Homesteading and Livestock

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Bear Trouble

6/24/2014 10:31:00 AM

Tags: bears, predators, Michigan, Len McDougall

A territorial black bear in mating season can pose a genuine threat to a homesteader.One problem that has faced every person who ever tried to settle in a wilderness is coping with the animals who already make the place their home. A raccoon can’t understand that chickens in a coop aren’t there for it to eat, and mountain lions know only that sheep are easy prey. A pack of wolves sees no difference between a hereford calf and a moose calf, nor can they comprehend that a dog shouldn’t be killed for being a competitor, then eaten as food.  

I’ve always felt that any wilderness belongs to those animals able to make a living there; we humans might possess the power to displace or destroy them, but it’s their birthright, not ours. We self-righteously cry foul when a human subspecies attempts to kill off another segment of humanity that it perceives as a threat, yet our kind has been committing those very same atrocities against every wild species that has offended us since the beginning of history.  

Still, a settler in any wilderness must of necessity learn to cope with animals that consider the place their home, and my experience was no exception. Few wild animals pose a physical danger to people, and fewer still consider us edible, even when dead. But most denizens of the forest are territorial, as they must be, and to expect any of them to stop frequenting the places where they eat, breed, and bear young just because a human has taken up residence there is unjustifiably arrogant. It’s no less unreasonable to expect that they won’t take your food and anything else that appeals to them, should an opportunity present itself. That’s where troubles begin, because wild animals that raid the food stores of a homesteader may put him in genuine danger of starvation and sickness, especially through the long months of winter.

The most contentious challenge I faced in my own struggle to stake out a small bit of wilderness as home was from a 3-year old black bear. Mature enough to survive on his own, he’d been ejected from cubhood by his mother during the previous summer. She, like all grown sow bears, came into heat every 2 years, which meant she had forcibly abandoned her grown offspring in his second year to find another mate.

It was a story as old as bears themselves. The newly emancipated cub had been forced away from his mother and her new mate to prevent any possibility of inbreeding. Alone and confused, the adolescent bear had none the less survived quite well by following a trail of seasonal foods that his mother had shown him, growing to about 200 pounds in the first full year he’d spent on his own.   Barely half his adult weight, the young bruin already possessed twice my physical strength, and he proved to be very territorial, which made him a powerful and potentially dangerous competitor to me at the personal level.


My troubles with this bear started the first week of June, when the cabin had grown to become a box of logs, but didn’t yet have a roof. Access into the box was through a 3-feet square fireplace hole in the left side of the rear wall. The doorway, which was to be more than 3 feet across and 10 logs high, hadn’t yet been cut out when the bear began making trouble.

Our dispute centered around my food barrel, a 55-gallon plastic openhead drum with snap-down plastic lid and a steel cam-locked retaining ring that prevented the lid from being popped off. I’d reasoned that the lid also couldn’t be pulled open from the outside, while thick high-density polyethylene construction would resist even the most determined animal from chewing through to its contents.

The bear’s first raid came during one of my trips to town. Big John had found a large pile of used roofing steel lying at the Emmett County fairgrounds, and the manager there had consented to let us have it if we hauled the entire bunch away - as well as all the cable, pipes, and other discarded metal lying about.   It was a lot of work, but I ended up with more than enough steel to cover a cabin roof, even if it did have nail holes through it already, and John made a few dollars by selling the rest of the scrap metal to a local junkyard. I loaded 16 sheets on top of the Indian van and tied it down in preparation for my return to the dam at French Farm Creek.

I’d been gone 2 days, and when I returned to the cabin carrying 4 bundled sheets of steel on my head, the first thing I noticed was that my supply barrel wasn’t where I’d left it. In fact, the 200-pound container had been wrestled free of its chocks and rolled 50 feet from its original location. Large powerful claws and teeth had left deep gouges in the barrel’s thick walls, and its surface was covered by muddy paw prints that clearly identified the marauder as a black bear. I was glad to see that, despite being knocked about, the drum had withstood an apparently persistent assault without opening. I dragged the heavy container back onto its moorings, while making a mental note that it was requiring considerable effort to do so.

The bruin made his next raid within a week, again while no one was in camp. Pete and I hiked in from the dam carrying 6 more sheets of steel on our heads to find the barrel still chocked in place, but opened, its lid and ring lying off to either side. Empty packets of powdered cheese, raisins, and chocolate bar wrappers littered the ground immediately in front of the open barrel, as if the brazen bear had plopped down right there to feast. A plastic screw-top bottle of vanilla extract had been carefully uncapped, then guzzled dry without leaving so much as a drop spilled. Most insulting was the large, awful-smelling scat left deliberately on top of my hardwood cutting board - a clear and somewhat ominous challenge to my claim on this particular piece of forest.

