More Bear Encounters

I wrote previously about grizzly bears in Alberta, Canada. In this post I have a couple more stories about bears – this time in New Brunswick,Canada and also in Siberia, Russian Federation…

The black bear can be found in almost every province and territory in Canada. And as evidenced by my discovery of a bear trap in the woods when I was a young teenager, we knew there were bears lurking around our farmhouse in New Brunswick.

Ivan Shishkin Morning in a Pine Forest 1878

Morning in a Pine Forest by Ivan Shishkin 1878, oil on canvas. This is one of a few rare images of bears from the 19th century that is beautiful. Its so depressing to look online for pictures of bears and mainly find images of bear hunting, zoos, circuses and bear baiting… what a despicable history we’ve made for ourselves.

In fact one of my friends in Junior High had a locally famous mother who once shot a bear.

black bear wikipedia

Black bear, image

So considering that we lived in a remote place surrounded by lake and forest, its surprising that we personally never saw any bears. On occasion we would come across a large, odd looking scat and surmise it was a bear’s – but we never found any other direct evidence.

A neighbor of ours did, however. She and her husband had a cattle farm in Jolicure, and they worked a number of fields in the area.

One summer they planted corn in a field situated along the road to our house, about a mile in from the crossroads. As far as I remember, it was the only time they planted that crop there. By the end of the summer in the early fall, the corn was very high and thick.

One day the wife went out to find her husband in the field – she had his lunch to deliver. So she parked her truck on the road bordering the field and went out into the corn rows.

Cornfield_pennYan wikimedia commons

Commercial corn grows densely in a field, and can be anywhere from 5 feet to 12 feet tall, so you can see how hard it is to see anything inside a cornfield. (photograph by Jlantzy from Wikipedia Commons). Ever see the movie Signs by M Night Shyamalan with Mel Gibson and Joachim Phoenix? If you have, you know why I ask… if not, you should go watch it…

Ahead of her she heard rustling and saw stalks moving. Thinking it was her husband she pushed through the stalks, calling to him, when all of a sudden she came face to face with a black bear. She screamed, and turned, and ran back to her truck.

black_bear head shot

Black bear (Ursus americanus)

The bear, just as startled and terrified, fled in the opposite direction. Her husband, meanwhile, was fine – he heard the whole commotion but never saw either of them.

Soon after that epic moment, they harvested the corn, and all the stalks were cut down and the bear was never seen again.

Back then (in the 1970s), I spent many hours walking through game trails in the woods alone with my dog, and though I saw scats and prints I never encountered any large or dangerous animals. But because I knew that the farmer’s wife had come face to face with a bear just a mile from my house, I was always noisy in the woods and on the road (singing out loud and whistling) just to let “everyone” know where I was at all times.

My paternal grandfather Harry Safran wasn’t so lucky.

In 1907 he was exiled to Siberia (a long and exciting tale for a future post) where he lived in a cabin in the woods with several other political prisoners.

siberia map

One day he was out in the forest foraging for nuts or firewood, and found himself face to face with a big bear – the bear reared up on its hind legs in front of him and roared… and my grandfather spit in its eye…


Siberian Brown Bear also known as a Grizzly Bear

… at least that’s what he tried to do, because he’d been told to do that just in case he ran into a bear. The idea was that the air in Siberia was so cold that your spit would freeze as soon as it left your mouth, forming a sharp sherd of ice that would blind the bear on impact.

Well, my grandfather never found out if spitting at a bear would save his life. When he came to, he found himself lying on the ground and the bear was gone… and he was alive. Whether spitting in the bear’s eye saved him, or fainting and looking dead did, my grandfather lived to tell the tale.

Casey Anderson and Brutus

This photo should be called “Living in Harmony”: Casey Anderson with his 800 lb buddy Brutus at the Anderson family Thanksgiving dinner… I’m not recommending wild animals as house pets, but this picture was too good to pass up.

Its a wonder that the bear literature in Canada doesn’t include that piece of advice. Perhaps I should tell Parks Canada and suggest they tell tourists and hikers to practice spitting shards of ice before heading out into the woods.

I just hope I never have to find out for myself.

Many thanks to my Aunt Rhoda for details about my grandfather’s Siberian bear encounter and spitting ice.

