From the archives, originally written for the Heath Herald in 2004.
It is early November and once again it is time to explore a small five hundred to six hundred acre area that is part of the twenty thousand acres of woods that I am fortunate enough to call my backyard. Within this area I know of three winter dens where black bears have hibernated off and on during the 30 years that I have been exploring this area. Each site has been used a least several times during this time span. My mission today is to visit each site to assess if the sites may be utilized this winter.
The forage in the woods this year is exceedingly poor. After two years of bumper crops, the red oaks are producing few acorns this year. The beech trees have produced only a spotty beechnut crop, and the fruit bearing trees and shrubs had their fruit harvested early due to the low crop production of the other food producing plants. These observations lead me to the conclusion that it will be an early hibernation cycle for black bears. The bears will go for their long night goodbye early this season rather than waste precious energy in search of nonexistent food. It is remotely possible that I might locate some bears already in their dens.
It is mid morning, about 9 AM. The woods filter the morning light allowing shafts of silver to spread across the frosted forest floor. It is important to be careful where I walk on my way up the hill. The frost is beautiful to behold but treacherous to your footing. The hill is steep as I head for the first potential den site. The sound of my heart beating can be heard in my ears as I ascend the uphill terrain towards an area of east facing ledges. Ahead the misshapen brown silhouette of a root ball of an overturned tree is visible from a good distance. The oak tree pulled out of the rock ledge about 15 years ago during an ice storm, breaking out a huge section of bedrock to which the massive roots were attached. This created an arch between the root ball and the resulting crevice in the ledge. This spot was used as a winter den by a large boar off and on for a few years and then left vacant for a long period of time. It was eventually discovered by a sow that has bore cubs at this location several times in the last six years.
I am cautious as I approach the site and stop several times to examine the entrance from a distance with my binoculars. The entrance to this miniature cavern, about two feet in diameter, is very well hidden. I discovered it one day when tracking a bear in early December. The large tracks led me directly to the den site. Once the narrow entrance is navigated, the cavern is only about six feet deep and three feet high. It is plenty large for a bear holing up for a long sleep, but there is not too much room for visitors, nor would they be welcome.
From a distance branches can be seen piled up in front of the entrance. These branches do not completely obscure the opening to the den, but they certainly make it less visible. There is little doubt in my mind that a closer investigation is not a good idea. A long time ago I learned to trust these feelings. Deciding to leave well enough alone seems like a good idea as I make a mental note to return to this site once the cold has really set in during late December or January.
Black bears inhabit vast territory in North America rangingfrom Mexico to the frozen tundra of Canada. In the northern ranges they may hibernate for more than 120 days during the winter. For a long time biologists believed that bears are not true hibernators. More recently the definition of hibernation has been reevaluated to include all the specialized energy conserving behaviors that enable animals to sleep for long periods of time to survive the winter months.
During the late summer and autumn black bears will gorge themselves, gaining up to thirty pounds a week. Although it hardly seems that they would have little time to do anything else but eat during this period they will also locate a den site and often form a winter nest by gathering branches, leaves, and other plant materials creating a bed they deem comfortable enough to sleep on for the entire winter. Bears survive the long winter sleep by regulating body temperature to about 12 degrees lower than their normal body temperature. The bears heart rate will reduce to only eight beats a minute during hibernation. Miraculously, during the next 100 days or so, the bear will not eat, urinate, or defecate. It does not need to eat because it is surviving off the large fat reserves accumulated during the late summer and autumn. It does not have to urinate because it is turning the waste product urea (a lethal by product of urine) into nitrogen by converting nitrogen into proteins that are then utilized by the bear’s body to maintain muscle mass throughout the long winter. Sows give birth to their cubs during the hibernation period. The cubs nurse and sleep for weeks until the mother bear fully awakens in the late winter or early spring.
Black bears hibernation has been studied by medical researchers for ideas that may help with human health issues. For example, it has been discovered that bears use ursodeoxycholic acid to avoid cholesterol gallstones. This may lead to new ideas and pharmaceuticals to help humans deal with high cholesterol health issues. Also, researchers are studying how the immobile hibernating black bear can maintain bone mass during their winter long sleep. In humans, immobility is associated with bone loss. A better understanding of these biochemical processes may lead to a better understanding as to how to avoid osteoporosis in humans.
Bear hibernation is a very effective survival mechanism. It allows a large body mass animal to survive extremely low climatic temperatures where their energy use would, otherwise, be extreme during a period when food is available only in marginal quantities. This is an adaptation that is nothing short of mind boggling!