Author Len McDougall's hand-built log cabin in mid-construction.

After that, the bear prowled the perimeter of my camp every evening after dark, huffing loudly and purposely clacking its teeth together in an attempt to frighten me away from my food. Pete questioned my sanity one night when I took up a flashlight and a stout white ash sapling in either hand, and ran toward where the bear stood grunting at us from the shadows, merely 50 feet to the rear of the cabin. Taken by surprise, the bear wheeled and ran from my approach. My ash stave whooshed past its rump, and the animal broke into full retreat, easily outdistancing me. I continued pursuit through the darkened woods for better than a hundred yards to show it that my intentions were serious, stopping when I realized that I didn’t know where the big animal had gone. I felt considerably less brave as I flashed the Mag-Lite over dense forest and realized that there might well be an angry bear with good night vision behind me in the shadows.

When I returned to camp, muttering and cursing, Pete looked at me as though I’d just sprouted a second head. “Len,” he said, “what would you have done if that bear hadn’t run away?” I explained to my young friend that black bears are by nature unwilling to fight if they can flee, and that if this one had stood its ground, a couple of thumps from my hardwood bludgeon would have convinced the animal to head for safer ground. The look on Pete’s face said that although he respected my judgment about most things, he wasn’t too sure about it this time. I hid my grin and changed the subject, because I wasn’t too damned sure that I was right, either.

Whether I was right or wrong was a moot point, because the bear was back again the following night, having learned only that I couldn’t run fast enough to catch him, and that I couldn’t see in the dark. I chased him through the woods again, this time backing up the flashlight with my .308 Winchester rifle. But even the roar made by this respectable caliber when I fired it into the air didn’t keep the overly bold bruin from returning. It was obvious that this bear had acquired a taste for human food - for all he knew, the cabin was a wonderful place where chocolate and cheese simply sprouted from big plastic barrels. The animal was only following an instinct to put on 50 pounds of fat in preparation for the coming winter, but I could no more allow his larceny to continue than could my musket-toting predecessors.

Frontiersmen of old were known to resolve such maraudings by lying in wait for a troublesome bear, sometimes over a baited leg-hold trap, then killing it on sight with a bullet. I didn’t think so lethal a solution would be necessary for a 21st century frontiersman. Savvy as they’d had to be, the sourdoughs of old didn’t have access to the half-millenium of scientific data about black bears that I had at my disposal, nor had they possessed the modern materials I did.

Cutting out the cabin’s doorway, a daunting bit of hard labor that I’d been putting off, now became an imperative. Because I intended to build my own door from rough lumber I’d split off full logs, the height and width of the opening was at my discretion. I decided to go with a 4-foot opening that was 7 feet from threshold to top, a fairly standard size doorway.

With those dimensions in mind, I framed in what would become the opening, measuring from the cabin’s front centerpost. To allow room for error, I mounted a 10-inch diameter framing log vertically at 4.5 feet from the centerpost, angling its top to correspond with the end rafter above. The doorframe would actually mount flush to the cut ends of the wall logs, but this framing log was needed to hold the corners tighly in place while I cut through them.   Once the framing log had been fitted, I secured it to each wall log with a countersunk lag screw.  

That was the easy part; now I had to remove a 4-foot section from 8 wall logs to create the doorway opening. I set to work with axe and saw in the morning, cutting, chopping, and sweating all day until a door-size hole had been made through the cabin’s front wall. Then I set to work flattening the top of the foundation log with axe and hatchet to form a threshold.

When the doorway was finished, I tugged and cussed the heavy blue container inside the cabin walls, chocking it on place over the fireplace hole to prevent entry from that avenue. There, within an enclosure too tall for a bear to see over from all fours, I hoped my food cache would be protected by the marauder’s own sense of claustrophobia. To further bolster the bear’s reluctance to raid my cache, I left the campfire burning and a radio playing whenever I left the cabin site for even a short time. If it was dark outside, or would be by the time I figured to return, I left a lighted kerosene hurricane lantern secured to the cabin’s centerpost, seven feet off the ground. In front of the doorway outside, a candle lantern burned atop a section of sawn log that I’d upended to serve as a small table. There was no danger of fire on the cleared dirt and sand of the cabin site, and the cabin wall logs were too large and too green to be ignited by a half-pint of kerosene, should the lamp be knocked down.

