Friends and neighbors from the next ridge over reported that a bear had been terrorizing the bird feeders in their neighborhood. We didn’t give it much thought before Sunday morning.
“Oh, no!” Sharon said, looking out into the backyard. “A bear!”
I scrambled to find my phone. This was my chance to see and record an actual wild bear in proximity to my person.
But she had not actually seen a bear, only evidence that a large, destructive animal had paid us a visit. Sharon has taken, during the past year, to feeding the birds. Her three feeders had been ripped from their steel-rod hangers during the night. One of the hangers was bent to the ground, meaning that a bear was the most likely suspect.
My family has moved back and forth over the Southern Appalachian Mountain ranges between Tennessee and North Carolina for more than half a century. Never in all of my travels have I spotted a bear in the wild.
Raiders of roadside picnic-area garbage cans do not count. I saw plenty of that bear variety through the car window during the 1960s traveling between our home in North Carolina and the home of grandparents in Tennessee. Even as a kid, I figured that thoroughfare bears baited by passing motorists didn’t qualify as genuine encounters.
Before interstate highways became so widely available, we motored to my grandparents’ home in LaFollette, Tennessee, via a route that took us through Cherokee, North Carolina, and Gatlinburg Tennessee. Bear sightings were fun for the kids but aggravating for Dad, who had to deal with the ensuing traffic jams caused by curious tourists.
As part of a newspaper assignment, I once hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail from Madison County, North Carolina, into Unicoi County, Tennessee. A lifelong bear tracker was my guide. I told him I’d never seen a bear in the wild, but he was more intrigued by my admission that I had not walked up on a rattlesnake either.
Despite my assurances that I was perfectly fine without a snake encounter, the man became obsessed with locating a rattlesnake during our time together. We saw snake skins and plenty of bear tracks, but no live specimens.
Internet video platforms offer plenty of humorous — and some not-so-funny — backyard bear encounters. Before last week, no bear had ever been seen in or around our family compound in Gray, Tennessee, that I know of, during all of our 44 years of inhabiting the place.
My younger sister once called our mother to report a bear in the field below her house. It turned out to be a large dog.
Even though the contributing factors are largely the same as roadside encounters, I count backyard sightings as bona fide wild-bear encounters. A neighbor whose yard borders our property reported that he startled a bear outside his house at 2 a.m. on Sunday. We’re certain that it is the same animal that wrecked our bird feeders.
The neighbor said he pulled into his driveway to find the large bear lounging on a landing atop a set of steps on the outside of his house — probably drunk on birdseed.
In making a hasty retreat, the bear reportedly stumbled and rolled down the wooden steps before running off. No video, but my lucky neighbor has a lifetime story corroborated by our own evidence of tooth-and-claw vandalism.
Sharon found her bear-scarred but functional bird feeders scattered about. We probably should bring them in after dark for a while, she said. On the first night, my wife expected me to be the one to go out and retrieve the feeders.
I want to see a bear. I don’t want to wrestle one.