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Black Bear Sanctuary in Minnesota

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Vince Shute Bear Sanctuary—black bears in Orr, MN

Here are 27 Vince Shute photos from July 9-10, 2008

Here are 13 Vince Shute photos from late Aug in 2003 and 2004

My comments are based on trips of a day and a half in the sanctuary in late August of 2003 and 2004 and also in the second week of July in 2008. I wrote some of this before on the Africa forum, however, some of the information has changed since then.

Here is a brief history of the sanctuary:

Half a century ago the location of this sanctuary 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 other 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.

When logging activities ceased on the property, Vince Shute bought the 300+ acre swath and continued to supplement the bears’ diets. Vince Shute is no longer alive but the bears he grew to love and their offspring continue to roam at will in and out of the unfenced sanctuary.

When food is plentiful, fewer bears show up; in leaner years, more bears do. Feeding bears is generally not a good idea but generations of bears have come to incorporate the food from the sanctuary into their foraging routine. The bears know they are not harassed on the Vince Shute grounds but these same bears can expect negative conditioning by the sanctuary staff when outside the boundaries. Bears are smart creatures and have a sense of geography so they have figured this out, passing on that knowledge to their young.

The result is a tremendous educational opportunity to inform the public about the nature of black bears. One phrase I’ve heard again and again at the sanctuary is “Bears can live with people if people are willing to live with bears.”

From Memorial Day to Labor Day Tues through Sunday there is viewing for the public on elevated wooden platforms from about 5 pm to dusk. Adults are $7, kids above 3 are $1. Those admission prices may change season by season.

Here is how it works if you pay the photographer’s 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 to explain the rules and have you sign a waiver and pay $175 for each full day with the bears.

After going through the orientation, you will be allowed on the grounds the next day (or days). When evening comes, you must remain under the raised platforms and out of sight so you don’t 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 in the evening. There are usually good views of the cubs in the trees at dusk, so bring your camera gear that first night.

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    The next day you drive into the sanctuary, arriving at 6:00 am 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 and reading glasses (if you use them) to help see the combo numbers. Your insect repellant should be on before this. I had great difficulty with the lock until (on this last trip) they told me to PUSH IN before you pull out on the lock.

    Then you drive all the way to where the wooden platform is. You can leave your stuff in the car or take it onto the platform, where it is out of reach of the bears. Any food must not leave the car and windows remain rolled up. In addition, you will see buckets of bear excrement near where the cars are parked. Put a buck next to each wheel to discourage the bears from playing and gnawing on your tires.

    Until about 5:00 pm when it is open to the public again, you just wander around the sanctuary grounds that are accessible. Since you cannot go into the surrounding woods, the area where you can walk around has about a quarter mile perimeter. It is flat with trails made by bears. The trails are very wet in the morning and contain lots of bear droppings so rain pants and boots are a good idea to start off. You can also go up on the wooden platform for better views of cubs in the trees or to see beyond the tall grasses. In August the grass was not so tall. July 9 and 10 it was much higher.

    During the day there may be a few other bear watchers/photographers, but the most I have ever encountered were 4, besides me, and 6 is the limit.

    Generally the males are most active in the morning, then mid-morning when the males have left, in come the mothers and cubs. By mid-day, the bear activity usually diminishes until later in the afternoon when the males show up again or some mother bears are using the trees as babysitters.

    You can leave and go out to eat or if you pack your lunch, you can eat in the staff/volunteer cabin or in your car. I’ve always brought my lunch and just remained at the sanctuary for the day. It’s a long way to any restaurant. If you eat in your car, the windows remain tightly closed. It’s a good idea to bring a book or plan to take a nap if you will be staying the day.

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    I’ve 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. I’d like to volunteer for sometime and stay on the premises.

    There are a couple of port-a-potties on the grounds and a couple near the entrance of the wooden platform. I don’t recall the paper situation, but there was hand sanitizer.

    The bears are completely wild and come 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 (the closest you are supposed to get) from dozens of bears during my visits.

