Green Lake Resident Brittny Gerig says she snapped this photo of a bear (circled) June 5 near the Puchyan River on Highway 23. submitted photo
by Maic D’Agostino
I wish I could say it was journalistic instinct.
But when I heard Green Lake Police Chief Mike Ratter utter the word “bear,” my ears perked up for a different reason.
I love bears.
When my wife and I got married, we picked unusual toppers for our cake: our favorite animals.
My spouse, Joanna, chose a rhinoceros with a veil, and I picked — you guessed it — a bear with a top hat.
So imagine my delight when I heard a bear reportedly was spotted just north of Green Lake next to the Highway 23 bridge over the Puchyan River.
And on our anniversary, no less! What a coincidence.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Chief Ratter show something on his phone to a member of the Green Lake City Council just before a meeting that evening in City Hall.
“I gotta follow up on that,” I thought.
Flash forward a few days. It’s Thursday morning, and our staff at the Ripon Commonwealth is gathered in the office of our editor, Ian Stepleton, to discuss what we’ll be writing about the following week.
“I heard about a bear in Green Lake Monday night,” I said, desperately hoping Ian also would think this was newsworthy enough for me to pursue.
“Oh, you heard about the bear!” Ian exclaimed. “I was going to tell you about it.”
Cha-ching, I thought; I’m gonna write about a bear.
It was a dream come true.
• • •
Within a few hours, I was on the phone with Chief Ratter.
“Mike,” I began, trying to hide my excitement, “I have heard rumors about this bear that’s roaming around …”
“Oh, Chrissakes,” the police chief laughed.
Mike told me he had heard about numerous bear sightings — including a report of a couple cubs roaming the golf course of Tuscumbia Country Club — and had seen pictures posted on Facebook that purported to be of a black bear near Highway 23.
“I could send it to you; I got it on my smartphone,” he said.
“S-sure, that’d be great,” I attempted to reply nonchalantly, my heart pounding.
I so did want to see that bear.
The email came through, and I quickly clicked on the attached images. One was blurry yet clearly a bear’s head, and the other required a bit of squinting (you can see it on the opposing page), but there was no doubt in my mind: There was a bear in Green Lake.
Mike wasn’t so definitive.
“Would I be able to testify in court that that’s 100 percent a bear? No-o-o-o,” he told me on the phone.
Whatever. I was sure.
And better still, I knew the woman whose name was on the photos.
• • •
About a month earlier, I had interviewed two young Green Lake parents.
The dad, James Gerig, had surprised his three kids by showing up at Green Lake School one Friday morning, arriving home a few weeks earlier than they anticipated from basic training with the Army National Guard at a base in Georgia.
I also was surprised to see James pop out of a closet in the school’s gym, thinking I was there to photograph kids receiving recognition during a third-quarter school assembly.
Like many others that day, I was moved to tears, and moved to call James’s wife, Brittny, to set up an interview.
I thoroughly enjoyed talking to the Gerigs, wrote up their story with pleasure and was delighted several weeks later when Brittny sought me out during Green Lake’s Memorial Day festivities to tell me she and James enjoyed the piece.
A little over a week after that, I was looking at pictures of a bear from a Facebook post under the name, “Brittny Gerig.”
I grabbed the phone and dialed her number.
“So … I heard you might have seen a bear?” I said, playing dumb.
She had, Brittny said, and she snapped photos while leaning out the car window as James drove her and the kids to a party in Ripon.
“So they all saw it?” I asked tentatively.
“Yep!” she replied brightly.
Then Brittny told me her neighbor had seen the bear just the day before.
“Really?” I said.
We talked for a bit about the bear: Someone claimed to see one on Brooklyn J Road; I told her about the chief’s story of cubs on the golf course; and Brittny told me about how she and her family had watched the bear chase a fawn down the riverside.
Then I said coolly, “Could you tell me the name of your neighbor who also saw it?”
• • •
Maybe it was because I had just watched “All the President’s Men” earlier that week (required viewing for all journalists).
Maybe it was because I just love bears.
But, doggone it, I would get to the bottom of this.
Before calling Brittny’s neighbor, Tina Roeder, I decided I needed some expert bear advice, because I had some questions:
Are bears unusual in the area? and more important (to me), What are the chances I will see one?
I needed to find information on bears in Wisconsin, so I Googled “wisconsin dnr bears” and headed to the Department of Natural Resources’ website.
This led me to a page called “Black bear population status and distribution,” which showed a color-coded map of Wisconsin counties.
Green Lake County was labeled “rare,” while Fond du Lac County had an even smaller population, if any at all: “transient.”
Then I noticed something.
A little box at the bottom of the page that read: “For information on bear population and distribution, contact: David MacFarland, Carnivore specialist, Bureau of Wildlife Management.”
Quickly, I called the number listed.
“We’ve had reports of a bear sighting in Green Lake County, and I was just curious how common they are to the area,” I told the bear expert.
Not a self-serving question at all. It was for the story!
Dave was friendly and generous with his knowledge.
He explained that young bears born the previous year often get kicked out of their homes by their mothers in June, just like human high school graduates.
That can lead to wandering youths, which is what some locals may have spied traversing Tuscumbia’s links.
I wanted to know how big these yearlings might be.
About the size of a St. Bernard, Dave told me, while a cub born this year would be around the size of a 15-to-20-pound cocker spaniel.
“And when they get older than that, we run out of reference dogs; then we’re talking about cattle and horses,” he added, and we both laughed.
But I’ll tell you: If I ever saw a bear the size of a horse, I’d probably die of happiness, and if not that, I’d probably die of a bear mauling.
I thanked Dave, hung up and wrote my story.
• • •
The following Monday, I again walked into Green Lake’s City Hall for a council meeting.
Entering the council chambers, I paused for a moment, then approached Chief Ratter, who attends the meetings every month.
“Any more word on the bear — or bears?” I asked Mike.
No, he said, he hadn’t heard anything more.
“It’s so funny,” I said. “Highway 23, Brooklyn J, Tuscumbia … So many bears!”
“It’s almost too many bears,” Mike said with a twinkle in his eye.
No such thing, chief; no such thing.