If You Go Out In The Woods Today — Bears in Simsbury, Connecticut

OK, writing about bears in our town of Simsbury, Connecticut is like writing about snow on Mount Rainier. Rainier gets about 59 feet of snow a year; we have a bear encounter of one kind or another virtually every morning. Big deal.

Does a foot of snowfall more or less matter to Mt. Rainier? Apparently, as someone is keeping tabs closely enough to report that the average for Rainier is about 640 inches annually, although in the boom winter, 1988–1989, the final tally was 1,035 inches. That’s a hefty 86 feet of snow and pretty hard to ignore. Can Washingtonians in the region describe snow with a particularity that baffles outsiders? Well, could you spot the difference between dendrite, needles, columns, plate, graupel, diamond dust, and rime icing?

Simsbury is about 11 miles north of Hartford, the state capital, home to commuters, retired folks, students at two prominent independent boarding schools, the international Skating Center (Sasha Cohen, Shizuka Arakawa, Osan Baiul, Michelle Kwan, Ekaterina Gordeeva, and Alexi Yagudin and tons of Olympic hopefuls), two pretty satisfactory bagel shops, Le Banh Patisserie, and the headquarters of the Ensign-Bickford Aerospace and Defense Company. Le Banh produces world class confections, and Ensign-Bickford produces Primacord, preeminent detonating cord, used by NASA in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, and, yes, the sound you hear is the weekly test of explosives.

We’ve got the usual suburban amenities (Starbucks, tennis clubs, golf courses, paddle tennis, pickleball, rowing) but only one chain restaurant (Jersey Mike’s). We’ve got three boutique grocery stores within ten minutes of the center of town and a number of excellent restaurants. The town’s library is fabulous, the Farmington River is available for rafting and tubing, and the Simsbury Land Trust preserves more than 1500 acres of wooded land.

Those acres adjoin the peculiarly wooded neighborhoods in Simsbury, Canton, and New Hartford. I’ve had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting the usual complement of woodland creatures plus beavers, porcupines, martins, coyotes, bobcats, and bears.

About the bears.

Male black bears bears (boars) tip the scales at 250–500 pounds; females (sows) can weigh up to 300 pounds. Our bears are active throughout the day and evening; they are omnivorous with a remarkably keen sense of smell and hearing. Ours do not hibernate, but they slow down during the winter months, “denning” without eating, defecating, or urinating. Most find napping spots under fallen trees or in bushes, but some comfort-driven bears end up under porches or decks or in sheds. Think about that for a minute. Males look for mates in the late spring and early summer, wandering around recklessly, ignoring humans attempting to shoo them away, and occasionally appearing tipsy, weaving and staggering. Connecticut has a lot of bears; the tally this spring identified about 1000, with the greatest concentration in … oh, yeah … West Hartford and Simsbury. Between the two towns we have roughly 140 bears moving around, more than 70 traipsing through our neighborhood every day. Are we surprised that Greenwich has but one bear? We think not. Very exclusive.

I belong to a fairly popular facebook group entitled, Simsbury Bears Unite, misnamed to some degree in that bears are not posting and reading, and there’s nothing united in the members’ attitude about bears. I belong to the “they’re not big raccoons, I wish they wouldn’t get into my garage,, Holy Shit! A mother and four cubs just looked in our patio window, they are magnificent and endlessly interesting creatures living alongside us” portion of the bear watching population. Some think they are oversized Beanie Babies and some want them hunted down and destroyed. I have to confess that my pleasure in experiencing bear encounters depends almost entirely on the size, posture, and position of the bear encountered. Back when we planned this relocation to Connecticut we did our homework about snow and flood, but neglected to ask about the possibility of meeting a bear in the driveway as I walked to get the mail. We’ve learned a lot quickly as spring brought bear cubs and hungry bears into our lives. I was cautious in putting out the recycling and garbage, but one of the bears is seemingly so accustomed to the routine that he’s called “Tuesday” in our neighborhood and is quick enough to claw open an ordinary garbage can in the ten minutes between our putting it out and the truck’s arrival. We saw three mothers with cubs fairly regularly, usually at a distance, but occasionally in the yard. We did what we ought to have done from the start — got the military grade bear-proof garbage bin and made sure the garage door was never left open. Our area is perhaps the most thickly protected for moms with cavorting cubs, but the real meal ticket is close to the center of town, condos and apartments with provocative dumpsters. As the cubs grew, they needed less cover and wanted more chow, so they headed south, for the most part.

For the most part.

My wife and I walk our dogs on a familiar and easy path that winds through our neighborhood. Houses are set a good distance from the road, and each is separated by several acres of untouched forested land. In the spring, those woods were alive with our ursine pals, but as conditions have changed, their appearances are mostly confined to the trash days.

We thought.

Approaching a long stretch of empty road a few weeks ago, both dogs froze then barked. We assumed these were standard postures primarily taken to impress squirrels, but a sudden blur of black surprised a squeaking “Bear!” out of me as I pulled our deaf dog away from the edge of the woods. A mother we know quite well was taking a shortcut across the road with four cubs, none of which paid any attention at all to her. It took a moment to realize that if we continued in the direction we had begun, we’d effectively walk between mom and carousing cubs. We stood for a moment, thinking that we might seem unthreatening , but the large bear looked me in the eye, chuffed a low growl and began to move deliberately in our direction.

It was the directness of her gaze that momentarily liquified me, but then our party discretely shuffled away, assuring any bears in the region that we had NO interest in taking the conversation to the next level. Mom turned and cuffed a cub recently down from a tree as we changed direction and gratefully walked home at a good clip.

I took a short break from writing this piece to roll our bear-proof trash bin to the end of the driveway. Tomorrow morning we’ll see Tuesday examining the morning’s array of bins, Wally loping across a manicured lawn in order to splash into a swimming pool, and Victoria and the cubs looking longingly at our garage doors.

I did remember to shut the garage doors, didn’t I?

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Peter Arango

I’m the author of four novels and America’s Best Kept College Secrets, a retired teacher of the humanities, eclectic reader, and prisoner of popular culture.