Schooled by a Bear

Some of you know I spend part of the year at our house on the border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We have wonderful views and gobs of wildlife. Elk trot through our neighborhood. Bobcats, skunks and turkeys occasionally visit. We also encounter black bears — so many we never leave garbage or even bird feeders out at night. Even when we take care, though, a bear sometimes shows up on our deck to take advantage of seed spilled by feeding chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and downy woodpeckers. I grab my trusty airhorn and give the bear a good blast. Gone in six seconds.

I tell you all this because I have a pretty good bear story to report.

As some of you also know, I like to ride my bike on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s not exactly a ride in a St. Petersburg park. The long ascents are murder. My nose runs. I pant and say bad words. But riding — giving my body hard work to do — is a way to maintain my own sense of wildness.  And I’ll be honest. I’ve had a few health problems over the years. At 68, I swallow a bunch of pills every morning. Maybe the challenging rides will keep the grim reaper at bay a little while longer.

I always load my bike on my top-of-the-car rack the night before a ride. It helps me get a faster start in the next day.

This morning, as I drove toward the Blue Ridge Parkway, I was surprised to see so much dirt and dust on the windshield. What the hell. How did that happen? Before I reached for the wipers, I took a longer look. The dust that had seemed abstract at first began to take the shape of distinct bear tracks. Not the tracks of a large bear, but tracks from what looked like a first-year cub or maybe two first-year cubs. Anyway, I was sure bears had been on my roof with bad intentions.

At the Blue Ridge Parkway, I unloaded my bike in almost a panic. At first, the bike looked perfect. Then I noticed a toothmark puncture on the handlebar. Kind of cool, actually. But why would bears take the trouble to climb up on my car to chew on the handlebar? Hmm. Just under the handlebar is the canvas bag where I carry a spare tire and tools. The bears, it turned out, had made short work of it — and not because they needed my tools. They were after the precious pack of energy gel I’d stuffed in there and forgotten.

I love my bears. I don’t fear them but I respect them. I respect them because they are so good at being bears. They’re wild. They’re always hungry. If you make a mistake, they will find the mistake and take advantage of your slightest moment of carelessness.

It’s aways a little humbling, and a little thrilling, to be schooled by bears.

Hurricane shutters

When I was a kid all the Miami old-timers had shutters. They had learned their lessons well, thanks to a series of devastating hurricanes that plagued South Florida.

A 1926 hurricane virtually destroyed Miami and brought on the Depression — three years before the stock market crash.  The 1928 hurricane crossed over the state, spilling water from Lake Okeechobee, destroying small towns, and drowning more than 2,500 souls. In 1935, the most powerful hurricane ever to hit the United States blasted the Central Florida Keys with 200 mph winds, killing more than 850 people. Some drowned, some were sandblasted to death. In the late 1940s, a couple of smaller storms flooded southern parts of my state, prompting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build canals to drain the Everglades.

My parents moved to Miami in 1951. My dad immediately built wooden shutters, on the advice of older neighbors. Many of our better-off neighbors had hurricane awnings (see photo) they could easily swing down when storms approached. We couldn’t afford them — homemade had to make do.

But you know what? The bungalow my parents bought is still standing. So is a second, sturdier home we lived in when I was a Miami Shores teen. Thanks to shutters, we kept out the winds from hurricanes named Donna, Cleo and Betsy. The first house I bought in 1974, and lived in until I moved to St. Pete in 1977, wasn’t as fortunate. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew’s Cat 5 winds broke the windows and lifted off the roof.  I’m guessing the owner wished he’d sprung for shutters the moment he suddenly saw the open sky.

I live in a West Florida townhouse now. I bought shutters in 2005, after four powerful hurricanes crossed our state, barely missing St. Petersburg. At least once a summer since — and sometimes several times a summer and sometimes in the fall — I dutifully put up those shutters when storms threaten.

For years, I have been a curiosity among neighbors who lack hurricane experience. Why am I going through such trouble? Wow, those hurricane shutters must have been expensive! Why did you waste your money? That’s what insurance is for, chuckle chuckle.

Everything changed this summer. Hurricane Harvey’s destruction of Houston got everybody’s attention. A few weeks ago, Hurricane Irma leveled the Keys, ripped up the east coast,  and scared everybody to death. My Tampa Bay area never got more than tropical force winds — but, oh, the damage. Trees by the thousands were torn out of the ground, with some punching holes through windows and roofs on their way down. In Pinellas County, 80 percent of us lost power, some for more than a week. All from 50 mph winds. Just a run-of-the-mill tropical storm.

I’ve had most of my shutters up since August. They’ll stay up until hurricane season wanes. And you know what? I’m no longer the neighborhood goof ball. Neighbors ask me every day about my shutters. What are the options? How much do they cost? Can I put them up by myself? A stranger stopped by the house just an hour ago to ask advice.

I ain’t Florida Boy Trash no more!

Seriously, it’s important to keep the wind out of your home. That means protecting doors and windows and fortifying your garage doors. If you can afford ’em, buy shutters. If you can’t, use plywood. That was good enough for my dad and has been good enough for millions of Floridians over the decades. Build them now. Don’t wait until the day before the hurricane hits.

Yes, you may have insurance. But if the wind gets into your house and takes your roof — and the roofs of thousands of others — good luck finding someone to fix it. It can take six months or a year.

I now return you to regularly scheduled Weather Channel programming. Looks like a storm called Nate will be a hurricane by the time it reaches the Northern Gulf on Sunday.