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If you like gorillas, perhaps you'd enjoy these big, black hairy creatures.

If you like gorillas, perhaps you'd enjoy these big, black hairy creatures.

Old Nov 10th, 2007, 07:56 PM
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If you like gorillas, perhaps you'd enjoy these big, black hairy creatures.

Iím referring to black bears and a great place to see them is in Orr, Minnesota at the Vince Shute Black Bear Sanctuary.

Fodorite Bill H is going in late Spring (he recently mentioned this fact on the US-Alaska forum) and Iím working on a third visit in July.

Sites for sanctuary, including directions on getting there.
http://www.americanbear.org/
http://islandviewresort.com/vince_sh...sanctuary.html


A dozen photos of the bears
http://www.kodakgallery.com/I.jsp?c=...5&x=0&y=u85ubu


The bears enter and leave the meadow and trees of the unfenced sanctuary grounds, where you can view them, at will. There is a 50-year history of putting out food for the bears at this location, so generations have been coming to this spot to supplement their diet. In years when food is plentiful, fewer bears show up. In leaner years, more bears appear.

Here is a brief history, that is also detailed on the website: Half a century ago the location was a logging camp and sometimes the bears would break into the food storages. When that happened, the bears would be shot and killed. Vince Shute and some of the lumberjacks came up with the idea of putting out food for the bears (they eat anything) so they would leave the food storage areas alone. It worked and the practice continues.

When logging no longer took place on the property Vince Shute bought the acres and continued supplement the bearsí diets. Vince Shute is no longer alive.

There is free viewing for the public every evening on elevated wooden platforms, but if you pay the photographer's fee of $175, you can spend the day with the bears down on the ground.

Here is how it works if you pay the photographerís fee: The evening before your first visit, drive to a general parking lot on the grounds where all the cars park. Get on one of the school bus shuttles with the other visitors and be driven to the raised viewing platforms. That's where you meet with the Vince Shute staff who take you to the volunteer cabin about 100 yards away and explain the rules and have you sign a waiver and pay $175 for a full day with the bears.

After going through the orientation, you will be allowed on the ground when the other guests are there that first night and subsequent nights, but you must remain under the raised platforms and out of sight (so you donít disturb the viewing of the guests on the platform or get in their pictures). I did not enjoy lurking in the evening shadows under the platforms and just joined everybody on top of the viewing platforms. There are good views of the cubs in the trees at dusk, so bring your camera gear that first night.

The next day you drive in to the sanctuary early in the morning (or anytime during the day but morning is most active) and open the locked gate that extends across the gravel access road, using a combination that they tell you. Bring a flashlight to help see the combo numbers. I had great difficulty with the lock, even though I use a combo lock daily at home.

Then you drive all the way to where the wooden platform is. You can take your stuff into the cabin or leave it on the platform, where it is out of reach of the bears, or just keep it in your car, which is almost always in view. Then you just wander around the sanctuary grounds that are accessible. Since you cannot go into the surrounding woods, the area where you can walk is about 1/4 mile by 1/4 mile. It is flat with trails. You can also go up on the wooden platform for better views of cubs in the trees. So you decide where you want to go.

During the day there may be a few other bear watchers/photographers, but the most I ever encountered were 4, besides me and 6 is the limit. You can go in the staff cabin or sit on the wooden platform whenever you want for as long as you want.

By mid-day, the bear activity usually diminishes until later in the afternoon. You can leave and go out to eat or if you pack your lunch, you can eat in the staff/volunteer cabin. Iíve always brought my lunch and just remained at the sanctuary for the day. One reason is I prefer to reduce the amount of driving over the rough gravel road that leads to the sanctuary.

Iíve also helped the volunteers in the middle of the day with tasks ranging from scooping up bear dung to separating big wads of dates for the bears to eat. Iíd like to volunteer for a week or more sometime and stay on the premises.

The bears are completely wild and come from and go into the forest as they wish. There are no fences or enclosures. Mothers and cubs are very comfortable with the presence of people in the sanctuary. I was 10 feet from dozens of bears over the two days that I was there. No bear was ever aggressive and they basically ignored us.