One morning in the middle of this contest, Cheanne came into camp while I was cutting out the cabin’s back window. I was expecting her, so I barely glanced up from my work when I heard her coming down the trail toward the cabin. But I was more than a little surprised at the way she made her appearance. In her hand, pointed skyward at shoulder height, was the Glock .40 caliber pistol she prudently carried with her whenever she came to see me. There was an excited look in her bright blue eyes. I pointed my fingertips at the clouds and said half seriously, “What?” She holstered the Glock, and with a huge smile told me how a large, brazen bear had shadowed her, making no attempt to remain unseen, for the last few hundred yards before she turned off the main trail toward the cabin. She and a 200-pound bear had walked virtually side-by-side in the same direction for the last hundred yards before it deliberately crossed her path no more than 50 feet ahead, then disappeared into dense woods on the opposite side of the trail.

It was pretty clear that the bear had known she was there, and was testing her courage. When she’d drawn her sidearm and continued along her way, regardless of the big bear’s presence, it had doubtless concluded that her lack of fear meant she was a potentially dangerous opponent and best left unmolested. I was glad for her courage, because if she had retreated, or worse, fled, there was a better than even chance that the bruin would have regarded her as prey and given chase. I didn’t want to even imagine how that chain of events would likely have concluded if she’d backed down.

Placing the food barrel inside the cabin walls seemed to be working for about a week. Then one especially warm evening just after dark, Pete, Jerod, and I returned from a swim at the beaver pond to find the bear feeding leisurely outside the cabin doorway. The marauder heard us coming toward the cabin, and for just a moment stood his ground, as if to defend the rich goodies he had plundered from our mutual food stores. Without pausing or saying a word, I slid the .308 off my shoulder as we came within sight of one another at a distance of less than 30 feet, intending to kill this bear right there in front of the doorway if it didn’t immediately retreat. As he had with Cheanne, the bruin sensed from my demeanor that he was overmatched and in imminent danger. He wheeled and ran off, taking with him a stuff sack containing 2 pounds of chocolate bars and other candies.

Inside the cabin walls, the now lidless barrel lay still chocked in its original position, its retaining ring and lid removed as deftly as I could have done it. Cheese, raisin, and candy wrappers were strewn everywhere on the ground just outside the doorway, carried there one item at a time so the animal wouldn’t be caught by surprise inside the cabin’s confining walls. I couldn’t escape the irony that I had provided this marauder with music and dinner by candlelight.

Pete, who had until then thought my bear problem was humorous, suddenly became more sympathetic. The stuff sack of chocolate bars had been his, and his furnacelike metabolism made him take the theft of precious calories more seriously than most would have. He said it was pretty clear that this bear had to be terminated, but his extreme prejudice turned to a grin when he noticed that Jerod and I were getting a laugh from his sudden change of heart.

I was heartened to see that the critter still feared a confrontation with humans. Still, it was asking for trouble on several fronts to let this bold young bear get away with such larceny. Since it had apparently figured out the barrel ring’s latch, I further secured its shipping lock with a bent nail that required fingers to remove it. Then I enlisted Jerod, who can bench press a small truck, to help me hoist the still very heavy barrel up to the cabin’s ridge pole, 10 feet overhead, and hang it suspended from the groove around its mouth using my logging rope and a timber hitch knot. I later gave up this strategy after the bear learned to bounce the barrel violently enough from below to slip its noose. I’d already tried laying 4 set leg-hold traps across the threshold, placing them upside-down so they’d snap shut when disturbed, without actually catching the critter that set them off. Nothing seemed to discourage this bear.

Pete left the following night. Jerod and I walked him to where his Bronco was parked at the dam, 1.5 miles from the cabin, and we returned to camp just after dark. Jerod was standing in front of the cabin’s doorway, examining it by lantern light. I was building the fire up to provide more light when a low prolonged growl issued from the shadows immediately to Jerod’s left, no more than 10 yards from where he stood. Eyes wide, he looked at me and asked, more or less rhetorically, “What was that?” I answered, also more or less rhetorically, “What do you think it was?” His reply was to walk quickly over to the safety of the crackling fire.

Jerod left the following day, and I went back to work on the cabin. I spent the next week on the roof, lag-screwing rafter poles between soffet logs and the ridgepole. Next came the process of fitting and nailing down sheets of metal roofing to provide a shield from the pounding rains that fell in sheets whenever air temperatures dropped enough to allow condensation. I was getting incredibly tired of living in a tent. Surprisingly, my tents, a 3-man Moss Olympic that was my home and a 2-man Starlet that served as my clothing storage, never caught the interest of any wild animal. I worried that a bear powerful enough to bounce a 200-pound barrel through the forest would have no trouble shredding these vital pieces of equipment, but neither received so much as a tear in their screen doors during the entire 6 months they remained in service. I believe it was the combination of strong human odors emanating from a small enclosure, but animals of all types shunned them.