(Also, a couple of posts back I mentioned I was going to write about a Memento Mori painted by Bernard Safran in the 1960s – I intend to soon – I’m still trying to get a good photograph of the painting before I publish it. Until then I have some other posts to share.)


Wild Animal Friends -1970s


Our friendly groundhog (Marmota monax).

In a previous post I wrote about our moose neighbors in Jolicure. We had many other animals that we lived among – none as big as the moose, but just as thrilling to see.

Our first summer in Jolicure (in 1973) we had a fat groundhog take up residence in our basement when part of the wall of the foundation collapsed inwards and we had a wide open hole to the outside. Our century old farmhouse was just barely sitting on a century old foundation made of massive blocks of stone, and the basement was literally just a big square hole in the ground. (and when the rocks fell inward they crushed our water pump –  so no water for a while til that got repaired too)

groundhog1So I guess the groundhog figured this big hole in the basement wall was an invitation to move in – and he did. It may be that he caused the collapse by digging in in the first place… we’ll never know.

It was a family crisis. What were we going to do with a groundhog in our basement? We couldn’t let a wild animal live down there – we had to be able to have access to the basement after all, and we stored our root vegetables down there.

My father considered shooting the animal, but the rest of us prevailed. Instead my mother went down there with pots and pans and made a tremendous noise until the poor intruder moved out. He found a very nice piece of real estate in our backyard by an old tree stump and stayed there for many years.

backyard mom and dad601

My parents in the backyard. Behind my father to the right is the large tree stump that the groundhog liked to sun himself on. Long Lake is behind us and beyond that is forest and marsh for miles.

In the summer you’d see my father sitting in his lawn chair in the backyard sunning himself, and alongside him on the smooth wide top of the tree stump, surrounded by mallow flowers, would lie the groundhog doing the same.

One summer evening I was all alone at home – the light was a soft golden color and as I sat in my bedroom window looking out past the lilac trees in front of my bedroom window to the field directly opposite the front of our house, I saw a beautiful lithe red fox hunting. He was jumping and leaping into the air over the old tilled remains of the field, now covered with thick grasses and wildflowers. It looked so joyful and lyrical, it made me happy inside.

red fox mrwallpaper

Red Fox leaping – image courtesy of

There was also a wonderful porcupine who would lumber out in the evenings from the forest to the big long field by our house and nibble on the grass there. Because he was so prickly he never was fearful of us and we could walk right up to him and have a visit. Mind you, we would never try to touch him, and luckily our dog was well trained enough that we never had her get into a mess with the animal.


Our friendly porcupine in the field of clover.

We always had a giant great horned owl that lived in the row of tall pines behind our house. In summer evenings with the windows open you could actually hear the near silent swoosh of his wings and see him in the dusk hunting back and forth for rodents.


Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

We’d find his pellets containing the tiny bones of his dinner under his perch. And if you looked carefully during the day he was there high up in his pine tree.

Needless to say there were frogs – and in the summer especially, there were huge loud choruses of them along the lake edge where there were lots of lily pads and other plant growth. The marshy areas were thick with frogs too and even the mucky wet areas of ditches and the forest were homes to them. In the spring there’d be big masses of frog eggs in the shallower water – shiny and slick with little black spots in them. Then as time progressed hundreds of  tadpoles of all sizes would hatch and you could watch them develop into full sized frogs.


Ermine – image from the Canadian Wildlife Federation

We had a weasel for a few years that lived under our kitchen shed. It turned pure white with a black tip on its tail in the winter. It was so sleek and elegant and fast. We saw its tracks more often then we saw the animal – it was very wary of us and our pets.

common-loon by Roy Toft National Geographic

Common Loon – photo by Roy Toft, National Geographic. If you’d like to hear a loon call go to the following National Geographic page and click on Audio –

And for the entire time we lived there, there was a pair of loons on our lake – they’d return in the spring to nest and stay til just before winter came. They had such a beautiful haunting call. We’d see them out there with their babies every year – the mother bird would carry her crew on her back when they were tiny little fluffy puffs and not able to swim yet. When we went out on the lake with our canoe, the loons would repeatedly pop up right next to our canoe and then dive down into the deep tea colored water. It was a wonderful gift to be able to be so close to such beautiful wild creatures like that.

Being in the middle of such wilderness there were many more wild things that we encountered over the years – fish hawks, sparrow hawks, rabbits, bats, mice, shrews, swallows and more… all to be discovered, appreciated and left alone by us.

