By Rob Samuelsen
Black bears live in our Arizona mountains. I’ve also tracked them in Cienega Creek and occasionally they forage for food and water in our neighborhoods as they did a few weeks ago. While their range can be as much as 50 square miles, they have been known to travel 100 miles or more when relocated or hungry. Generally shy and solitary, they are also highly intelligent and curious. Sometimes their curiosity gets them in trouble with humans.
Black bears are omnivores and opportunistic carnivores but are rarely “humanvores.” They mostly eat nuts, berries, insects, and cactus fruits but will enjoy fresh meat if it is presented to them in an easy-to-serve fashion! It’s that easy-to-serve part that conjures up the fear of mankind! A human stretched out in a sleeping bag looks a lot like a human burrito! And sonorous sounds and sweet odors coming from a flimsy tent incites their curiosity. Furthermore, escaping them is problematic because they are nimble runners, willing swimmers, and capable climbers especially considering their compact size and weight. One Arizona male stood 7 feet tall and weighed in at 880 lbs. and they can run at as fast as 35 mph! A bear is one heck of a predator!
When in bear country prevention is a better strategy than engagement. Knowledgeable campers know to “bear bag” their food at night to dissuade unwanted attention. This is done by hanging their food and “smellables like toothpaste” from a tree branch at least 12’ off the ground and at least 6’ away from the trunk. There is an art and science associated with finding and rigging the right tree! Such as it was for me while hiking the Appalachian Trail some years ago. I had been following fresh bear track for several hours giving me a massive case of bear brain! Everything looked like bear – rocks, trees, shadows, and bushes – and I was convinced that Smoky and his kin were going to enjoy furless human shish-kabob that evening. It was pitch black when I arrived in my appointed backcountry campsite so after a quick meal and camp set up, I went to search for the perfect bear bag tree.
I was perhaps 100 yards from camp when I spotted a good arboreous candidate. I set my pack down and proceeded to heave a suitable rope over a tall branch. At that moment of inattentiveness, a curious critter knocked my pack over resulting in a spontaneous primal response from me – I spun around into a Greco-style wrestling stance and let out a roar that would have summoned the dead! I have never wrestled so I don’t know where that came from, but my Enrico Caruso imitation astounded the beast so much that we quickly parted ways without having a free-style sumo match! Even today, I wonder what Neanderthal gene triggered my primordial response. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep a wink that night as I pondered my body parts being barbequed over my campfire by a den of Ursus.
There is an oft-quoted axiom, “You don’t have to outrun the bear, just the slowest person,” that gives solace to some. Unfortunately, at my age, I think I know the slowest person! Perhaps I should reconsider the Worldwide Wresting Federation (WWF)! At least I’d get an “A” for effort!