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Where'sa Momma??
A story from New Jersey's Northern Highlands

August, 2001
by Pete Treible

It's late August here in Northern New Jersey. As summer rounds the corner in to fall, shadows lengthen, skies are a deeper blue, and the humidity is all but gone. It's a Sunday afternoon and I'm bored. My wife and hiking partner is away on a week-long trip to visit her two sisters in San Diego. I need to get out.

On a hike earlier in the spring we'd discovered the remains from the by-gone era of the iron industry here in the New Jersey Highlands: a fully intact charcoaler's hut.  Charcoaler's huts resemble  igloos constructed of stone.  They served as shelter for those hearty soles who felled the forests of wood needed to fuel the numerous iron furnaces throughout the area.  I had made a mental note to go back and photograph this site for posterity.  Most of these kinds of ruins are well known and are well documented.  I was surprised to find this one so far off the beaten path and in such good condition.

So, on this Sunday afternoon, I decided to load up some serious camera gear, grab our beloved family dog Maggie - aka The Magster - and set out to do some serious historical photojournalism.  A perfect way to pass the remainder of this ideal late summer day.

Parking the car about a mile from our objective, I strapped on my LowePro backpack with my cameras, lenses, and tripod and beckoned to Maggie as we set off through the woods.  It was one of those afternoons where the sky was becoming a deeper blue and the colors were warming as the sun slid down into the western sky.  On this day there was no wind - you could almost hear the trees whisper to one another as we silently passed on by.

Arriving at the charcoaler's hut I began to dismount my gear and set up for my photo-shoot.  The ground here is very rocky and boulder strewn and I am preoccupied with my footing trying not to stumble and wreck hundreds of dollars worth of expensive camera gear.  Out of the corner of my eye, I can't help but notice that  Maggie is staring off in to the woods.  Her behavior tells me that something has caught her eye: a squirrel, turkey, maybe a deer?  I glance in the general direction but I see nothing.

I continue to unpack my gear and scout the area for just the right angles to set up my tripod.  I note that Maggie is still staring off into the woods - she's fixated on whatever it is?  As I stumble over some boulders setting up my tripod I see Maggie tense as the hair on her back rises.  Startled at her unusual behavior I again look to see what has her so rattled.

I hear it before I actually see it.  A rustling of the leaves from up the hill.  I can't make out footsteps so I know its not a deer.  And its moving too quickly to be a turkey.  This does not compute!  And then I see something.  It's small and its black.  It's a tiny bear cub!  He's bounding down the hill without a care in the world.  It's a real-life Disney cartoon character!  Stumbling, bumbling - and if bears could hum I know he would have heard: "Ta de da dum ta dee dada!" as he came right at us!  Happy, innocent, carefree, wonderful!

Unfortunately I'm not prepared for this!  I have my camera in-hand but it's set up for use on my rock-solid tripod.  The camera is loaded with  slow-speed, high-resolution slide film and a long telephoto lens - a bad combination for this quickly developing scenario.  And where was momma??  She couldn't be far behind!

Nevertheless I slowly raise my camera at the carefree oncoming cub and lightly pressed the shutter release to engage the autofocus.  This cub doesn't have a clue that  we're right here in front of him; he's probably never seen humans before never mind a dog! 

I wait until he gets so close I'm having a problem keeping him in the viewfinder.  I squeez off a shot.  Click - whirr!  The cub freezes in its tracks!  All the time Maggie is a statue not knowing what to make of this creature.  As soon as the cub stops Maggie makes a move.  The cub sees Maggie and immediately makes a violent U-turn and heads straight for the nearest tree.  I call Maggie back and she sits pat hardly able to contain her excitement!

Gravity is no match for this cub; he's thirty feet up this tree within seconds.  And not only is he up the tree but he's now barking in the same direction he came from.  Obviously bawling for his momma to come rescue him!  I'm not prepared for this either.  We've all heard those stories about momma bears ferociously protecting their cubs.  I'm going to be tomorrow's headline as the first person to be mauled by a black bear in New Jersey in over a hundred years!  We've gott'a get out of here!

But my camera gear is all over the ground.  I've unloaded my cameras, bodies, tripod.  No way I can make a quick retreat.  I grab Maggie and back away from the treed cub.  As I do I manage to squeeze off a few more nervous shots of the cub as it continues to bellow for its mother.  I look up into the woods expecting to see a snarling, salivating hulk heading our way.  Nothing!

Once we're a good distance from the treed cub it begins to descend.  Maggie makes another move but I restrain her.  The cub reaches the ground and scurries back up the hill.  But after only twenty five feet or so, the cub assumes its innocent nonchalant character; "Ta de da dum ta da da dee!" as it playfully bounds out of sight.

Quite nervous and shaken I try to continue my shoot.  But I can't concentrate on what I'm doing.  I'm haunted by what may have been tomorrow's headlines.  I pack up my gear and leave the area post haste.

Epilogue:  Over the past few years we've had a half-dozen bear encounters while hiking the trails here in North Jersey.  On none of these occasions did the bears ever display any aggressive behavior.  More often than not we've only seen a fleeting glance as they head in the opposite direction.  My observation is that bears are far more fearful of dogs than of people.  On two occasions the bears we observed were relatively relaxed until they caught site or wind of Maggie - our family dog - at which point panic seemed to strike.  Nothing scientific here - just an observation.

Ta dee da dum!

Disney character?

Charcoaler's Hut

Maggie