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Bear Tracks... and the bears that make them

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

Beginning in July 2020, I became a regular contributor to Wisconsin Outdoor News (WON) in "From The Little Cabin In The Woods" column.

This article was published in the WON October 2, 2020, issue.


“Every day when I go for a walk, there is a bear that follows me. He walks beside me just inside the wood line, along the road,” said the female voice on the other end of the phone line.

“Wow! That is really cool,” I answered.

“You do not understand, “she said impatiently. “I want you to make it go away.”

I explained to her that the UWSP College of Natural Resources studies bears and teaches about them. I told her that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources manages them and gave her Bill Mytton’s number. Bill was the big game biologist for the state at the time.

Another call came from friend and local Stevens Point businessperson, Bob Worth of Worth Tackle.

“There is a black bear on my deck, marauding the bird feeders. What should I do?”

“It’s June,” I offered sympathetically. “The mating season is under way, so bears are on the move. The moms have sent their 18-month olds packing. Therefore, there are unsupervised teenage bears on the loose. Put your bird feeders away and the bear will move on.”

“Okay,” he said. “Still, I think Marilyn and I will forego grilling steaks on the deck tonight.”

Black bears are beautiful and fascinating animals. They inspire a wide range of emotions in humans: fear, awe, curiosity, irritation, anger, elation and reverence, as examples. They were way at the front of the line when the Creator handed out good looks from this human’s perspective. Far ahead of say, wolf spiders. No offense to you arachnophiles out there. I am not one.

I am a black bear lover. This love affair with bears did not happen in childhood, the way it does for many children. There was no Roosevelt-inspired Teddy Bear in my world. I had Leo the Lion.

I came to this gradually in my adult life. My first serious thoughts about bears occurred when we went bear hunting in the Ashland area with our neighbor, Howard Williams and his brother-in-law, Joe Steiner. I did not get a bear. I did become tangled in my tree stand and ended up hanging upside down over a bait pile. I was not – repeat – was not a Wisconsin Hunter Education Instructor at the time.

Years later, I drew a bear tag for the area in the Chequamegon National Forest where we hunted deer. I was not too serious about it, or too hopeful. We lived four hours away and baiting was only going to happen when I actually got there to hunt. I had hunted enough years to know that stumbling onto a bear in the woods was unlikely. I had never seen one when out doing other hunting. I put out a little bit of bait when I arrived. No jelly donuts for my bears. I used raison walnut bread soaked in maple syrup. What I learned on that trip is that deer love raison walnut bread soaked in maple syrup.

One of the more interesting encounters came one summer when we were fishing on Lake Namekagon with friends, Jim and Elaine Kalmbacher. We had rented a cabin at Lakewoods Resort. Stan and I went to the office for extra towels. Elaine had Shannon down on the dock fishing or checking out the features of her new fishing boat. When Stan and I pulled back into the driveway, there was a young bear standing on hind legs under a pine in the yard. The bear sidled up on the porch and tried the lid on every cooler. Elaine is big on bungee straps, so the cooler caper was a futile effort.

By this time, Elaine was standing at the end of the porch. The bear walked right past her like she was not there. When he headed for the dock, Elaine picked up a spinning rod and chased him off.

“Oh no you don’t,” she called after him. “You are not setting foot in my new boat.”

The bear moseyed around the end of the bay that our cabin was on and went into someone’s garage on the other side. Clearly, that bear had a route.

Along the way, in my work at the UWSP College of Natural Resources, I inherited a bear research project. That is a story I will share another day. However, that project allowed me the opportunity to experience bears up close and personal. I was able to hold cubs, touch their tranquilized, beautiful mothers, and run my hands over the warm, shining hides of yearlings. I also saw them in their not so romantic selves when we processed them out of barrel traps. They can be dirty, stinking, insect-infested and not at all cute when they clack their teeth, growl and charge as you look in through the trap door. It was a blessing to have these experiences. After 20 years, I still cannot touch a bear without choking up.

We purchased the little cabin in the woods in 2006. Seven years later, we had our first bear on a trail cam. He (we think it was a he, but are not certain) visited the 150-gallon stock tank in the corner of the south cornfield over the course of three springs and summers. This added a lot of excitement to our weekly photo viewing.

He was likely one of those unsupervised teenager bears I described to Bob Worth. He was a regular visitor. Every week or so, he would sit in that stock tank. Stan keeps a wood plank in the water so that small mammals do not drown. The bear did not like that plank taking up space, so he threw it out of the tank on most visits. Our favorite photo is of him sitting in the tank with his paws resting on the rim on each side, looking ever so much like a person in a bathtub.

He came back year after year, increasing in size with each passing season. We never saw him in the flesh. Once, he must have come into the yard of the cabin as we found all birdfeeders and their hangers destroyed. He also left a rather large pile of bear dung next to the flagpole. We put the feeders away for a month. That was that!

The last fall that our bear posed for the camera, a neighbor contacted us. He knew someone who had drawn a bear tag for our unit and was seeking permission to hunt “our” bear on our place. We did not grant it. Do not get me wrong. I have hunted bear. I have cooked and eaten bear meat. One of the real wild game treats of my life was the time my friend, retired Arkansas Becoming an Outdoors-Woman coordinator, Phyllis Speer served baking powder biscuits and bear sausage gravy for breakfast.

This bear just seemed to be a part of our land in a very special way. I am happy for you to hunt bears, just not this one in this place.

The last photo that we had was in April of 2015. By that time, he was too big to fit in the stock tank. He never came back. I hope it is because he found a bigger bathtub elsewhere.

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