There are certain realities about living in Southeastern Michigan such as you will not see a bear while walking at Proud Lake Recreation Area.
Some may think this is good, but until you have seen a bear in the woods, you don’t know what you are missing. But I am not writing today about how nice it is to see a bear walking away from you; I want to talk about what to do when the bear decides to get up close and possibly personal.
I have had the up close experiance happen a few times in Michigan and each time I was in awe of the size and stealth of these animals. One bear my family and I saw in the Upper Peninsula was very simply huge. He was large enough to walk over a few foot tall sapling as if to scratch his belly and we were happy to see him and happy he kept going.
I want to address the misconception that some people have about black bears; what to do if you encounter one and God forbid, you are attacked.
Before I continue, I am talking about truly wild bears, not those animals that have become habituated to humans. A habituated bear is a dangerous bear because they know that unless you have a weapon, humans pose little threat to them. If you see a bear that has absolutely no fear and that has been hanging around, get out of there and let someone know. Also, I am not talking about mother bears with cubs. Mother bears will do whatever they feel is necessary and more to protect their young. So stay away.
Remember I am talking about black bears, not their truly scary cousins the grizzly. We do not have grizzly bears in Michigan, period. Those of us who head into the outdoors should know this, but regrettably some do not. First it shows that the person has not learned enough about the natural world which surrounds us and it is a big problem if they ever have to deal with a black bear.
Black bears are more or less the laid back critters of the bear world. They will walk around, eat whatever they can and really don’t like encountering people all that much. Most of the time, you will not even have a chance to see a bear face to face. I have more than once heard crashing through the woods and watched as a bear went running off. In general if they know you are coming they will get out of the way.
But what do you do if a bear holds its ground? I had one bear decide he did not want to move while he was on the side of a trail in the Pigeon River area of Northern Michigan. I had not seen him but he did see me and he was not going to move. First he started making huffing sounds and made clicking sounds with is teeth, this is not good. That is when I noticed him in the brush about 20 feet away. Then he decided to do a “mock charge” at me to make his point, which he absolutely did.
When this sort of encounter takes place you need to face the bear and back away, do not turn your back! Turning your back on a grumpy bear could bring the predator out in him and you do not want this to happen. Just back away and give the animal the space he needs and deserves. That’s what I did and the encounter ended.
While you are backing up, make sure you do not fall. Black bears will feed on downed animals and a hiker or backpacker on the ground could look rather appetizing. Normally if you back off and do not seem to be easy prey, the bear will find something else to snack on.
So now comes the hard part, something I have never had to deal with; what do you do if attacked by a black bear. The simple answer is to fight as though your life depends upon it. Black bears will many times back off if you fight back. So this leads me once again to the whole subject of people not knowing the difference in bear behavior.
Whenever you hear about what to do if a Grizzly comes after you, the instructions are to play dead, though not everyone agrees, but this is the general rule. This message has been taken by some to mean that if any bear attacks you should play dead.
Never ever play dead if a black bear comes after you. If you do, you are very simply dinner. As I said earlier, if you fall on your back while moving away from a bear, he may come after you. If you play dead when he is coming after you, you are in very big trouble.
There have been cases, not in Michigan, of black bears injuring or even killing people, but in every situation I have looked at the bear was either habituated to humans or had something wrong with them. Either way, habituated or not, if a black bear comes after you, your chances of survival are a lot better if you fight.
So with all this said, I hope you have the chance to see a bear from a safe distance in the woods of Northern Michigan. If you do, count yourself lucky because it is an awesome sight to see such a large animal moving silently though the woods.
For more information on black bears, take a look at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources site Michigan Black Bears.
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