    This last visit, one yearling had lost its mother early and had spent a lot of time at the sanctuary. It wanted attention from people and would approach playfully. We were instructed to ignore it—no speaking, no eye contact, just walk away from it. Other than this little guy, the other bears completely ignore the photographers. We were instructed to always give the bear the right of way.

    On this past trip I got a glimpse though dense foliage of a mother nursing her 3 cubs about 12 meters away, but I could hear the gurgling loud and clear. The mother and cub interaction was more intimate than in August because the babies are younger, but most mothers wisely remain more in the forest than the open with their young cubs. By August the cubs were a little more independent and easily accessible. Only spring cubs remain with their mother. By the next season they are on their own and the mother will likely have a new litter.

    If you took not a single picture, being on the ground with these creatures is an amazing experience and worth the photography fee. It is an honor and privilege to get a glimpse of the black bear world from down on the ground, at their level.

    And if you do take pictures, I’ll mention that only one of the 40 photos in either album was taken during the evening group viewing. That is the 3 cubs in the tree from the August album. Open tripods are not allowed in the evening (but they can be closed) and with up to 600 feet (300 visitors on the busiest night of the season), the wooden platform shakes a little too much for advanced photographers seeking perfection.

    I stayed at AmericInn, a nice hotel with a restaurant, cable, pool, sauna and Jacuzzi, right on Pelican Lake (with pelicans) about 15 miles away because I go with my husband who prefers that accommodation over B&Bs or rustic lodges. 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-$100. 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.

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    I've also seen deer, small squirrels, chipmunks, and woodchucks at the sanctuary. There are numerous bird feeders that attract a variety of finches, hummingbirds, and woodpeckers. The cawing of crows can be heard in the surrounding forest almost constantly. Photos of all these are also possible.

    In the town of Orr there is a scenic and easy bog walk on raised wooden platforms located behind the visitor's center. You can fish at one of the many lakes in or around Orr. There was a nice hike at Vermillion Falls.

    Comparisons between 2nd week of July and end of August:

    As winter approaches, the bears enter hyperphagia where they consume huge quantities of food to get them through hibernation and to the next spring. As a result the most bears can be seen in late August as the furiously forage. My experience bears (ha ha) this out. But I had quality bear viewing in July with lots of mother and small cub interaction.

    There are some wildflowers in the area that are in bloom in July. If you can get the flower and the bear in the same photo, that’s a nice picture. The biggest advantage of going earlier is that the cubs are younger. But mothers are more protective of younger cubs, so they stay in the wooded inaccessible areas more and are less in the open. I used binocs and observed more in July than in Aug.. I photographed more in Aug and don’t recall any binoc usage.

    If you look at the two photo albums, you can see the difference in the size of the cubs.

    I don’t recall being annoyed with too many mosquitoes on my August visits. This last trip, July 9 and 10, was bad enough that I almost put on my mosquito headnet. As the sun rose during the day, the mosquitoes lessened. Even with spray, I had some bites.

    If you want to see black bears, anytime you are about an hour south of International Falls, MN is a good time to go to the sanctuary.

    I was thrilled with all three visits, but three is enough as a visitor. Any future visits, I’ll go as a volunteer.

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    I went to the Vince Shute Bear Sanctuary on July 24. It’s a great place for anyone to observe black bears. I went during the normal opening hours of 5-8:00 pm . Time did not allow me the Opportunity to spend the day taking pictures which Lynn did. However, I did get lots of great photographs from the walkway. At one time, there were 8 cubs in the trees and 20-30 bears on the ground eating. It was not very crowded and I never had a problem being able to see the bears. I highly recommend that if you are in the Orr, MN area that you stop and see the bears! It’s a thrill for small and large bear lovers alike!
    Afterwards, I stayed in Orr at a very nice bed and breakfast called the Hundred Acre Woods Bed and Breakfast. Veronica, the owner, was a wonderful hostess and makes the best potica – a pastry with walnuts, hone, butter and cinnamon. She has 2 rooms – the Master Bear room and the Log Cabin Room – both for under $100.00 a night. About 20 minutes from the Bear Sanctuary, it was a great place to stay during my visit to Orr.

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