Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Sand Island bear closure

Our 'first crossing' trip went almost perfectly for our group of 14 paddlers on the last weekend before ‘the 4th’ in the Apostle Islands.  The weather cooperated nicely with cool temps, partly cloudy skies, and a breeze that freshened at about the same rate as the paddlers skill level increased.  It was obvious we had some veteran campers and it was fun to see people become more comfortable in their boats.  A person can practice strokes and maneuvering all they want but the real test is moving forwards, backwards, and sideways in the sea caves and everyone passed that little pop quiz quite nicely. The mosquitoes were quite active but, like most things, folks got used to them with a combination of DEET and bug nets.  I also noted that mosquito discomfort was inversely  proportional to beer consumed.  A few of us even got a swim in, some (OK, me) after being politely informed, 'you stink!'.  Water on the north end of Sand was at least 15F colder than on the south end, a good reminder of why we dress for immersion on Gitchee Gumee.  We also had some nice talks with at least three rangers and the volunteer on Sand.  The overriding topic was bears.  In particular one bear that had been raiding the campsites for the past few days.  When I got home and opened my email on Monday morning, I saw that the Park Service had closed Sand Island indefinitely to overnites due to bear activity.  This brought back some deja vu from the last time our group were the last ones to use the campsite on an island.  In that case it was Manitou and the closure was for the entire season because of a bear. Then a couple days later, after the bear raided some sausages from a beached boat on Lighthouse Bay, the island was closed for all usage.

Closing Sand right before the 4th of July must have created some incredible disruptions.  Two large group sites and 4 individual sites would make for a maximum total of 48 people per night that would need to be moved. This would require some creative juggling because there just aren't that many options, although it sounds like the rangers and staff were able to pull it off.  If we consider that most of these group sites were chosen by lottery on January 8th of this yea, we can get a bit of an idea of the effect that this closure will have. Like most human interaction, some people will roll with the punches while others will be indignant and pissed off. I do not envy the park staff doing the campsite shuffle, especially when very few extra sites are available during this peak season.

Back to the bear. From what we heard last weekend it was one bear, with the theory being it was a yearling male that momma bear had kicked out on his own.  Even now food is scarce due to the late spring and this guy is exploring and trying to figure out how to survive. So far it has torn up a tent to get at some toothpaste, ripped open a kayak hatch to get at some food that some idiot decided to leave on the beach instead of sticking in a bear box, and stealthily snuck into camp and grabbed food that was left out while the campers were otherwise occupied. Plus the boat incident on the other side of the island.  In other words, campers that were lax in taking care of their consumables have conditioned this young bear that food can be had around people.  Shame on us for being stupid.  Once again irresponsible actions by a few people, whether through ignorance, sloth, or actively ignoring good camping practice, have created a major pain in the ass for the rest of the responsible campers and outfitters. So, as V.I. Lenin asked in the early part of the last century, What Is To Be Done?

The Park Service will attempt to 'train the bear to be afraid of humans'.  Those really loud airhorns (‘like’ the AINL on FB and you can watch a jerky 10 second clip of a bear being chased away from the Oak Island dock area with such a horn), fireworks, and other things to disassociate humans with food are utilized.  Closing the island to camping also automatically culls out the 5% of idiots who don't think the food rules and bear box usage applies to them.  Relocating and shooting are also no longer acceptable, although 'Scarface', the bear that closed Manitou and backed a volunteer into the outhouse a few years back, is alleged and rumored to be peering over a desk as a head mount somewhere.  The islands are open to deer and bear hunting in the fall  but the logistics are such a pain in the rear end that most people don't do it.  That and the fact that there are plenty of bears in Wisconsin elsewhere, 25,000 by last count.

It's a tough situation.  I don't remember the NPS ever closing Sand Island or for that matter, any of the other jumping off point islands, especially those with group sites.  Even though I don't have vote but if I did I'd go for relocation.  The bear is in a condition of fending for itself at this point and it might as well do its exploration and testing in a more sparsely populated area.  Our deer camp was that spot for a number of years.  Bears caught in Bayfield or Washburn were transported to the western part of the county and released.  For awhile we had lots of bears that just weren't that afraid of us, although other than breaking into our shed to steal and maybe huff some gas and biting my ATV seat a couple times as it sat in the woods, we had no real trouble. Just last week however, a bear showed up on the porch and ate some burger, mayo, and ice from a cooler that was sitting there. We may be in the same boat as the NPS with a problem bruin.  If relocated, Yogi may swim back to Sand but that could take awhile.  In the meantime both campers with long term reservations and park service employees who have to tell them they are screwed will have a much more enjoyable summer if the offending bear is elsewhere.  As I've said here before, no matter what you name it or what the Federal Government decides to designate it, it just ain't a wilderness.  Old cars, roads, a couple stone foundations, and cottages all point to the fact that it was a human settlement area years before someone decided it was part of the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness Area.  Deal with the bear.  It was there first, it lives there, it isn't it's fault, etc., etc., etc., are all valid points.  It's also a major human use point in a National Lakeshore during peak season, the start of the most visited two months in  the park. Even a yearling can be dangerous, as my friend the BearWhisperer related to me when a yearlingabout the size of a ten year old kid woke up when they were checking hibernating bears as part of a research project.  He is a well muscled 6'2" guy and told me that this bear was kicking his ass until his partner stepped in to help. Bears of any size are not to be trifled with.  If a week drags into two weeks and then a month and then it’s Labor Day, I don’t think anyone will say the cost/benefit of leaving the problem bear running around on Sand, using it as it’s own private bear preserve and spa, would come out on the positive side of the ledger sheet.

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