While it may not be too difficult to conceive of a cinnamon-colored black bear, it is downright startling to learn that a black can also turn out to be white, or even blue—which really means the color of a Maltese cat. The white variety (Euarctos americanus kermodei) caused quite a stir when it was first described from Kermode Island, off the British Columbia coast. But as soon as sows were seen with white and black litter twins, it was realized that the white bears—which are not albinos—were just another color phase of the common kind, rather than a separate species as originally thought.
The other principal variant, the blue-gray glacier bear (Euarctos americanus emmonsii), also is found with black twins. These blues seem to be rather small, but size is probably due to local feed conditions. While most glacier bears have been taken in the mountains near Yakutat, in Alaska, a few individuals of this strange mutation crop up in widely separated parts of the continent.
Like all other American bears except the polars, the blacks are omnivorous feeders. They eat grass and skunk cabbage, many kinds of berries, nuts, fruit, roots and other types of vegetation, meat, fish and carrion of various sorts, and insects such as ants and the bees that they find with honey, which they greatly enjoy. In the salmon country, where the commercial fishermen shoot them and leave them, the carcasses are soon devoured by their surviving relatives.
The average adult male black bear weighs about 300 pounds, but the large ones are much heavier. A couple of summers ago, near a popular resort in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, a big garbage dump lying close to a well-traveled highway was a magnet for all the bears from miles around. Tourists in passing cars stopped for the inevitable photographs. The Conservation Department officials knew that it would be only a question of time before somebody got hurt, so they began to live-trap and ear-tag the bears before transporting them to distant areas where they were released. In the course of this program a couple of specimens taken in box traps were so huge that it was decided to anaesthetize them and weigh them. The larger of the two weighed 605 pounds, which equals the top weight of present-day grizzlies found in Wyoming or Montana.
However, both weights and field or hide measurements of bears are essentially meaningless (weights vary with the seasons, and hides can be stretched). Therefore the official records are based on the measurements of the clean, dried-out skulls, which cannot be faked. For the world record black bear the length of the skull, 13[3/16] inches without the lower jaw, is added to the greatest width, 8[12/16], to get the official "score" of 21[15/16].
A sportsman who does his trophy hunting on a continental scale is mainly interested in where the specimens with the largest skulls can be taken. With black bears, unlike our other species, this question has no simple answer, for the occasional giant may come from almost any part of the map. In the official records the top 20 trophies are from no less than 11 states, Canada and Mexico. The present world record was bagged in 1953 by Ed Strobel in Wisconsin, but it is closely approached by others from Alaska, Louisiana, California, Pennsylvania, Nova Scotia and the Queen Charlotte Islands off the British Columbia coast.
Depending on where it is done and how the sportsman goes about it, hunting for a trophy black can vary from an almost impossible assignment to a downright cinch. Along with their intelligence, excellent hearing and amazingly keen noses, I believe that some bears, at least, can see a lot better with their tiny eyes than many people seem to think. Furthermore, blacks in the more civilized sections have learned enough about man to do a very efficient job of taking care of themselves. A hunter who sets out to find his bear during the open season in states like Pennsylvania or New York (where the use of dogs is illegal) has only the remotest chance of ever seeing one. The best bet in the East is to look for them in September on some of the Canadian blueberry barrens. New Brunswick, for instance, has some excellent bear country where an accomplished still-hunter may get his trophy in the early part of the fall; or, in a good beechnut year, he may connect during October when the bears are up on the ridges feeding on nuts.
The surest way to get a black bear is to hunt him in the fall along the salmon streams, on the islands of the southeastern Alaskan archipelago or on the adjacent islands off the British Columbia coast. They certainly grow as big up there as anywhere else, and they are so plentiful that in the course of a week or two you can hardly fail to see a good one. All you need do is to sit down where you can watch a creek in which the bears are fishing and wait for one that suits you to show up.
I tried this system—and one other—in the Queen Charlotte Islands half a dozen years ago. My companion was Jack Fraser, a crack fishing guide and keen hunter as well. We started by walking up from the mouth of a creek which was full of spawning dog salmon. After we had gone upstream for a couple of hundred yards I saw a sea gull fly off with some salmon entrails in its beak. It had been cleaning up after the bears. Forcing our way through the salal thickets to the water's edge we came to a glade near the shallow riffle where they had been fishing.
"There's no use hanging around now," I said. "It's too late in the morning. But if we are here at 4 o'clock this afternoon I'll bet that a bear will walk right into our laps."