Bear Country

Everyone stares at a bear. You can see why

By Rob Breeding

The professor gets a little nervous in bear country. During the winter we fish the Shoshone River right in the town of Cody, Wyoming. There are prominent signs warning that bears frequent the area, so the professor always carries a can of bear spray.

Those town signs warn against black bears. I’ve told my fishing buddy that you don’t need pepper spray for black bears. While there have been a handful of fatalities due to black bear attacks, you are far more likely to suffer injury in an accident driving to black bear country than due to a hostile bruin.

Black bears are a timid creature. This is probably due to having evolved in North America alongside some particularly fierce predators. Brown bears, including grizzlies, as well as polar bears, still share habitat with black bears. But these bears also once shared the continent with now extinct short-faced bears, saber-toothed cats and American lions. Black bears carved out a niche as a timid, forest dwelling omnivore more interested in climbing trees to avoid trouble than ambushing unsuspecting fly fishers.

I’ve run across a handful of bears recently. The first was a on a float on the North Fork. The Kid and I were in a long, deep pool below Fool Hen Rapids, so engrossed in fishing that we failed to notice the bear eating berries along the bank.

After a bit of fishing another raft came through and gave away the bruin’s location. You always know when folks have spotted a bear on the river as everyone in the boat will be craning for a better view. Moose get a similar response. But not deer, which are common enough to be dismissed by many.

Everyone stares at a bear. You can see why. The good-sized male we saw was working over a berry patch, pulling the plants to his jaws with pudgy paws. He then ran the brush through his teeth, stripping off the fruit.

Watching him it was easy to see why humans have such an affinity for bears. The way that bear pawed through the brush seemed almost human like. I love hoofed wildlife such as deer and elk, but bears are another thing. I’ve crossed them off the list of animals I’ll hunt, despite the critter’s status as a game animal and the fact that many in the hunting world pursue them with great passion.

For me bears almost seem a companion animal of sorts. I can’t imagine I’d enjoy eating one, no matter the taste.

A few days later I saw another bear on the North Fork, this time from the road as we traveled up to Big Creek to put in. Again, others paying closer attention to these things gave away the bear’s presence as we came up on a truck stopped along the road with the two occupants watching, one with binoculars and the other a camera. As we eased past my daughter saw the black bear on the far bank, up to its shoulders in the river.

We stopped and watched until the bear swam off. We saw it again a few hours later when we floated past, and probably only because the weather was nasty that day and hardly anyone else put in that afternoon to spook it before us.

I got one more look at a black bear after we ran our shuttle and I drove down to the take out at Glacier Rim. As I came down the hill toward the parking lot I watched a skinny little bear run out of the trees to cross, then do a 180 when he saw me, running back into the timber. That bear was a gangly youngster, smaller than a medium-sized dog.

Even a good-sized black bear boar tops out at a few hundred pounds. The remains of the largest short-faced bear discovered stood tall enough on all fours to look a 6-foot man square in the eyes.

That’s a bear I wouldn’t be too thrilled to run across on a North Fork float, even if the professor brought a fire extinguisher-sized can of bear spray along for the ride.

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