Sep 12, 2023, 05:55AM

The Local Bear

Hotspur loves evading capture if he thinks he’s going to be picked up and returned to the house.


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Life in rural New Hampshire can be more exciting than one might expect. In mid-July, I was driving up Clinton Road to a school board meeting in Peterborough when a black bear ambled across the pavement about 100 yards from my car. He glanced at the vehicle and continued into the woods on Meetinghouse Hill, about half a mile from my house.

The bear proved to have a knack for personal publicity that a professional politician might envy. Within the day, he’d been the subject of numerous posts on local webpages and then an article in a local paper, suggesting that his activities centered around Old Pound Road and Reed Carr Road, a little under a mile from our house as the crow flies.

Two days later, our male tabby, Hotspur, slipped past one of us and out the back door. This happens every now and then: in summer, he’s focused on escaping the house into the wonderful outside, the world of noises, smells, flying birds, the movement of leaves in the breeze, and the odd occasional field mouse. An hour or so later, Mimi went out to call him. She then clapped her hands.

Abruptly, the apple tree near our pond, about 150 yards from the house, began shaking. Its leaves began drifting to earth. We were staring at this when two thick, black, hairy legs emerged from the leafage. The tree trembled, the leaves fell, and the hairy legs moved. Then the rest of the bear fell from the tree, landing on all fours. He shook his head and lumbered south toward the woods.

Mimi called Hotspur again. She saw a slight movement among the daylilies near the stone wall by the road. A small black and white head popped into view for a moment and disappeared. She walked toward it, averting her eyes, and pretended to be gardening. Though sweet and affectionate, Hotspur loves evading capture if he thinks he’s going to be picked up and returned to the house.

He was just inside the daylilies, crouched on the ground, making himself as small as possible, trembling, and deeply fearful, something we’d never seen in him.

He’d never seen a bear. He’d never dealt with something as big, non-human, and carnivorous, with a strange, scary scent. Black bears are harmless to humans unless the humans get in their way. They consider small domestic animals, such as cats, a delicacy. Mimi picked up Hotspur. For once the cat didn’t try to wriggle from her arms. She carried him to the house. He stayed home for several days, content to gaze out the sunroom windows toward the woods. He’s still more timid than usual.

In early-August, I was in the driveway when Mimi called from the house. I turned to her and then followed the imperative of her pointing finger. Bruin was ambling across the lawn, perhaps 100 feet away. I stood absolutely still, arms lowered to my sides. He glanced at me and continued on, passing behind our barn toward the stream and the woods in the north of our property. Curiosity didn’t overcome discretion, the better part of valor, and I didn’t follow him.

A few days later, Mimi was gardening near the house when a small skunk ran up to her and then up her leg. Quite reasonably, she yelled and knocked the creature to the ground. I went outside in response to the yell. I looked. The skunk had come about and was approaching Mimi again.

This was strange behavior. It suggested the skunk was rabid.

Then Hotspur followed me outside. He saw the skunk. To him, it was just another toy, and he trotted toward it to play.

I’d been undergoing physical therapy for a wonky left foot. To my irritation, I’d been prescribed a cane to help me keep my balance. I dislike advertising any incapacity. Now the device had another use. Walking stick in one hand, banister in the other, I ran down the stairs, overtook Hotspur (one can run with a cane), and placed the tip of the stick between cat and skunk.

Mimi was behind me. She grabbed the cat and re-entered the house. The skunk attacked the cane. I pushed him gently away. He didn’t get the message. Perhaps he couldn’t. He returned and began biting the cane’s rubber tip. As he was focused on the tip, I placed it underneath him, he curled up to continue his attack, and I firmly rolled him up to the barn. I stomped my feet and yelled. Now he got the message. He scuttled away, around the corner and into the flower beds. I banged the side of the barn with the cane. He squeaked from beneath it. We neither heard nor saw him again. Given his condition, I believe he died within several days as the disease incapacitated him.

June and July were extraordinarily hot, muggy, and rainy in southwestern New Hampshire. One day and night of torrential rain flooded the streams and roads. The North Branch River rose so high so fast that the town of Stoddard, five miles west of Antrim on Route 9, released water from its dams to prevent their collapse. The river rose over the Antrim town bridge on Liberty Hill Farm Road, about a mile from my house on Clinton Road, buckling the macadam and rendering it unsafe.

Some time ago, while I worked for the town’s land use boards, the bridge’s condition had been the subject of discussion. The town fathers had felt it would last a few more years until its scheduled replacement, for which they were carefully setting funds aside. Out of curiosity, I traveled to the bridge myself, carefully climbed down to the riverbank, and examined the structure and its abutments. I’m not an engineer, merely an intelligent layman. I thought the concrete looked decrepit but not in danger of imminent collapse. That’s no longer the case.

The town’s safety director, the tireless Marshall Gale, ordered the bridge closed. Some 20 households no longer had safe access to the outside world. The heroes of this and similar episodes throughout Antrim, the men and women of its Highway Department, patched up Stacy Hill Road, a long-abandoned thoroughfare, within two or three days so the area’s residents could travel to and from their homes and, as importantly, the police, fire, and ambulance services might reach them when needed.

In New Hampshire, Stacy Hill Road and other such abandoned roads are classified as Class VI under the Revised Statutes Annotated, familiarly called the RSAs. The classification means the town needn’t maintain it with taxpayer funds. I’ve walked most local Class VI roads. They’re nearly impassible, even on foot. I suspect Merlin, my former assigned horse, 1800 pounds of strength, speed, grace, courage, appetite, and attitude, would take one look at a Class VI road and, despite my commands, first turn his head to look at me with an expression of concern for my sanity, then turn and head for the stable.

The town fathers persuaded the State not to reclassify Stacy Hill Road as Class V upon their assurances that once the bridge was repaired or replaced, the town would no longer maintain Stacy Hill Road. Antrim’s taxpayers may rejoice.


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