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Posted July 9, 2012 | comments 1 Comment

Almy: Up close and (too) personal with bears

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By Gerald Almy - sports@nvdaily.com

Most of the columns I've written now for more than 30 years in the Northern Virginia Daily have been about pursuing fish and game, or attempting to catch or harvest a quarry. The adventures that come from it, all of the nuts and bolts how-to information, and the ancillary aspects of being in the woods and fields and out on the lakes and rivers have all been covered over the years.

I've tried to stress that it's more than just achieving the goal. The important thing is the effort that goes into it and the experiences we absorb during the fishing and hunting.

But sometimes encounters with wildlife are just as interesting whether you have a rod and gun in your hand or not. Like watching a deer in the field you spot on the way to a grocery store, or geese circling overhead on your way to work.

Or take bears. Take them, please!

I've hunted bears many times, some successful, some not. But it seems I encounter them as much when not hunting them as when I'm pursuing them. They seem to love to visit the places I live, usually in spring.

The story in the Daily a short while ago about the bear climbing in through a screened window and settling into a feast on the kitchen floor in a Shenandoah County home made me think back about some experiences I've had with black bears in this area over the years. Over the next few weeks I thought it might be entertaining to look back on a few of them.

It started over 25 years ago when my wife, Becky, daughter Jarrett and I lived in Rivermont Estates on the edge of the Shenandoah River in a small cedar cabin, just east of Woodstock. It was a wonderful, secluded spot for an outdoor writer. We didn't have much land, but I could step out the front door, climb down the bank and cast a lure into the river for smallmouth bass in seconds.

Deer came down from the Massanutten Mountain to feed in the lowlands, and turkeys and grouse were reasonably abundant in the bordering George Washington National Forest.

And for Becky, town was just five minutes away.

But that proximity to town didn't keep black bears away. We'd see them occasionally up in the mountain behind us or down along the river. But the most dramatic encounter came on a cool spring morning when I awoke and glanced out the window, still groggy from sleep.

There not 30 feet away was the biggest black bear I had ever seen in my life -- hunting or not hunting. And he looked all the bigger standing on his hind legs, delicately sipping sugar water from our hummingbird feeder.

I awoke Becky and she got a quick look at the massive bear before he saw us and ambled nonchalantly away. Unfortunately, I wasn't quick thinking enough to get a picture.

Later that day neighbors saw the bear at the other end of the development sauntering across the road, no doubt looking for other backyard morsels or garbage cans to raid. There were a few more bear sightings in that Woodstock location, but none that dramatic.

About that time, for a change of pace, we decided to move to Texas. We bought some acreage in the Hill Country near San Antonio, designed a house and had it built. After eating in 47 restaurants (I kept count, mostly barbeque and Mexican), hunting and fishing, and getting an outdoor column established in five papers there, we decided that while we loved Texas, we loved the Shenandoah Valley more. Seven months after the move we came back.

Once you've established roots in the Valley, it's hard to leave, except maybe temporarily, like we did.

When we moved back around 1991, land prices on the river were sky high and we wanted a bit more property. We found a reasonably priced parcel in the foothills of Little North Mountain just south of Mount Olive. There we had local builder Clayton Smoot of Maurertown build us a western cedar log home from a kit we purchased from Lincoln Log Homes in New York.

Even though it was his first log home, Clayton and his crew did a fabulous job. Log settling can be a problem in these types of homes, but ours hasn't settled at all in two decades.

It's been a great place to live, with a spring pond where ducks and geese nest and good game populations -- including lots of bears. And this is where the real bear adventures begin. We'll continue those next week with the story of the most destructive, aggressive, violent bear I've ever encountered.

-- Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.

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    The fact the big black bear rambled on is an example of how shy black bears are. Most of the time they rather avoid human contact. Black bears are often in our neighborhood and are generally considered good neighbors as long as the human inhabitants take measures to keep food sources away from houses.


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