Grasshopper Soup: We can live with black bears | SierraSun.com

Grasshopper Soup: We can live with black bears

Bob Sweigert
Special to the Sun
Photos courtesy of Bob Sweigert A black bear gets a massage in 1990 from the salmon cook, Bob Sweigert.
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TAHOE/TRUCKEE and#8212; Deep in black bear country in southeastern Alaska, in 1990, I witnessed bears close up almost daily all summer. I was never attacked, and we never had to kill or relocate a bear.

There is always the potential for danger when bears and humans mix, but the potential for peaceful coexistence is easier than we think. I hope this account, and these pictures, will convince Incline Village, and all Tahoe/Truckee residents, including hunters, that we are all a necessary part of the solution to the human and bear problem.

I was the salmon cook at the remote Taku Lodge on the Taku River. I cooked for two or three large groups of tourists a day over an outdoor barbecue pit, using a thick baste of butter, brown sugar, lemon juice and white wine on the salmon. It was the ideal recipe for at least a dozen different black bears looking for a meal. They didn’t need a reservation.

I saw a black bear stand up on his hind legs and place his open jaws around a man’s forearm while he held a drink in one hand and a plate of salmon and beans in the other. The man froze as he watched two sets of sharp teeth close in, his arm about to become a meal. The bear held his jaws open for what seemed like ages, then backed off, dropped down on all fours and walked away without ever biting the man.

One rainy night I woke to the sound of a bear attempting to break into my cabin. We came face to face within inches, only a pane of glass and a window screen between us. I was shaking with fear, so the bear persisted. I had to work hard to calm myself down, but as soon as I was able to project dominance, I strictly warned the bear in a firm and strong voice, and#8220;If you don’t leave I’m going to blow you away with my shotgun!and#8221; Immediately, the bear dropped down on all fours and walked away.

One morning walking to work I bumped into a mean looking bear coming directly at me. We both stopped and stared each other down. I walked around the bear and he turned and walked right beside me, as if he was my co-worker with the same destination and purpose. I got a little nervous, but remained calm, talked to him a little, eye to eye, and we parted ways after walking side by side for about thirty yards without incident.

On one of my days off I heard curious sounds outside my cabin. I opened the door and saw the little mama bear who visited my barbecue pit almost every day after treeing her cubs nearby. Mama bear was sitting calmly on her hind legs to my right while her two cubs played in and around a tree less than five yards from me to my left. I stood between her and her cubs, just not directly, and mama bear sat down as calm as she could be.

That particular experience contradicted one of our most common rules about bear behavior, which is, if you get between a mama bear and her cubs she will attack. That is not always true.

Adult bears, and bear cubs, can actually sound human, or like children playing and squabbling. One night I thought I heard drunk hunters shooting their mouths off. I went out and saw four adult bears standing on their hind legs around our flaming garbage pit, grunting and gesturing to each other with their forepaws, as if they were telling jokes. Only one bear really worried us because we could never scare him away. We named him Scruffy. Ron, the lodge owner, fired a shotgun over Scruffy’s head from about thirty yards once. Boom! Scruffy didn’t even flinch.

My encounters prove, at least to me, that man and beast communicate, and bears respond to acceptance and fear. We communicate with bears whether we like it or not. And the bears understand. Except maybe Scruffy.

Bob Sweigert is a Sierra Sun columnist, published poet, former college instructor and ski instructor. He has a B.A. and an M.A.T. from Gonzaga University. He has lived at Lake Tahoe for 30 years.