UP in Michigan

(Originally published on MOLI 7/22/8)

The first bear usually shows up around 8 p.m. He has a white V on his black chest, so the locals call him Victor. He got into a bad fight a couple weeks ago: walks with a limp, has a bunch of patches of fur missing. I’m told he weighs about 250 pounds, and I believe it. He’s usually trying to get a head start on the other bear, who weighs over 300 pounds and who, judging by his own exposed swaths of skin, was on the other, winning side of the battle. I don’t know this bear’s name; people just call him big. When the second bear sees Victor, he charges. My husband says this is a fake charge, meant to scare. If the big bear were charging me, I would run. (July 23 update: The big bear is a mama. I’m told she has two cubs, and she definitely has dangling nipples. No wonder she’s defensive, and hungry.)

The funny thing is, once you’ve seen these bears walk through your backyard every day for a few days, you stop being scared. After all, they’re only black bears: herbivores, not people killers. I mean, I’m not going to be like Jim, the guy who lives behind us, who walks up to the bears and hands them scraps. Jim leaves food out every night. He even has rigged up various treats for the bears – I don’t know if they’re honey pots or salt licks or what – so that the bears stand up on their hind legs and lick from a post, and sit on his couch, and generally make themselves at home around his fire pit. Then they make their way down the street, to the other guy who feeds them. Or they cross the street and rummage through the restaurant’s dumpster down the hill.

We’re walking down the road back to the house from Lake Superior, and the big bear walks out of the bushes 25 feet ahead. He looks at us, mostly at our Yorkshire Terrier; he seems far more scared of little Otis than Otis seems of him. Then he walks on by.

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a place unto itself. Tucked between three Great Lakes, it has the same land mass as the lower peninsula of the state but only three percent of Michigan’s population. The UP has a lot in common with other north-woods locales, like Alaska, Maine, Canada. But generally unknown, unsung, and not much loved, it’s about as hick as you can get. The county where I’ve laid my hat for a month, Ontonagon, has been losing population. It’s a great place to get away from it all, as long as you don’t get caught up in the local dramas of domestic violence, pillheads, neglected children, etc.

I’ve been coming here for 40 years now, almost every summer. There may be nothing that makes me feel more at peace with myself than walking down the sandy Superior shore, looking for agates and curious pieces of driftwood. I can walk for a mile without passing a soul. The sun sets over the endless horizon of water – as big as a sea, you know – around 9:30 this time of year. So every summer day is like two days, paradise doubled.

The tourists have never really discovered the UP, perhaps because the bearable (ha, ha) season here – between snowstorms and black-fly invasions – is so short. The ursine residents have made our little back street in Silver City a bit of an attraction for what sightseers there are; a couple cars drive by every night, peering into the woods for dark shapes.

We’re staying in a cute, comfortable mobile home: wood paneling, soft carpets, those old metal glasses that make everything taste so cold and delicious, canister vacuum, cribbage board – you get the picture. Nestled at the foothills of the Porcupine Mountains, Gabe’s Getaway is a short walk to the beach and a great deal.

At any rate, I finally have the answer to a variation on that old riddle: Does a bear shit in our yard? Every day.

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