'Bears are pretty cool'
BELTRAMI ISLAND STATE FOREST, Minn.—As show-and-tell events go, they don't get much showier than this.
It's not every day you get to hang out with a black bear in the woods, after all; touch its fur, feel the bottom of its feet and learn cool stuff such as how bears can spend six months without eating or going to the bathroom.
Whatever bears might do in the woods the rest of the year, they don't do when they're hibernating.
That's what a small group of high school students from Red Lake, Minn., and about 30 enthusiastic third-graders from Lake of the Woods School in Baudette, Minn., had the opportunity to learn on this early March day as they trudged about a quarter-mile through the snow to visit a bear's den concealed deep within the normally quiet forest.
Bear project leader Dave Garshelis and bear biologist Andy Tri of the Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids, Minn., were visiting the den to check on the bear and remove a GPS collar that had allowed them to track her whereabouts for the past year.
With sunny skies and a temperature in the low 30s, it was a perfect day to be outside.
Before the students arrived, Garshelis and Tri had tranquilized the bear and removed the collar, lifted her from the den at the base of a fallen tree and weighed her using a harness attached to a scale suspended from a makeshift pole.
Known officially as "N1"—N for nearby Norris Camp and 1 because she was the only bear in Beltrami Forest with a collar—the 9-year-old sow weighed 202 pounds, nearly 60 pounds more than she'd weighed when collared the previous winter not far from the present den site.
Gretchen Mehmel, manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp, and assistant manager Charlie Tucker had stumbled across the bear in her den early last winter while working in the forest.
They also had found this winter's den and confirmed her presence a few days before the students' visit.
Mehmel and her husband, retired DNR conservation officer Jeff Birchem, help out with various outdoor education programs at Lake of the Woods School, where their son Joshua is a senior and daughter Johanna is an eighth-grader.
That had set the stage for the third-graders' visit.
"Jeff and Gretchen both do a few different things in our classrooms," said Andy Pierson, a third-grade instructor at Lake of the Woods School. "We've been very fortunate to have them as a connection to doing things through the DNR and the outdoors and bringing that into the classroom."
The DNR has nearly 40 bears collared throughout the state, mostly in Chippewa National Forest, as part of ongoing research into bear migration and ecology.
"It's been a great experience," Pierson said. "We kind of keep the data coming back and forth all year. They send us the waypoints for where the bears are going and where this particular bear had gone last year, so we keep track throughout the school year on what's going on."
In the case of N1, students from both schools had received regular updates on the bear's whereabouts, including a 40-mile trek she made south to the Red Lake Indian Reservation last fall before returning to Beltrami forest for her winter's nap.
Most likely, the bear had sojourned to gorge on acorns, a high-fat food source that would sustain her through the winter. That likely explains her weight gain from last year.
"She was down there for a few days then came all the way back and skirted the west edge of the western water track of the Red Lake Peatland and came right back to the same stand (of forest) where she denned last time," Mehmel said. "So that was very interesting."
There were plenty of "oohs" and "aahs," especially from the third-graders, who arrived in two groups after the Red Lake students left, as Garshelis and Tri talked about the bear, occasionally joking to get a rise out of the kids.
"So how fast can you guys run?" Garshelis asked them at one point. "Do you think you can outrun a bear?"
The kids answered with a resounding "no."
"She can run about 35 miles an hour," Garshelis said. "They can run very fast, but the thing with black bears is, they don't actually chase you."
The paws also were of considerable interest, and Garshelis pointed out the fur on the bottom of the bear's feet.
"Who has hair on the bottom of their feet?" he asked.
The answer was obvious to one third-grader.
"Hobbits do," the boy said. "They brush it."
Like most of her classmates, Kathrine Brekke was awestruck as she kneeled down so a bystander could take her picture beside the slumbering bruin.
And no, Brekke said, she'd never been this close to a bear.
"I am totally pumped—really excited," she admitted. "I've been hunting before, but this is just a little more exciting."
Even if she and her classmates had to spend an hour on the school bus.
"It's worth it," she said.
For reasons only Mother Nature knows for sure, there were no cubs with the sow, who had only a single cub last year, the biologists said. Cruel though it may sound, she may have eaten them, Tri said.
"It's hard to say what's going through her mind, but sometimes, it's either, 'I'm in tough shape, and it's hard to nurse,' or 'both of us aren't going to make it,' " he said. "I'm not sure."
Cubs without a doubt would have added a whole new level of excitement to the bear's den visit, but all too soon—for many of the third-graders, at least—it was time to head back to their classroom and for Garshelis and Tri to return the bear to her den.
She'll awaken from her winter state sometime in the next few weeks, unencumbered by the collar that provided so much knowledge to both the students and the DNR researchers.
In the most basic of lay terms, Tri might have said it best:
"Bears are pretty cool."