The Finch family had counted on a relaxing Fourth of July weekend at Wintergreen, gathering together a family that stretched from Richmond to Waynesboro. The outdoor hot tub was a special treat for that pandemic summer of 2020. “The three grandsons were sitting in the tub when they looked over the side and a bear was approaching,” Nancy Finch told me by email. “They all jumped out of the tub and ran in the house. The bear moseyed on over to our two cars.”
Granddaughter Molly Finch, then 13, “had the presence to mind to start videoing,” Nancy said. “The bear went to one car and opened the door. Then you’ll see him go to my Buick, open the door and step in with one foot. Muddy paw print was on the car floor and seat. Then you’ll see Tom Finch walking toward the car and yelling at the bear who then ran off in the woods.”
Here’s the video Molly shot, complete with what Nancy describes as kids “yelling like crazy.”
Regular readers may recall that a week ago I regaled you with a dramatic (well, I thought it was dramatic) tale of my encounters with bears this summer in Botetourt County, which culminated with my demon cat, Hazel, hissing at a bruin on the back deck and the bear not taking that kindly. He smashed his front paws against the window, which probably startled me more than it did Hazel. She insists she could have taken the bear if only I’d let her out of the house; she now must sharpen her claws regularly on the rug in the front hall just in case she gets a chance to swat his nose. OK, to be fair, she’s always sharpened her claws on that rug, but now she tells me it’s necessary for bear defense, and who am I to argue with a feisty cat with newly sharpened claws?
That column produced an outpouring of reader responses, some of which I’ll share here today. Our more citified readers may be amazed at how commonplace bear sightings are in the western part of the state — and how they’re becoming more so, a combination of both the bear and human populations growing and trying to occupy the same space. While I wrote that the bear was trying to get into my house, I feel certain that the bear is now back out in the woods, telling his ursine kin that I’m already in his house. It turns out my experience was not unusual.
Robert Lambeth of Bedford County led the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia, an association of private colleges, for 40 years until his retirement earlier this year. Now he has more time to spend at his weekend home atop Tobacco Row Mountain in Amherst County, which he says he shares “with MANY bears and some sizable bobcats.”
Lambeth tells me by email: “One of my bears has become very fond of my Weber gas grill which sits on my back porch. One night after cooking some excellent steaks from the Elba grocery store in Bedford … I heard what sounded like an explosion. It turned out that a bear liked the smell of the residual Elba steak grease on the fully covered grill. The bear had successfully turned over the very heavy Weber grill. The grill took the hit well with the only damage being the knobs on the front being broken. I called Weber to purchase replacement knobs and a very nice rep was fascinated by my bear attacks. To my surprise she said she had never had a call for replacement parts due to a bear attack. I complimented the quality of the grill and she offered a 25% discount and asked for photos of the grill on its side. After that episode, I had a friend chain the grill to my porch. If the bear was going to get the grill he would have to destroy the entire porch.”
That gambit works. Lambeth shared a video “which shows the bear unsuccessfully attacking the grill again.”
Lambeth also told me that his security cameras once captured the bear sitting on the grill. “He is very nimble and athletic! I also, like you, had a bear literally knock on my porch door and leave paw prints on the glass.”
Susan Rollison in Alleghany County says she and her husband have been “putting up with bears for a long time” and shared three different stories.
Here’s one: “I’ve had rental car bumpers punctured by bears — no significant damage, but enough to get charged repair fees. The Richmond airport Enterprise rental agency thought this was one of the more interesting damages they had to report. The Dulles airport Enterprise people were highly skeptical — I guess they thought I had attacked the bumper with a punch tool???”
Here’s another: “Bears love the black cherry just outside our kitchen window. A few days ago I heard a commotion outside and saw our current ‘teenager’ bear ambling away after destroying the branches near the top of the tree that didn’t quite ‘bear’ his weight.”
Here’s a third: The Rollisons have used “highly bear-resistant trash cans for 15 years now” and specifically recommend the Grainger brand. “You can avoid the significant shipping charges by picking them up at the Grainger outlet in Richmond,” Rollison says by email. “These cans work well to a point. Bears can puncture the very thick walls, but cannot figure out how to unscrew the lid. However … if you put the remains of a rack of baby back ribs in the trash can and then go on vacation for two weeks, that gives bears plenty of time to chew their way through the wall of the trash can and enjoy the feast!”
That sounded suspiciously to me like a lesson learned the hard way. Rollison confirmed that it was. “We got back from vacation and our trash can was GONE. We finally found it in the woods about 300 ft away, down the hill. The trash can was chewed into two pieces and trash scattered all over the woods. (I have to admit that it took our son and grandson some time to finally find it.) That trash can was brown, our new ones are bright yellow and should be much easier to see if one ends up in the woods.”
These are just some of the joys of country living.
I also got lots of advice about how to deal with bears. Don’t set out trash cans the night before pickup was a common one. Wrote one reader in Floyd County: “I am ever amazed at the trash removal system here in Floyd county. Talk about putting out the buffet invite!” A reader in Carroll County noted that “air horns scare off even the most persistent bears.”
Overton McGehee in Fluvanna County suggested some more active measures: “Doesn’t the dollar store carry firecrackers? Or if you take the lead shot out of a shotgun shell, it makes a nice noisemaker.” He also passes on this bit of advice about the intestinal fortitude of bears: “One year, I grew some sunflowers on the farm. Bears like those. They must have quite the digestive system, because I saw no evidence of them removing the shells before consuming them.”
A representative of the “Mill Creek Gun and Whiskey Club” in Botetourt County — I suspect this is a fanciful organization — offered two potential solutions:
“Double fencing if you have room plus dogs. Specifics. Build an outer fence at some distance. Not real far. Build an inner fence around the immediate yard. Put gardens, sheds, junk as accumulated between the inner and outer fence. Put a couple of dogs inside the inner fence. Gates as needed.”
That suggestion must have come from the whiskey-drinking membership because the other proposed solution definitely came from the gun side: “Acquire a 410 or 20 gauge old cheap used shotgun. Also acquire some low power birdshot matching gauge shotgun shells. Pepper the bear’s backside with bird shot (don’t shoot him in the face. The shot could blind him). Sometimes one treatment is enough. Sometimes it takes two. Each new bear to the area requires treatment, until the treatment becomes generally known about among the bear community.”
Finally there’s this: Jeff Lester, editor of The Coalfield Progress in Norton, the Post in Big Stone Gap and the Dickenson Star in Clintwood, says, “I’ve seen more bears in far SWVA over the last two years than I’d ever seen. Within the last year, I’ve been stopped twice from driving up route 160 from Appalachia up Black Mountain toward Harlan County, Ky., by bears who didn’t want to move.”
He says one of his page designers “so fully loves bears that she started running a ‘Bear Facts’ insert item in her community news pages, with bite-sized nuggets about their habits. Now, people are regularly sending her bear sighting photos. Readers love it.”
No word yet on what the bears think.
Got a bear story? Photos? Video? I’d love to hear and see more. You can share at firstname.lastname@example.org.