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Tim and I have joked that, if I were any nonhuman animal in this area, I’d probably be a bear. I’m grumpy and ravenous on waking, I love fish and naps in the warm sun, and I could spend hours foraging in a blackberry patch. In fact, I’ve long entertained the possibility that, on some warm autumn afternoon, I might come upon a black bear foraging in the same berry patch. We might start at opposite edges of the patch and eventually meet in the middle.

It hasn’t happened so far, but this past Saturday I came the closest yet. I was foraging black raspberries for a get-together with friends, and I noticed that the patch I was working in, just over the rise of a small hill from our house, was rather disturbed. Someone or something had blundered through it rather gracelessly, leaving canes broken or pressed to the ground. I knew I hadn’t done the damage, since I step gingerly over the canes (even the toughest ripstop fabric won’t protect human legs from raspberry cane thorns, though heavy canvas might do). Still, our land isn’t posted against hunters or hikers, so I figured perhaps some neighbors had been by, also picking the ripe berries.

I left the patch, heading further away from the house toward the woods, where there is a clearing with some wild red raspberry canes. As I was crossing the stream at the edge of the woods, I noticed an impression of four toes in the mud on the other side. I leaned over for a closer look, noting that I had to spread my fingers to mirror the width of the print. A black bear had been here.

I returned the next day with my camera, a tracking book with a ruler on the back cover (Scats and Tracks of the Northeast), and my trusty packhorse/spouse. The prints were still there, and undisturbed.

Four toes in mud

Getting a sense of size – I had to spread my fingers to fit the toes. The fifth and smallest inner toe didn’t leave an impression.

The four toes measured exactly three inches in width.

Tim noticed some broken ferns on the opposite side of the stream, the side we’d come from, the side the bear was heading for.

Broken ferns

Beaked hazelnuts.

I’m glad to know the bears are around; it’s another sign of the ecological balance we’ve partly regained since deforesting the state and killing off native species in previous centuries. There are still no mature oaks on our hill to provide acorns, but the many beech trees and beaked hazelnuts provide a good mast (nut) source for bears. Then there are the black and red raspberries, blackberries, chokecherries, serviceberries, apples, and many other fruits. Not to mention the insects, grubs, scavenged meat, and roots and other vegetation. This is only the second year I’ve seen black bear sign – last year I found two very large piles of scat full of chokecherries. But I’m hopeful that bear and human will continue to live harmoniously here.

(Note: Please, please keep pet food indoors and put bird feeders away in spring, summer, and fall, or use a birdseed less attractive to bears than sunflower seed. Bears that get used to scavenging seeds, pet food, or garbage from humans often become a nuisance and end up being killed.)