Montana Vacation: The Bear in the House

Our place in Montana is called Little Bear Ranch. The name is a joke because the place isn’t really a ranch, and the bear in the kitchen wasn’t so little.

My husband, Ed, and I had gone out for a morning hike, grabbed a quick lunch, and picked up a few things at the Safeway. Coming back into the house, I’m carrying too many plastic grocery bags, and they’re just about to slip out of my arms. So, I wasn’t looking into the kitchen at the end of the hall. When I finally glance up, I am eye-to eye with a bear — a black bear, standing about eight feet away in our kitchen.

I read somewhere that a bear inside your house seems as tall as a skyscraper, and that’s about right.

Ed, who was following me into the house, says I yelled, “Bear!

Before the kitchen, off the hallway on the right, is a laundry room, and I duck in there, dump the packages on the washer, and slide the two pocket doors close. Those flimsy doors are a screen to hide the laundry, not anything sturdy enough to keep out a bear.

Ed yells that he’s going around to the front to let the bear out. Apparently, he’d caught a glimpse of it moving away from the kitchen.

In the laundry room, I get out my cell phone to call 911, but my hands are shaking so much I can’t dial. It wouldn’t have mattered: I was so scared I’d forgotten the cell doesn’t work at the house.

Ed yells that I should come out to the garage; we’ll go get help.

How am I supposed to make a run for the garage? To escape, I have to slide apart the rickety pocket doors, but what if the bear, or bears — the previous summer we’d had three on the property — are waiting in the hall? (Last summer the bears had left paw prints on the windows, but they never ventured inside.) Even though I’m the most scared I’ve ever been, I separate the doors, and since I don’t see a bear, I run for my life to the garage.

Paw Prints

People ask if we have guns. This is Montana. Although all the neighbors on our mountain have guns and ammo, we do not. But what difference would it have made? If we had a gun, it wouldn’t have been stored in the garage or the laundry room.

In the car Ed explains that when he got to the front door, he realized maybe opening the door, and coming face-to-face with the bear, or bears, wasn’t such a good plan.

He pulls out of the garage, and just to the left of the front door is a large picture window, and standing in the window is — the bear.

“He’s waving,” says Ed. “He’s saying, ‘Look at me! Look, who’s in charge now.’”

We head down the mountain to the fire station to get help, and I desperately dial 911. The operator connects me with Fish and Wildlife, and although they don’t have a warden in the immediate area, they can get someone to us in about 45 minutes.

At the foot of the mountain, about a mile away, volunteers are high up on ladders painting the exterior of the firehouse. Ed and I rush out, and yell up, asking if anyone has experience with bears. These are Montana macho-cowboy guys, and, of course, all three say they know about bears. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t admit it, right?

They hop into their trucks and follow us home. The volunteers throw open all the doors and search the house. No one saw the bear exit, but it’s gone. We thank them profusely.

The two wardens from Fish and Wildlife arrive ahead of schedule. “Are you armed?” is the first question they ask.

The wardens, friendly, young, attractive, and armed, walk through the house, which now stinks of a ugly musky bear smell.

“You can get rid of that nasty smell with Fabreze,” one of the wardens advises.

Bear Wardens

The wardens piece together the story. The bear entered through the window above the kitchen sink, which I’d cranked open a few inches for ventilation. The bear, it’s been determined that it was one bear, was attracted to the food on the kitchen counter: it nibbled on the small hunk of parmesan cheese, ate the 3 bagels, but left the Finnish crackers in the cellophane wrapper untouched. This bear was a dainty eater, and a graceful entry artist — he didn’t break any of the glasses in the kitchen sink.

The kitchen window is high, about shoulder-height off the deck. “Bears are acrobats,” explains the woman warden. “They can crawl up and into anything.”

In the windowseat area next to the kitchen there’s pee on the floor, and bite marks deep into the green leather upholstery. There’s bear scat in the dining room. In the living room he clawed deep angry scratches in the wooden floor. We’re told that’s a good sign: this indicates he was trying to get out, and he wasn’t a proprietary bear that wanted to stay. Trying to exit, he also tore off every screen from every window.

Bear Scat

In Ed’s study, the bear bit a row of deep tooth marks in the windowsill, and that’s also where he climbed up over the electronic keyboard and stood in the window and watched us drive away to get help.

Teeth marks from the bear

The wardens walk the exterior and pronounce the place, “clean.” We don’t have a outdoor barbeque, or garbage cans that are bear-attractive. Their only suggestion is that we get rid of the choke cherry bushes, which bears love.

The woman warden gives me her business card, and tells me to call her personal cell number when the bear returns.

“The bear will return?” I ask, shocked.

“Since the bear found food here, it will come back.”

They tell us the best strategy to scare the bear off is to bang pots and pans. They don’t like the noise. Pots and pans? That’s our dinky defense against a bear?

Ed, who has had this house for 14 years, is nonchalant. He never had a bear visitation inside, and he doesn’t believe the bear will return.

About a hour later, I’m in the kitchen, standing at the stove, where I have a clear view of the front door, which has glass panels on each side. The bear — our bear — is standing in the glass panel on the left, almost as if he’s about to ring the doorbell.

I yell for Ed, and while I keep the bear in sight, I call the warden, who I’m now referring to as the bear warden. To my relief, I’m not put on hold, no Muzak at a scary moment like this; she answers immediately, and says they’ll send out a trap, and remove the bear to a new territory, about 100 miles away.

A metal cylinder is hauled into our driveway, and the trap door is baited with fermented fruit. We go to bed with every window closed and locked because we’ve learned bears can easily climb up the logs to our bedroom on the second floor.

If the bear had been trapped during the night, we figure we would have heard a ruckus — the loud clanging of the heavy trap door slamming shut. We heard nothing. The next morning I tiptoe downstairs, out to the garage where a small window looks onto the cylinder. The trapdoor is shut! Is our bear inside?

I call our bear warden, and with the warden on the phone, I cautiously approach the cylinder. The bear, looking smaller and meek and miserable, stares out at me through the bars.

Bear captured in the cylinder

Another warden arrives quickly to take our bear away — a adolescent bear, about two years old. (At every stage, we are totally impressed by the super-quick response of Montana’s Fish and Wildlife wardens.) This warden tells us how lucky we are. The next house he’s going to wasn’t so fortunate: In Big Sky the homeowners had gone to Bozeman for dinner, and the bear was trapped in the house for 12 hours. It rampaged the house, tore it to pieces. Luckily, we were only gone for a few hours.

Recently we remodeled our house. (Yes, we kept the windowsill with the bear bites.) A friend asked what we were going to name it. Ours is hardly one of those iconic Montana spreads with acreage, cattle, and a entrance archway that requires a name. “It deserves a name,” insisted our friend.

“Little Bear Ranch,” said Ed.

Our Home: Little Bear Ranch

The following year we discover Robert McCauley, a artist who specializes in painting bears. In many of his paintings he includes a microphone because, as he says, “I want to communicate with bears. To hear what they’re saying.” A McCauley painting resides in our front entryway.

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