The first black bear appeared at mid-afternoon Tuesday on the south bank immediately downstream from Slim Pickens, a feisty Class III rapids on the Lower Rogue River.
The beefy fellow in a shiny black coat squinted with pig-like eyes for a few minutes at the human visitors — a U.S. Bureau of Land Management clean-up crew floating the Rogue's Wild and Scenic Section. The bruin sniffed the air, and when his curiosity was satisfied, he stepped silently into the deep forest and disappeared.
Human visitors to the wild section of the lower Rogue River can avoid most bear problems by taking a few precautions, experts say.
"This time of the year, when the berries are ripe and the salmon are coming up river, people are going to have bear encounters," observed Jeanne Klein, river manager for the BLM's Medford District.
Sure enough, in the 24-hour period following that first bear sighting, the BLM crew saw seven more during a 22-mile float trip from the mouth of Grave Creek down to the confluence of Mule Creek.
Slim Pickens is about seven miles into the wild section, which stretches 34 miles, including the last 12 miles in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
The lower portion of the wild section is known for its bear population, but eight bear sightings is a personal record for Klein, who began floating the stretch more than two decades ago. "This is the most I've seen on any trip," she said.
Welcome to bear country.
Most bears behave in the manner of the bear at Slim Pickens, said Shawn Clark, a BLM park ranger.
"The bears that have been around a while almost always head out when they see you," he said.
The bears that don't, the ones known as "camp bears," can become the problem children of the wild Rogue.
They have been known to rip open coolers, shred nylon packs like tissue paper and tear apart tents in search of a tasty morsel.
Since 1995, a year when numerous reports of aggressive bear behavior were logged, the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Wildlife have worked together to reduce problems between bears and bipeds in the Lower Rogue canyon.
That year 101 bears entered camps and 83 reports were made of bears that came within 30 feet of humans, said forest spokeswoman Virginia Gibbons.
There are bears aplenty this year. Just in the 11-mile section of the river between Blossom Bar and Foster Bar at the lower end of the wild section, 200 bear sightings have been reported this summer, she said.
Yet only two reports have been logged this year of bears getting within 30 feet of people, which is considered aggressive bear behavior, she said.
One point stressed to all visitors is that bears are wild animals that should never be fed, she said.
"A fed bear is a dead bear," she said.
In other words, a bear that becomes a camp pest may have to be put down because of the danger it poses to humans.
"The more people feed them, the more the bears are accustomed to being around people," Klein explained.
She recalled a trip last year when a bear that had developed an appetite for human food followed a BLM river and campsite clean-up crew down the river.
"It was not afraid of us at all," she said. "It kept along the river's edge. It didn't swim out to us but it was definitely looking for something to eat."
While there are no reports of bears attacking humans on the Lower Rogue, even a small bear can be dangerous, officials warn.
They suggest people make plenty of noise when making their way through brush along the river. If you happen upon a bear, back away slowly, Klein said.
"Don't turn and run — just back away," she said.
"Chances are, if you make noise, they will hear you long before you get to them and they will be on their way," Clark added.
Some campsites along the Lower Rogue feature bear boxes, food hoists and electrified fences to keep the bruins at bay. Small kits can be borrowed from Uncle Sam to set up an electronic perimeter around camp food.
A 12-member party led by veteran river runner Tom Gerow, an emergency-room doctor based in Coos and Douglas counties, took advantage of an electric enclosure to keep their food safe from bears at the Whisky Creek campsite last week.
They experienced no bear problems, although they saw a sow bear across the river on the evening of their stay, Gerow reported.
"It looked like a good-sized bear to me," Gerow said. "It was just curious, walking along the beach."
Canby resident Frank Despain, leader of Boy Scout Troop 505, said his scouts encountered a bear some 151/2 miles down the Rogue River Trail from Grave Creek.
"We saw a small bear in the morning, but it wasn't any problem," said Despain, who sells electrical components when he isn't hiking with his troop. "We also saw a lot of scat, pretty good-sized scat."
The scouts had taken the precaution of making sure nothing was available to attract bears into their camp site.
But it was more than bears that concerned the 10-member group, which included two adult leaders. During a morning hike along the trail, the other scout leader heard what he thought was a growling noise, Despain said.
A little farther along the trail, Despain saw something moving in the brush.
"Then, up on the hillside just above us, I saw this brown flash go through," he said. "I'm pretty sure it was a good-sized cat. We just stayed together and made a lot of noise."
A cougar was also reportedly seen by a river runner on the road near Grave Creek last week.
But it was bears that kept popping up along the Lower Rogue during the BLM clean-up crew's two-day float trip last week.
The second bear spotted by the group was just downstream from Horseshoe Bend. Although he was on the shaded south side, the bear was panting from the heat. But he was not too hot to eat. He reached up to a manzanita bush above him and pulled down a branch to snack on manzanita berries.
Two other bears were seen on the south side in the next 45 minutes, although they quickly ambled off. One was a large adult with a cinnamon coat.
Bear No. 5 was eating blackberries at about 5 p.m. on the north bank of the river just above Winkle Bar. For anyone who has seriously questioned whether a bear actually defecates in the woods, this bear dispelled all doubt. Blackberries apparently do not long reside inside a bear.
After doing his business, he wandered off, stopping occasionally to look over a furry shoulder at the humans in the two rafts.
The bears were up early the next morning. Shortly after sunrise, a bear as black as obsidian was looking for a salmon breakfast on the south side of Winkle Bar, which is about 171/2 miles into the wild section.
Within five minutes, another bear emerged from the brush — his coat tinged with cinnamon.
At Winkle Bar, the skeletal remains of an adult bear were found, including the stub of a tail, cinnamon-to-red fur attached to the lower spine and the lower legs.
Bear No. 8 was waiting on the north bank just a few minutes upstream from Mule Creek canyon near Long Gulch Riffle. The bear scampered away behind some large boulders.
But it is the first bear sighting that always leaves a lasting impression, Klein said.
"On one of the very first trips on the river when I was learning to row, I was going through Slim Pickens when I looked over and saw my very first bear in the wild," she recalled. "It was a cinnamon-colored bear swimming across the river.
"I remember trying to look at the bear while not wrapping up the boat," she added.
She and the bear both survived the encounter.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at email@example.com.