The revival of the Michigan black bear has been seen with mixed feelings in Michigan. As kids growing up in the 80s and 90s, we never once saw a bear in Manistee County. Not even any sign. As the 2000s came into focus the bear sign really started to amp up. Scat, fur, tracks, all started popping up everywhere we scouted. Today, we see bears on our game cameras every year. I am sure there were always black bears in the woods, just fewer. The population has grown and they live damn near 30 years which helps too.
The first black bear seen by my own two eyes was on a drive to Manistee. Late one night, we were going through Cadillac and our eyes squinted at what we thought must be a tractor tire in the middle of the road. Your brain has a funny way of creating things to make sense of the world. As we drove closer, we realized this was in fact not a large tire but a rather large bear. He hobbled out of the way and this was the first time that we realized the bear population really was growing.
Personally, this is about as close I knowingly have been to a bear in Michigan. My husband and father in law have been much closer and each time, it's a bit unsettling. Scary really. The best story of the old man’s encounter involves ourselves in our early 20s. At night, we would take the old man’s truck and go two tracking. I cannot say that this was a safe thing to do but something that many young kids and apparently young adults do to pass the time in Northern Michigan. We would blast through huge mud holes and sometimes get a little too close to being stuck. Sometimes we would encounter random camping sights and we may have sat down at random people’s bonfires and had a drink or two.
One night, at the conclusion of our night of shenanigans we came back home to the old man’s cabin and went to bed. I am positive that this both drove him crazy and made him slightly jealous. I mean, at our age he was raising a family and here we were enjoying youth for a little longer on a grand scale.
That night, he woke from his slumber in his tighty whities and looked out the window under the dim yard light and what did he see. Blasphemy! The damn kids struck again and a once clean truck was a muddy mess. This is not the only frustration he felt, he soon felt deep anger at the fact that his beloved black Labrador retriever, Franky, was outside. These damn kids left the dog out too!
In a moment of seething anger, he opened the deer camp door to the crisp fall air. Out there in all his glory, he yelled at the dog to get inside. Over and over again this dog just looked at him with his glowing, insolent eyes. As if to say, I have found freedom and you cannot contain me. With anger now growing from the dog's obvious disobedience, dogs are a lot like kids you know on the insubordinate front, he starts walking toward the dog. Leash in hand.
It is at this point that we really need to picture this moment. A cool brisk October evening, barefoot, beer belly, grimacing clinched jawbone, tight undies. The crisping of the leaves and dirt under his middle-aged, hair-topped bare feet. Only to come to the moment of realization that your very obstinate dog is actually a very confused, very large black bear.
At this point, the old man scrambles terrified and breathless, backpedaling back into the cabin. Winded and scared shitless, he realizes that we, the damn kids that we were, in fact did not leave the dog out tonight. I mean we could be pretty careless but he really should have known we would never leave the pooch outside. We loved that Lab to death.
When we awake from our slumber the next morning, we are greeted with the task of cleaning the truck and the lovely story of a bear encounter that will not soon, not ever, be forgotten. The old man almost smacked a bear’s ass to get him in the house. I am not sure who was more surprised, the old man or the brute. I would have loved to have seen the look on that bear’s face when a half-woke, forty-six year old, pot-bellied papa came lumbering up the hill to the tree-line to greet him.
Have a great Deer Camp,
Dr. Jennifer Hiller