The woman’s eyes and smile sparkled with thoughts of the bear.
The woman loved the bear, fed the bear, photographed the bear. To her, the bear was cuddly, like your cat or dog. To her, the bear was harmless. After all, how could an animal that cute be dangerous?
Conservation Officer Glen Lucas of the state Fish and Game Department knew better. He smiled at the woman, thanked her for the information, then drove down the road, toward the bear lounging in a tree.
“Terrific,” Lucas says, rolling his eyes.
North Woods Law: New Hampshire, a six-part documentary series that debuted Sunday night on Animal Planet, features playful scenes like that one. Lucas later shot the bear with rubber bullets, forcing it from the tree near downtown Berlin and into the woods while residents looked on.
“She commented on how great they were and that she loved seeing them,” Lucas said Monday by phone, referring to the woman he’d met during the series. “I’m immediately thinking that I live right over there, a mile from here, and I don’t see a bear every day, so if someone is seeing a bear frequently, it’s for a reason.”
On the show, we also saw baby skunks huddled in a basement window well, another scene that must have appealed to animal lovers. But this was no fluff piece.
This was no piece of sanitized filmmaking, something produced to show how wonderful New Hampshire’s natural beauty and wildlife can be.
Sure, that was part of the theme, but so was canoeing and its potential danger, and this fact hit home with the footage surrounding the death of Justin Smith of Colebrook. He drowned last July in the Androscoggin River in Errol, while his girlfriend, Jane, stood nearby.
“One thing we think viewers will be left with is to know how diverse this job is,” said Major John Wimsatt of Northwood, the assistant chief of law enforcement for the Fish and Game Department. “Last year we had over 240 search and rescue missions in the state, and it runs the gamut, from lost children, Alzheimer’s patients, dementia, mountain search and rescue, and drownings.”
The tragic account began with Fish and Game Officer Eric Fluette and his initial encounter with Smith, his girlfriend and their friend Billy Benson, all of whom were fishing when Fluette stopped to check on their fishing licenses. Fluette mentioned the possibility of flash floods, then wished them well.
Fluette was on vacation Monday and unavailable for comment. Wimsatt told me, “The officer checked with them and that was a positive experience, and an hour later he received a call and there was an accident, and in fact, it was those two men who had gotten into a canoe and traveled down a stretch of river and the canoe capsized.”
We see Fluette race to the Route 26 bridge. We see him comfort Jane, who’s crying and tells him she hasn’t seen boyfriend “in 10 minutes.”
We see more minutes go by, then hours, then days. We see rescue personnel arrive, including dive teams with robotic underwater cameras. We see a rescue operation change to a recovery operation, and we hear Jane say, “We’re looking for a dead body?”
It’s riveting, gut-wrenching TV, right up until we learn that a pair of kayakers have spotted a body, Smith, three days after the canoe tipped. We learn that Smith was not wearing a life vest, and we hear his brother say that anything can happen to anyone, no matter how experienced that person may have been.
And from Wimsatt’s Monday phone conversation with me, we learn how the editing process unfolded, the decision on showing this awful side of life to the nation.
“We absolutely worried about it,” Wimsatt told me. “Every single episode is vetted heavily. Any situation involving tragedy, one of the first priorities is being respectful to the family and loved ones.
“There are certain guidelines that can be portrayed in the media, and the most important is we reached out directly to the family well after the event occurred, when the video was being prepared, and we got their permission to air the episode.”
It is chilling theater, all true, all here.
Beyond that, the documentary has a much lighter tone. We see officer Chris McKee remove three baby skunks from a window well using a mechanical grabber claw, but not before we hear that McKee once got sprayed and his wife made him sleep outside after a similar incident had happened in Nashua.
We see officer Kevin Bronson get tough with an ATV rider, who claims he had no idea about the 10 mph speed limit.
And we see Lucas, the woman and the bear.
“Anything that isn’t really big, the public refers to it as a cub, and that was the call that came in, a cub in a tree,” Lucas told me. “I thought, ‘Oh, perfect, this is great.’ Cubs are cute, and even I like going to deal with them.”
Instead, Lucas finds a young bear relaxing high in a residential tree like someone in a hammock on a perfect summer day. Lucas guesses the bear weighed 60 pounds.
“I got there and thought, ‘That’s no cub,’ ” Lucas said.
He fires two rubber bullets, forcing the bear to fall and grab branches, fall and grab, fall and grab, until it hits the ground and runs toward the woods. Lucas then fires something called a cracker shell, which he compares to an M-80 explosive.
“To keep it running,” Lucas said.
I asked if the bear had learned its lesson, never to return.
“Just like humans, we need to be repetitive, multiple times, in order to have memory stick with you,” Lucas said. “That one never came back, so I guess mission accomplished, but that’s where it got fed for weeks, so it’s going to come back.”
Then I asked Lucas if he gets frustrated when people feed wild animals, against rules widely known in the state.
“I can’t portray that to the public,” Lucas told me. “People don’t know. They think it’s a great fuzzy-looking cute bear, but it’s put in an environment where it doesn’t belong. How do you explain that to a 65-year-old woman who sees it from her window? You saw my eyes roll in the documentary.”
I did. And in a future episode, Wimsatt said, filming took place around here, in Chichester and Epsom.
“It’s a story about turkey hunting enforcement,” Wimsatt said.
Stay tuned. There could be some eye-rolling in that one, too.
(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @rayduckler.)