The food barrel, however, remained irresistible. The bear took to circling the cabin every day just after noon, oblivious to the noise my hammer made against steel. I could see his big coal-black body clearly from my elevated position on the cabin’s roof as he prowled the perimeter of the camp, and I knew damned well that he could see me, too. A showdown was coming, that much seemed inevitable, because this bear was losing more respect for me with each passing day. It pissed me off having to do it, but I made a loaded pistol part of my daily attire from then on, even when I was on the roof. I didn’t even take a crap without the gun strapped to my hip, and whenever I left camp there was a rifle in my hand. I rehearsed our final encounter in my mind a hundred times, trying hard to envision every possible scenario. The bear wasn’t bad, and to kill him merely for stealing food would twist my conscience in a very uncomfortable way. I obviously couldn’t beat him hand-to-hand, but shooting the animal meant that I would be forced to kill him, because a wounded bear could be counted on to double back and jump me from hiding. Yet if I didn’t instill a strong fear of humans into its psyche, this animal would then become a real danger, not only to me, but to every backpacker and mountain biker who was carrying food. The solution was to punish the bear enough to make my homestead an unpleasant place for him to visit, but not severely enough to provoke a retaliatory response. That was going to be tough, and very probably dangerous.


The showdown came one hot, sticky night in early July. I was trying to fall asleep in my tent, a few yards from the cabin’s rear wall. The tent’s front and rear doors were as open as the mosquitoes would allow, but the air was thick with humidity and not conducive to sleeping. As usual, I’d left two lanterns burning to illuminate the cabin, not so much to discourage the fearless bear as to provide me with sufficient light to get off an accurate shot. I’d just dozed off when I heard the scratching of stout claws against plastic, followed by the distinctive sound of the heavy barrel being rocked on its moorings from inside the cabin walls. This was intolerable; it was one thing to raid my cache when I was gone, but to have this bold and powerful animal invade while I was sleeping crossed the line between annoying and dangerous. My hand settled over the loaded .40 caliber automatic lying next to my head. I made no effort to be quiet as I zipped open the tent’s net door and scrambled toward the cabin, pistol at the ready. I really had no desire to shoot this bear - in fact, I rather admired his pluck - but the situation had to be resolved, one way or another.

As I ran around the back corner of the cabin, I could see the bear over the wall, still near the barrel. He saw me and spun toward the doorway at a gallop. I couldn’t get an accurate shot through the rafters, so I raced him to the doorway, coming around the front corner of the cabin as he was exiting the structure. If he so much as turned toward me, I intended to shoot him until he was dead. But the bear seemed panicked, wanting only to get away. Just before his furry black rear end disappeared from the circle of illumination cast by the door lantern, I squeezed off a round as near to his bouncing buttocks as I felt I could get without actually penetrating flesh. The bullet didn’t hit meat, else I would have found flesh and blood on the ground, but there was a small cluster of black fur lying on the leaves nearby, clipped free when the hollowpoint grazed the bear’s wide ass.  I listened intently for several long minutes, ready to fire another, killing, round if the bear turned, but the panicked bruin crashed headlong through trees and brush until it had traveled beyond my hearing.

Satisfied that I’d made my point, I crawled into my tent and tried to get back to sleep. No sooner had my eyes closed than once again I heard a rustling and scratching from inside the cabin walls. This was it, no more warning shots. I unzipped the tent’s screen door slowly, and as quietly as if I were stalking a deer, I crawled on hands and knees to the rear wall of the cabin. My palms were wet and sweat trickled down my forehead as I rose slowly to peer through the window hole in the cabin’s back wall. The Glock’s sights were in front of my eyes as both simultaneously cleared the uppermost log. My fingertip was lightly touching the gun’s double trigger, depressing the safety so that only the slightest pressure would cause it to fire. There, squared in my sights and sitting atop the front wall with a nearly empty powdered cheese bag, was a fat raccoon weighing about 20 pounds. Maybe it was the noise made by the crinkling plastic wrapper, or maybe the ‘coon was simply too involved with this delicacy to pay attention, but it hadn’t noticed my approach. There was no way I was going to kill this animal, either; yet I couldn’t allow it to consider my cabin site as a food source any more than the bear could. I held my finger firmly against the Glock’s trigger, and when the raccoon raised its head to look about, I released the sear, sending a bullet between its ears and about 2 inches above its furry skull. The ‘coon screeched and backflipped off its perch, hitting the ground outside the cabin with an audible thud. It scrambled away into the shadows with a rustling of leaves, uninjured except for the strong impression of terror I’d inflicted on its psyche.

I couldn’t help but laugh as the ‘coon’s chattering headlong escape continued until it was out of earshot, even though my shot had also put a hole through the door rafter. I crawled back into my tent, sure that any animal even considering raiding my camp was long gone, but sleeping lightly and well armed, just in case I was wrong.

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