I stayed at AmericInn, a nice resort with a pool, sauna and jacuzzi, about 15 miles away because I went with my husband who preferred that accommodation over B&Bs. He stayed at the hotel while I spent the day with the bears so he wanted a place he could hang out and relax. I think you can bring a photography assistant to the sanctuary for $50. There is a B&B about 1/2 as far away that the sanctuary staff can recommend that would be much more convenient if you are trying to arrive at the sanctuary about 6 am.

I've also seen deer and woodchucks at the sanctuary. In the town of Orr there is a scenic and easy bog walk on raised wooden platforms located behind the visitor's center.

Iíve gone for two days and thatís what I am looking at this summer. Iíve encountered several people there for one day. A few stay more. There are also photo groups that take all 6 spots and spend more time. If you go as an individual, you have to work around the days blocked off by these groups.
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Old Nov 11th, 2007, 12:52 AM
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Hi Lynn

Reading this, it does seem to be a disaster waiting to happen. Are Black Bears not as aggressive as other bears? Something must be different as I thought "A fed bear is a dead bear!"

Has anyone that you know of ever been hurt? Interesting also, when you mention that in prosperous food times, less bears show up than in lean food times.

Thank goodness they don't live near me, otherwise that could well be another 1000 photos a week!

Kind regards

Kaye
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Old Nov 11th, 2007, 03:50 AM
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atravelynn,

We went with a photographic group in August 2003. I thought it was awesome!

If my memory is correct, the mothers and babies tended to be around in the morning and the really big males were around more in the late afternoon. I was on the ground in the morning but went up on the deck when the big boys came out - they are really big!

I was impressed by the amount of education about bears that the organisation was trying to set up.

We tried to organise an independent visit last year but they were booked up for the dates we wanted.
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Old Nov 11th, 2007, 08:47 AM
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Kaye, you bring up a valid controversy. I don't believe anyone has ever been hurt. These same bears that ignore humans in this small area run from them outside the sanctuary. They've learned geographic boundaries. But feeding of anything wild can have a downside, you are right.

Black bears are not as aggressive as grizzlies, that is true.

Wingi mentions the extensive education that goes on at the center. So overall, the setup is considered to do far more good than harm. The thousands of guests that visit each year are not on the ground with the bears and are on raised platforms with barriers.

At 1000 photos a day, you'd use up another Panasonic, Kaye!

Wingi, you are right about the big boys being massive. Not as big as grizzlies, but large nonetheless.
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Old Nov 11th, 2007, 09:11 AM
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Lynn, thanks for posting this information, which is much more informative than the Sanctuary's website. I looked into this trip a few months ago when I had a business trip to Minneapolis, and I thought this would be a good extension. In the end, I went to Nebraska instead (to add my 49th state), but I'd still like to get to the black bear sanctuary. I'm also researching a trip to see the black bears in southeastern Alaska.

Michael
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Old Nov 11th, 2007, 12:55 PM
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Michael,

So is it shaping up to be a competition between Vermont and Vince Shute? The bear sanctuary is only open Memorial Day to Labor Day and maybe a few extra days on either end for photographers. The last time I checked Vermont is open year-round, so it may be easier to visit #50 than the black bears of Orr.

Black Bears in AK: I have not been but have looked at Pack Creek and Anan Creek. Iíd love to know what youíve found. Feel free to email me.

Palau (referenced in a different post): I have scuba diving friends who have gone diving all over the world and they told me, as a snorkeler not a diver, "If you want to go diving just one place, make it Palau. Nowhere else can compare after that." Apparently you can get certified while there.

And I met these scuba friends while tracking gorillas in Uganda!
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Old Nov 12th, 2007, 06:33 AM
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Thanks, Palau is not until December 2008.

This December I'm diving/snorkeling in the Cook Islands, after visiting NZ, Tonga and both Samoas.

And, off to the Channel Islands (Guernsey, Jersey and their dependencies) over Thanksgiving.

Too much to do before researching Palau.
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Old Nov 12th, 2007, 01:40 PM
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This is so interesting - I have been to what is now the VS Black Bear Sanctuary, although it was 15 years ago, before Vince Shute died, and before it became an "official" nonprofit. I had no idea that it was still there and operating.