The next site that I am visiting on this day is about one half mile to the east. It is mostly down hill across another set of ledges that face in a southeast direction. The route to this area is very treacherous. Bedrock springs leak out all over the steep rock face on this side of the hill. It is tough to get a good grip with your feet in this slippery terrain. There are sections where you must turn around to face the rock and use your hands to get a good grip on the ledge being careful not to trip over your own feet as you climb your way down hill to the bottom of the ledge. Facing the rock as I descend down the bedrock allows me to get a close look at the lichen plant communities that inhabit this otherwise inhospitable environment. The gray, green, red, and white lichens contrast vividly with the gray mottled schist bedrock. Although the route is difficult, I am struck by the simplistic beauty of the lichen plant community on the cold stone.
After negotiating the 70 foot nearly vertical drop I locate a flat plateau that sits atop yet another series of ledges. It is thickly covered with trees. To the north there is a slight rise where a good stand of beech trees grows on deep soils that have filled the vertical plated bedrock outcrops. The trees are diseased as most beech trees are these days and one of the larger ones has snapped off about three feet above the root crown. The fallen tree rests on two slabs of fractured bedrock that fell to this location many years ago from an ice heave on the ledges above. The hollow trunk, held off of the moist ground by the rock slaps, has not undergone the normal rate of decay. Years and years have passed and the core of the trunk is still relatively solid.
The old tree is more than three feet in diameter. The hollow center is about thirty six inches. It has been used as a den site several times over the last decade. Due to its small size it is usually a winter home to a small bear, probably recently driven away by its mother as she prepared for a new breeding period and a new set of cubs.
The tree trunk shows no evidence that it will be used as a den this winter. The recently fallen leaves around the trunk show no sign of disturbance. A fisher has posted its scat along the upward side of the trunk.
It is not a site that I am likely to negotiate my way to once the wet rocks have turned to an icy fortress. If a bear will utilize this site this year it will do so without my knowledge.
The next site is about a half mile to the northwest. I will work my way up the ledges by following old wildlife trails found between rock outcrops, along narrow ledges, and through relatively wide, flat plateaus perched on the east side of this hill.
It has been about five hours since beginning this excursion. My legs, being not quite as spy as they once were, are in severe need of rest. I find a good window, through which I can see the distant scenery, between the trees on a plateau situated between two ledge outcrops. The view is spectacular. I can see working farms in the town of Colrain, vast areas of woodland, and in the far distance Northfield Mountain on the other side of the Connecticut River some twenty miles away. The view seems more than familiar. It occurs to me that I sat in this very place about 25 years ago, stopping not because my legs needed a rest, but because my stomach told me it was time to eat.
The early afternoon sun, low in the late autumn sky, casts long shadows from the hardwood trees. The shadows appear as light and dark vertical columns decorating the forest floor. This vision creates a mood of introspection and reflection. I am lost for a moment, in thought, rather than observation.
Twenty five years ago when I last sat in this exact spot I was a young man full of high expectations for myself. No mountain was too high, no task too difficult, I would conquer every obstacle. That was when I viewed challenges as obstacles.
Soon thereafter a woman who rode her bike all the way from the town of Greenfield to Heath, Massachusetts to help me dig a well line would capture my heart. We would build a house together. We would have children. Our love and energy would focus on raising our family. I would learn from her to view challenges as puzzles to be solved, rather than obstacles to be conquered. I was changed for the better by her influence, or so many would say.
About an hour passes as I am lost in my memories. It is now time to finish my day by finding the way to the third potential bear den. This site is located in a deep bedrock crevice facing northeast along a narrow trail with 50 feet of steep ledge above and 40 feet of vertical ledge below. The crevice is about nine or ten feet deep. The entrance is wide, about 4 feet in diameter, but it quickly narrows to about three feet. The chamber is about three feet high, four feet wide, and five feet deep. There is no safe way to approach this den. It cannot be seen from a distance. It is well hidden and dangerous due to the narrow ledge access. I have not visited this particular site for several years so I was curious as to what I might find. My movements are quiet and intentional as I move along the steep bedrock ledge. Gripping a piece of vertical rock, I peer around the wall only to see a porcupine directly in front of the crevice opening. Judging from the amount of porcupine scat accumulated in front of the crevice he has been in residence at this location for quite some time. Not wishing to disturb, or have too close of an encounter with this gentle creature, I decide to back track to an area where I can climb the ledge and head in a northwest direction towards my house.
After a strenuous climb, I reach the top of the ledge. It is apparent that there isn’t a lot of daylight left for my journey home. Now it is time to work my way quickly through the twilight forest, but before I begin the final leg of my journey I take a moment to reflect on the days ahead.
Soon the forest will be quiet during the harsh winter cold. Snow will bury the black bear’s den. The bears will sleep through each day and through each night. Time will stand still in their lives. They will awake in the spring to a new year of life.
With luck I will spend many of these winter days cross country skiing and snow shoeing through the quiet winter woods during these coming months. Time will race by me on the tail of a northwest wind. Many nights will be devoted to contemplating the puzzles of the natural world. And in the spring when the bear emerges from the den, my skis and snow shoes will be stored in the shed, and I will be out on foot in hopes of seeing a spring sow with her new cubs.
Originally written in November 2004