There was one tragic siting that I will also never forget though – something so disturbing I am still racked with a sick guilt and sorrow. My mother and I and the dog were hiking through the forest when we came upon a raccoon stuck in a horrible trap

Racoon in a tree wikipedia commons

Every living thing deserves respect including racoons. Image from Wikidpedia Commons.

– its rusted metal jaws were clamped shut on the poor animal’s leg and the raccoon was so frantic that it allowed us to try and release it. But we were unable to help; the trap was too strong (it looked like a bear trap – it was big and heavy and powerful – a very dangerous thing that I or my dog could have just as easily been caught in).


A rusty bear trap – primitive and cruel.

My mother as brave as she was, couldn’t bring herself to kill the racoon and put it out of its misery – and I was near hysterical. We went home to get my father to take him back and shoot it. But he refused. He didn’t want to get into a war with any local trappers. All I could imagine was the suffering of that little helpless animal alone out there in the forest… I wish I’d had the strength to go back there myself and end his misery – but I failed.

And I will carry that with me to the end of my days.




Let’s Fast Forward to 1972

In the fall of 1972 I entered grade 7 at Burrough’s Junior High in Yonkers, NY. Let’s just say I didn’t adjust to the change…

Betty Safran with hand made model of Parthenon 1972

This is me in 1972 just a few months before entering junior high. I’m shyly posing with my to-scale handmade model of the Parthenon. You can see that I was what they’d call today a geeky kid – thoughtful, sensitive – not a tough nut.

At the time that Burroughs was built about 4 years earlier it was meant to be a revolution in education – take the sheltered middle class kids and mix them with the rough tough kids and things will even out. However the experiment didn’t go well – at least not while my sister or I were there… gangs of kids controlled the halls with violence (I only went to the washroom once at Burrough’s – it was too scary to be alone in the halls and bathrooms) and tormented kids on the buses.

Burroughs Junior High, Yonkers, New York

This is my old alma mater Burroughs Junior High in Yonkers, NY. Isn’t it an attractive prison-like depressing institution?

And one day a mobile race riot came (they were going around in buses) and our school was then surrounded by riot police decked out with all their gear and vans… it was a fun place.

Not only did I develop a strong bladder, but I also started having intense stomach pains that lasted for several years after that…

Betty Safran and Babby

This is sweet me with Babby the neighborhood Tabby.

Things in Manhattan were really devolving too – check out the movie American Gangster by Ridley Scott if you want an atmospheric tour of what it felt like in the city in the 70s.

And in our neighborhood a Mafioso boss broke building codes and built a house across the street from our house and trucks came and went at all hours as did big men (think the Sopranos). We heard from a neighbor soon after we left Bronxville that the guy’s pretty little wife was killed by a car bomb.

And there was a new presence of drugs in the schools and on our quiet streets – I went out to school one day and found a whole pile of used needles on the slope of our yard near the sidewalk….

My parents had been talking about moving somewhere remote and away from New York  for a few years. Real estate catalogues from Ireland, Australia and the rural US, were lying around the house. Even though I hated my new junior high – I didn’t want to leave my home, my Nanny who lived next door, or my beloved Babby, our visiting tabby.

In the spring of1972 my parents decided to go up to Eastern Canada and visit my mother’s eldest sister Joanne and her husband Lorne, and look for some cheap rural real estate that we could move to.

Willy Rayworth house Jolicure

This is how my sister first saw the red house on the hill – from a canoe on Long Lake.

After looking at several remote houses on a windy and open marsh, and a couple of Victorian charmers in small towns, they quickly decided on a red farmhouse about 3 or 4 miles from my aunt’s farmhouse in Jolicure, New Brunswick. This was the house that my sister fell in love with about a year earlier when she was up there visiting.

Locally it was known as the Willy Rayworth House. It had been famous for its spring water and for the dancing parties that had been held in the large kitchen in its heyday. The house when we saw it had been abandoned for some years and looked pretty in a shabby, run-down kind of way.

I guess I didn’t realize at the time that we were going to move to this house forever more. So it came as a shock when it became a reality. I remember lying under the Christmas tree in 1972 looking up at the flashing lights and weeping because I didn’t want to leave, and my father yelling at me to stop – we were moving and that was final.

And we weren’t allowed to tell anyone where we were going…