefree. Days were for hiking. Nights were for reading on the cool front porch, on a cushy old chair with a lamp tilted just right.

COVER IMAGE: Courtesy of www.trover.com

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sarah Bickley is a new contributor to Blowing Rock News, with a family cottage in Banner Elk used as a seasonal residence.. She is formerly a reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer.

It felt so safe that when our young son wanted to camp out alone in the back yard, we said yes — that is, until we started hearing about the bears.

The first story came from my mother-in-law. Her two dogs started barking their heads off one night. She looked around the dark backyard, walked up to the fence, and froze. A big bear with three cubs was staring right into her eyes. She yelled at them, “Shoo! Go away!” They turned and ran.

Our back deck is 35 feet up from the gorge. He must have REALLY wanted to get up here!

I was intrigued. Danger! Bravery! Heroism! Now there could be no peace until I had my own bear experience. An honest-to-God, face-to-snout confrontation must be a rite of passage to the High Country, I mused.

Plenty of reports fed my imagination. In Blowing Rock, Karyn Herterich, owner of the downtown gift shop Serves You Right, said she’d never forget the time a few years ago when a big black bear climbed the tall staircase to her back deck at home.

“Our back deck is 35 feet up from the gorge,” she said. “He must have REALLY wanted to get up here!”

She was standing at her kitchen sink when she saw him just outside the window. “I’d never in 28 years seen one in the wild.” Then he loped away, slightly pigeon-toed, down the stairs.

In Banner Elk, all of our neighbors knew the family of black bears. There was a mama, a big daddy and three or four cubs.  Our neighbor Floyd Townsend swore that the daddy bear liked to pick up the biggest rock on top of his dry-stacked rock wall and throw it on the ground, maybe looking for bugs to eat.

…our two dogs launched into that frenzied, hysterical barking that could only mean a bear.

The Loflin family of Banner Elk shared videos of bear cubs practicing their tree-climbing skills as Mother bear looked on. Our next-door neighbors, the Corns, had seen the bears walk around their yard, possibly en route to the creek. Across the road, the Tates had pictures of the whole Famille Bear exploring their new deck.

All this whetted my appetite to find my own bear experience. Finally one night, our two dogs launched into that frenzied, hysterical barking that could only mean a bear. I grabbed a big flashlight and lit out for the back fence, shutting them inside. I scanned around. Nothing … until finally my beam caught the fuzzy, shifting outline of something slope-shouldered, right next to a tree. Two yellow eyes were looking right at me.

My heart started pounding and my mind got very clear. Terrified and delighted all at once, I turned, bolted myself inside and locked the door – I guess not so heroic, afterall.

After that I had a lot of fun trying to spot bears at night, stalking around with my flashlight. I felt very daring until my husband, a stickler for facts– party-pooper! — showed me the “bear.org” website.

Our local bears, I discovered, are not the rearing, teeth-baring killers of my imagination. Grizzlies or brown bears are fiercer creatures. But in North Carolina, all we have is the black bear.

I turned, bolted myself inside and locked the door — I guess not so heroic, afterall.

Does this ursus Americanus open his mouth wide and emit a savage growl? Will it stand up on two legs and swat you with a claw-spread paw, leaving most of your bowels on the ground?

To my secret disappointment, no. Bears in scary movies are taught by animal trainers to open their mouths wide. Black bears are unlikely to swat at you, if you are keeping a proper distance, and anyway their claws are strong for climbing trees, but not very sharp.

A black bear behaves more like a prey animal, such as an antelope, than a predator like a lion.  When it smells danger, it runs – at up to 35 miles an hour. Or it rapidly climbs up a tree.

All that said, bears are still wild, unpredictable animals.

According to the National Park Service, “Although extremely rare, attacks on humans have occurred, inflicting serious injuries and death. Treat bear encounters with extreme caution!”

If your bear concerns are more everyday ones – say, how to keep them out of your trash bin – check out “bearwise.org,” a website created by the wildlife biologists of 15 Southeastern states.

One of the biggest rules is not to leave food or garbage where bears can find it. Bears who get used to human garbage may begin approaching people for food and may grow more dangerous and unpredictable.

Today’s hungry High Country black bear is a whole ‘nother animal from the beloved (but overfed?) bears that used to reside at the Grandfather Mountain zoo. It was a different era with different rules. “We’d throw food right at her and she couldn’t be bothered to pick it up,” Herterich remembers.

The High Country’s black bears may be fuzzy, but they’re not “huggably” cute, even though children and the people who buy things for them may think otherwise. “We sell dozens and dozens of plush bears for children” at Serves You Right, Herterich says.

The bottom line: Stay away from bears and keep them away from you — but don’t live in fear of them either.

“Keeping bears wild and learning how to live responsibly with bears benefits both bears and people,” said Danny Ray, a wildlife biologist for the state.

All of this means…when my family returns to our Banner Elk cottage I can still curl up on the front porch with a book. And our son can camp out in the backyard all he wants — but no food in the tent!

Four-footed furry visitors, begone!

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