My family was vacationing at a cabin on Pelican Lake near Orr, and we'd heard about this guy who fed the bears. At the time, there were no admission fees or viewing platforms, so you just drove onto his property at the appointed time, and parked and waited until the bears came out. I remember being a bit ambivalent about it at the time - if I recall correctly, the bears were primarily fed bread donated to Mr. Shute by local stores, and I remember wondering both about the nutritional value of that diet and the ethics of feeding them/turning them into a tourist attraction in the first place.

At the time we visited, I also recall that there was concern as the site was getting quite popular and there had been a few incidents of injuries (relatively minor/non-life threatening), including a young girl who'd been injured a few weeks before we visited. It was sort of scary, as despite signs warning to stay in the car there were of course some idiots who got out to get a closer look, and there were a ton of bears. I vividly recall a minivan parked in front of us where the guy had the door open so that his kids could get a better look, and he was standing outside the van. It was sort of chaotic.

I'm glad to hear that the area is now a sanctuary and it sounds like it is being better managed.
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Old Nov 12th, 2007, 02:57 PM
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The sanctuary is still free to the public every evening from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The admission fee is only to spend the day at the sanctuary and be allowed to walk on the grounds. The free admission is to encourage visitors so information about bears can be given.

The food for the bears is whatever is donated and it does include bread and also peanuts or other stuff.

To help idiot-proof the viewing conditions that Hlg22 described, the parking lot is far from the area where bears are normally seen. Of course the bears can be anywhere but the noise and crowds discourage them from hanging around the parking lot. The school buses that transport the people from the parking lot unload right at the railed wooden platform ramps that lead up to the viewing platforms. There is no opportunity to interact with the bears at these night time sessions.

The photographers who are on the ground with the bears get a detailed orientation before being allowed to roam the sanctuary. I've never seen any violation or behavior I thought was not appropriate. If such behavior occurs, you can be out your fee and out of the sanctuary, as it should be.

I would say the operation is well managed and the risks are mitigated. The ethics of feeding any wildlife are something to consider. The decision was that the good aspects of education and preservation and of continuing a long standing food source that mothers have taught to cubs outweighs the bad of human interference. The end result is an outstanding and unique experience and land is preserved for the bears and other flora and fauna.

It would have been a special privilege to visit the reserve when Vince Shute was there. Did you get to meet or see him, Hlg22?
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Old Nov 13th, 2007, 07:49 AM
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Lynn,
Again, very interesting. It sounds like it is a much better managed experience now. At the time I visited, I got the impression that Mr. Shute was getting almost more visitors than he could handle, and was getting some negative publicity due to the recent (at that time) injuries. We did not meet him personally, and I honestly can't recall if we saw him or not. I was only about 14 or 15 at the time - I think it would have been the summer of 1991 or 1992 - and I was focused on the bears and determining whether I thought they could get into our car. (I was a nervous kid)

When I'm at my parents' house for the holidays next month, I'll look through the family photo albums to see if we have any pictures - I'm sure we do. And, actually, I'll check the DVDs my dad made for me with our home videos on them, as it's entirely possible that I've got video as well.

Also, the reason we ended up in that neck of Minnesota in the first place is that my mom used to vacation on Pelican Lake with her family growing up, and I think they first visited the bears back in the 50s or 60s. It is a special part of the country and we really enjoyed staying in a cabin on Pelican Lake (Birch Forest Lodge). As a moody teenaged city girl, I thought I was going to hate it, but the beautiful natural surroundings (including viewing the Northern Lights) were amazing. By the end of our vacation I was getting up at 6 am to go out fishing with my grandfather.

Heidi
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Old Nov 20th, 2007, 09:29 PM
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I just put my $175/day down for July 9 and 10. If any of you are in the neighborhood at that time, we could go bear watching together. Kind of an Orr GTG. During the midday black bear siesta, there'd be plenty of time to talk Africa.

I noticed that the $175 per day photographer fee was the same as 2003. That makes it a bargain in my book.
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