Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Bears on Film: A local naturalist shows us what’s walking around the woods.




John Kelly quickly flipped through the files on his phone to separate the keepers from the discards.

The central PA woods, I found out one day last month, can be divided into two broad categories: interesting wildlife and not-so-interesting wildlife.

The less interesting includes anything run-of-the-mill—your squirrels, your groundhogs, most birds. The interesting: major ground fauna like bears and bobcats. Deer fall somewhere in the middle, depending on what they’re doing and, especially, whether they have cute little fawns with them.

The red-bearded Kelly let me tag along with him on a warm August day as he waded through brush, bounded over logs and darted through groves of trees to check on his six trail cameras—and install a seventh—in the woods around Peter’s and Broad mountains in northern Dauphin County.

For the past few years, he’s set up increasingly sophisticated cameras, usually strapped tightly to trees, on land where he has permission to roam. Once a week or so, he traipses through the woods, visits his cameras and eagerly downloads whatever they’ve captured since his last visit.

He pops the memory card into his phone and quickly reviews the dozens of images starring whatever unsuspecting creature may have triggered the shutter. Bears, bobcats and, even rarer, eagles almost always make the cut. For the opossums, insects and squirrels—sorry guys, but it’s usually delete, delete, delete.

He then posts the stills and videos to his Instagram and Facebook pages.

That’s how I ended up in the middle of the woods on a spectacularly beautiful mid-summer day. Years ago, I had digitally befriended Kelly, who’s otherwise known to me as the fishmonger at the Broad Street Market, the guy behind JB Kelly Seafood Connection. Then, one day, he began posting images of stalking bobcat, majestic bucks and endlessly curious black bears. I was immediately hooked.

Now, the forest isn’t my usual haunt, as regular readers of this column may know. I typically comment on life along the asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks of Harrisburg. City hall, not an old Indian trail, is where you’ll find me.

But I wanted to venture out with Kelly to find out what he does and why he does it. This is a dimension of life in central PA that I rarely experience, even though it’s so close by.

Put simply, Kelly is a modern-day naturalist. Like a lot of young men, he once blasted through nature on motorbikes and ATVs and blasted at nature from a stand high in a tree. But, now in middle age, he doesn’t hunt anymore.

“My son hunts,” he said. “I think it’s fine, but it doesn’t interest me.”

Today, Kelly’s shooting is confined to pictures and video. He still steps into the woods with a purpose and takes something out with him when he leaves. It’s just that his harvest now is not measured in bag limits, but in image files, which he uploads and shares with his friends, with other nature cam enthusiasts and with lurkers like me.

He also forages, especially for mushrooms. During our trip, he discovered a sprawling “chicken of the woods,” an orange-hued, edible mushroom so large that he gave chunks of it to his parents, some to a friend and still had enough to sauté for our lunch, which he mixed in with a few choice scallops he had brought from his seafood stand.

“This just shot up overnight,” he said, before taking out a small knife, harvesting it and stuffing it into his bag. “No bugs, no tears. It’s perfect.”

He’s still learning about mushrooms, he said, and, in fact, had just returned from the three-day MycoSymbiotics Mushroom & Arts Festival at Camp Reily. He’s also learning how best to film nature: which cameras work well, how to get good shots, how to bear-proof equipment after several cameras fell victim to teeth and claws.

He’s not opposed to making small adjustments to the environment. A few months back, he found a deer skull and set it on a pole to see if it would attract interest, which it did. Recently, he created a drinking area by loosely damming up a small stream with a few logs.

On the day I visited, the watering hole was a huge success. Numerous grateful animals had rewarded his efforts by stopping by in the mid-summer heat, getting caught on camera in the process.

“Well, this worked out,” he said, as we watched a thirsty bear cub and then its mama bend over for a drink, filmed two nights before.

I left the woods that day feeling refreshed, as only a long day in nature can do. But it also showed me something I rarely experience—a constructive use of social media.

As a news guy, my exposure to sites like Twitter and Facebook is generally not positive at all. My feeds are lousy with partisan food fights, calculated attacks and accusations posing as facts.

But wait a second. There’s a 15-second clip of a spotted fawn reaching up to nuzzle her mother or a lumbering bear making its way through a grassy meadow. For a brief moment, there’s peaceful distraction, and my day seems a little better for the break.


To see John Kelly’s wildlife images, visit his Instagram page at @jkelly2272.

Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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