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Isle Royale Aside: Bearly Losing a Race

Black bear by John J. Mossesso (US Fish and Wildlife)

Typically, I am not the racing type. At least not the kind involving motorized vehicles. Although I participated in foot races when I was younger, it has been many years since the last one. And in none of those races were any of my competitors a black bear.

This all changed when I drove home from Isle Royale National Park in the late summer of 2011.

I just left Newberry, Michigan behind on M-28, where I stopped for some gas and cold green tea to keep me awake and alert. The scenery surrounding the highway transitions from more civilized to entirely forested as I continued eastward, settling in for the many more miles ahead.

When an expansive clearing opens in the forest a quarter mile before me, I notice a black Labrador emerging from the stunted trees to my right, down below the elevated highway. It takes barely a moment for me to realize my mistake; this was no large dog, it was a medium-sized black bear.

At the moment of realization, the bruin bolts from the edge of the forest, heading perpendicular to the highway, and on an intercept course with my poor Honda Fit. What follows took hardly more than a few moments to unfold, although it remains fixed in my memory as if it occurs in slow motion.

My right foot slams on the brake, the pedal reaching the floor, the anti-lock brakes pulsating with their usual staccato screech. I brace for impact, thoughts of being stranded on the Upper Peninsula without transportation flashing through my conscious mind.

Apparently seeing my small car in its peripheral vision, the bear miraculously pivoted, turning eastward, running at full speed right in front of my inadequately slowing car.

Initially, the bear’s head and shoulders are clearly visible through my car’s windshield. Quickly, the brute fades from view until only the head remains visible. Then the nose. Then nothing at all. Despite my overworking brakes, my car continues gaining ground until my bumper must be kissing the butt of a very frantic and frightened bear.

Slowly, the bear starts to reemerge through the windshield. First, the nose, and then the head, followed by its shoulders. The bruin’s earlier disappearance unfolds in reverse, as the brakes finally accomplish their sole purpose of slowing, albeit ever so slowly, my vehicle.

Suddenly, the bear pivots once again, turning a hard left across the other lane, off the road and vanishing into forest. It never glances back, as if the Devil himself was chasing it. A small, silver Devil, with an H on its hood, that is.

Visibly shaken by the incident, I pull over onto the side of the road, my hands quivering and beads of sweat still running down my temples. Exiting the vehicle, I inspect the front bumper, expecting to see either a spot of dirt, a clump of black hair or a smudge of bruin feces. Yet there is nothing, other than the dried carcasses of many unfortunate highway insects.

After a short rest, accompanied by some green tea and leftover crackers from my dinner in Copper Harbor the night before, I restart the car and return to the road and my long, journey home, now a little slower and more alert than just moments before.

This is the first time I ever engaged in race where I am glad I lost. Then again, this is the first time I ever raced a black bear.

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