Brady Slater column: Hello Momma!
During a visit to Grand Rapids last week to meet nature chronicler John Latimer, three of us encountered a sow black bear and cub — in the best way possible.
GRAND RAPIDS — I wish I'd taken my own photographic evidence, or better yet, video proof, to show how our News Tribune photographer handled himself last week when faced with a female black bear who'd left her cub up in a tree.
But I was in awe and trying to remain still as photographer Steve Kuchera crept 3 feet closer every time with his intermittent advances on the bear. He'd settle for a moment, and then the rapid shutter of his camera would clap away.
As I write this a day later, I've determined that, like Kuchera approaching it, the bear equally wanted to get closer to us.
She'd spied us two other times and kept coming back during our nature walk with John Latimer, host of "The Phenology Show" on KAXE-FM 91.7 in Grand Rapids for nearly 40 years. Leading us on his own land and trails, Latimer was regaling us with tales of the wood frog when the sow first spotted us and dove headlong into thicker brush.
"Bear!" I pointed, as its wobbly butt retreated over Latimer's shoulder.
The next time she saw us, she skittered down from a white pine of high character that Latimer estimated to be 150 to 200 years old. She landed with a crash, and Kuchera drew his lens as she was again swallowed by the brush.
"Animals make quick judgments about their safety," Latimer said. "She's probably thinking I might be able to knock down one of them, but I can't handle all three of them."
Sensing mother bear remained close by, we spotted a cub in the same tree. Its telltale ears were nubs silhouetted against an overcast sky. There could have been another cub, but we didn't see it. The one we did see was a black clot among branches, and it watched the photographer like a kid peering from behind the couch after bedtime.
This was a breakthrough of sorts. Kuchera in a newsroom setting can be a bite of leather, tough and dusty from adventures he doesn't share a lot about. So to see him communing with an adorable cub was a warmer scene than the cold heart I've overheard him describe.
After Kuchera was satisfied with his take of images, we left the cub.
The mother bear we'd glimpsed had been eating from Latimer's bird feeder the previous day. She was young, and small for a bear at about 150 pounds. She was nothing like the big lug that had visited the Miller Hill Mall in Duluth earlier this month.
Latimer and his wife, Denise, could tell this one was lactating. The presence of at least one cub proved it.
"I don't mind having a bear around," Latimer said. "Not at all."
I asked Latimer how he knew the bear wouldn't bother us, especially given the presence of a cub.
"Well, I didn't really," he said. "But if she was really upset with us she’d blow, stomp her feet, and make mock charges at us."
"And snap her teeth," Kuchera added.
But if bears can leave you alone they will, was Latimer's point. "It's when you push them," he said.
As the three of us stopped and talked farther away, the sow popped back into sight under the tree.
The photographer seized his chance.
Postured and alert, Kuchera made it to within about 25 yards of the bear. It seemed like there was an agreement between them.
"I don't want to upset her too much," Kuchera said once.
The mother bear tolerated our presence for a good amount of time. It sort of fussed around the trunk of the tree and gave in to its own curiosity as it took in Kuchera.
After it finally had enough and started hissing and blowing, the inky bear spun up the tree. One could hear its claws raking the bark. It took its place onto a hefty lower limb, still below the cub. The mother dangled a leg and blew until we made a show of leaving.
"I've upset her enough," Kuchera said, holstering his camera.
We all know him to be hard-boiled. But as it happened in front of me, I surmised the sow's tolerance was a response to Kuchera's under-reported soft side.
"She's definitely a good momma," observed the photographer.