Fierce Green Fire: The bear that was barely there

July 14, 2010

Perhaps because they were all asleep, the only bear spotted in plain sight was captive at the North American Bear Center (NABC) in Ely, Minn. While this 800-pound male was easy to spot, in the wild, bears proved to be much more elusive. For more info about NABC, visit www.bear.org. Photo by Jonathan Hicks

Editor’s note: The following is the second in a three-part series. The first part appeared in the July 7-13, issue.

By Jonathan Hicks
Staff Writer

Not unlike the moose discussed in the first part of this article, bears are an indelible part of northwoods lore. While generally only present in the northern third of the state, their appeal extends well over their geographic confines, spilling outward from Minnesota to the far reaches of the globe. Generic silhouettes adorn every manner of souvenir, frequently reaching the homes of aspiring Minnesotans, content to have the “log cabin look” from their city and suburban dwellings.

Further evidence of our affinity for the Ursidae family is found in the teddy bear—the best-selling and most popular toy of all time. Unlike countless other toy fads that have come and gone, the teddy bear has been an American symbol since the early 1900s…not to mention the standard way to say everything from “I love you” to “I’m sorry.”

While it has long been established that teddy bears could say quite a lot, my hope was that the real bears of Minnesota had something to say as well. Admittedly, having one say, “Hey, look! I’m over here!” would have been most helpful, but as most wildlife enthusiasts know, it generally doesn’t work that way.

So we searched. In fact, we searched the 3.5 million acres of Superior National Forest for a full week, rarely spotting anything beyond ruffed grouse and red squirrels. As our time began to wane, we even took to driving old logging roads at night, spotlighting the shadows of the coniferous forest around us.

Despite our efforts, by our last night, we were still yet to catch the shine of glowing eyes staring back into our high beams. It was difficult not to be overcome by a feeling of defeat. My girlfriend at one point even suggested that maybe all the bear-related items we had seen in souvenir stores were simply a marketing ploy designed to get ignorant city dwellers to travel in search of animals that did not actually exist.

As we were just about to turn back toward camp, it happened. For just an instant, about 30 yards in front of the car, we caught a glimpse of a black bear. It ran at a full sprint from left to right, only momentarily visible against the caramel-colored gravel road before it melted into the dark forest alongside. It was a shadow, and if not for my companion’s confirmation, I suspect I might have thought it to be but a mere figment of an overly-wishful imagination. But it happened, and as we made our way back to camp, we did so with renewed vigor and an increased sense of optimism.

Not unlike the many people who stare at bear silhouettes adorning their Middle American homes, my only experience spotting a bear came in the form of a fuzzy black shadow. Memorable to be sure, but not the kind of up-close-and-intimate teddy bear experience I’d grown to hope for. So while others go to the mall to “build a bear,” I’ll continue to spend my time searching for the real thing. Because at the end of the day, even when the only reward is a passing shadow, stuffed animals are no substitute for the thrill of the chase.

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