Maine Black Bears | Yankee Classic
Three Baxter Park rangers are with Hugie. They take turns carrying the net on their backs while the others bushwack a trail through the forest; the toboggan laden with equipment snags repeatedly. Snow falls from noon onward, growing heavier with the steepness of the trail. Among his colleagues in the wildlife department, Hugie is known as an adept scrounger of equipment and people. A Massachusetts man stopping for gas late one night on his way home from Maine was pressed into duty helping Hugie with a trapped bear in the woods.
Hugie seems unaware of the growing mutiny of his companions as the day lengthens. He seems attentive to little else but the still faint pulsing in his earphones. The rangers have long ago given up hope of seeing One Ear this day. “If we don’t turn back soon we’re all going to be in a serious predicament,” warned a ranger. Reluctantly Hugie agrees to turn back. He says he will be along shortly. As they start down the trail they see Hugie snowshoeing upwards, his antenna thrust before him, before he disappears among the trees.
“All he thinks about is getting his bear,” a ranger said. Someone could have been killed if we’d kept going.” Later Hugie will say he was probably chasing a dropped collar from blueberry time in August, or maybe a carcass. He took out a map. Carefully he marked where he had turned back. He wanted to be parachuted in. He wanted to see.
It is nearly midnight now. He had started this day going for One Ear 18 hours earlier. Hugie unloads his snowmobile on a deserted woods road beneath a sky of stars. There are no headlights on the snowmobile, nor a windshield. He will make the hour’s snowmobile ride to his wilderness laboratory steering with one hand, holding a flashlight on the trail with the other.
He places a tape recorder carefully in his pack. The next day he will start for Rudolphene ( named for a red spot on her,nose), an eight-year-old female with three cubs. She is his only denned bear with a litter. Earlier he had pressed his ear to the den and had heard an insistent warbling, like water expanding in a heating pipe. He will drop a microphone into the den.
When he arrives at the camp set back from two-mile-long Spectacle Pond, Hugie climbs wearily to the top bunk and is asleep in an instant. When he wakes he says he has been dreaming of duck hunting from the far end of the pond.
Rudolphene’s den is at the base of an old white pine, long dead and with the bark stripped away. Hugie notes that if timber cutters were to come in here they would be required by law to clear the dead wood first. It is rare to see other people in these woods, even cross-country skiers or snowmobilers, and he is alerted instantly when he sees snowmobile tracks heading in Rudolphene’s direction. He has a long-standing fear that publicity given to his work will attract thrill-seekers. For that reason he is always vague about where his bears den, purposely misleading inquirers by several townships. This time the snowmobile tracks are coincidence. They veer off before they come to the den.
The inside of Rudolphene’s den is lined with evergreen boughs. Hugie pokes his head in carefully. He wants to do nothing that will cause the mother to move abruptly. She cradles her cubs between her front and rear legs, covering them with her head and neck. They are nursing. The den is warm and musky; maternal. Black bears breed only every other year, beginning between the third and fourth year. These cubs were born in January.
Hugie removes the cubs with a cub catcher (a pole with a loop on the end) and weighs them by wrapping them in a tee-shirt sling suspended from a spring balance; they weigh about four pounds. At birth, though, they were the size of a Norway rat, at best 12 ounces. In proportion to its mother’s weight, a black bear cub is the smallest placental mammal at birth. The mother sustains them on milk much richer than that of a cow while her own reserves are depleted each day.
One at a time the cubs are removed from their mother. They confront winter and the strange warmth of parkas and people with shrieks. Each time Rudolphene rouses herself and comes to the edge of her den. Each time she opts to return. When threatened, females often abandon their cubs. Biologists have successfully placed orphaned cubs with foster mothers. Other times a mother will ferociously defend her young.
It takes more than three hours to sedate Rudolphene. Because she has lost a lot of weight, and because her cubs give Hugie his first chance to study a generation of bears, he decides he will haul a deer carcass or two to her den in the spring. When he returns to camp, he paces the floor. If he had placed the cubs in the wrong position, Rudolphene in her stupor could suffocate them. When he first began his bear studies in the spring of 1975 three of his first nine bears died of a drug overdose. He pulled in his traps. He found another drug. Since then he has not had even a close call with a research-caused injury, but he frets nevertheless. It is dark when he decides to return to the den. He grasps a flashlight because the snowmobile is still without lights. He returns two hours later. His face is ribboned with scratches from branches snapping in the dark, and a welt swells on his forehead. He does not speak as he moves around the room, and his companions fear the worst. Hugie sighs. Then his face creases into a smile. He has enjoyed his joke. “They’re fine,” he says.
The “big Honcho” bear around Spectacle Pond is a five-year-old male named Bart, trapped on Bartlett Mountain. Hugie is certain he is the father of the cubs. Bart is in his second den of the winter, having left his first after Hugie worked him over.
Hugie’s wife, Jan, and another woman accompany him. Jan still suffers from feet frostbitten a few weeks earlier when she stood for hours waiting with Roy for a bear to leave the den. When he approaches the old den the pulsing in his earphones is insistent. Bart did not move far. Suddenly Hugie’s face changes expression. The pulsing grows dimmer. Bart, on his guard, has heard them. He has left again.
Few people see bear prints in deep snow. These prints begin only 30 yards from where Hugie was standing. The inside of the den is unusually well groomed for a male, lined with evergreen boughs. Hugie is concerned with what he hears in his earphones. The pulsing is irregular. He holds the antenna in front of him chest-high and turns slowly in a circle.
“We should leave,” he says calmly. “Bart is circling.” It is a bad time to encounter Bart, displaced for the second time, lean and bad-tempered. They leave the woods with Bart still circling. They are Bart’s woods again. Roy Hugie would want it no other way.