Telling Tales

Hi Folks:

I haven’t told any stories on this blog for a while, and if I let them build up too long, well, it might not be pretty.  Actually, that reminds me of a technician I had working for me once.  Great technician, but every once in a while she’d just burst out giggling.  I asked her about it and she replied, “I don’t know.. they just build up!”  I’m the same way, except instead of giggling I start babbling.  Like now for instance.

Okay, on with show.  I’ve had the privilege of working over more than half of Canada (so far), and I’ve been involved with some really interesting projects and some wonderful people.  Sometime late in the last millenium I had two separate opportunities to work with black bears.  I’ve accumulated a number of bear stories that I carry around with me, and I thought I’d take a moment or two to share one of them.  In the first bear project on which I worked there were three main aspects to the work.  One aspect was to create a map of the habitat of the area, and another was to create a map of bear movements by using radio collars on certain bears.  In this way we could overlay the bears’ movements onto the map that we’d created so that we could try to interpret where the bears were going at different times of the year, and possibly why.  The third aspect of the work was the most ‘adventurous’, and that was dealing with the bears themselves.  In a nutshell we set out traps for the bears, and when a bear stepped into our trap s/he was anaesthetized, weighed, measured, and samples were taken to determine both the age and the health of the animal.  Yes this was potentially dangerous work, especially on occasions when we had a cub in the trap and his or her mother was less that 10 or 12 yards away and watching intently.  I must say up front that every precaution was taken to respect the health and integrity of both the bears and the staff, and every step was taken to minimize the stress caused by our interactions.  We did have some bears that seemed to find their way into our traps regularly, and there was some suspicion that maybe they liked the drugs…  Yes, that’s a joke, and no, the anaesthetics are neither narcotic nor addictive (just in case that one swept past you).

Anyway, on the day in question another technician (also an M.) and I had finished working with a young sow, and she was sleeping off the remaining effects of the anaesthetic.  She was in a protected area and well covered to keep the flies away from her, so we let her sleep it off and went looking for the two cubs we knew she had.  Without success.  We searched the tops of every tree around the site, but we just couldn’t find them.  It was getting later in the summer and the cubs were starting to feel a little more independent, so we gave up our search.  We loaded up the truck and were heading back to camp when we saw her two cubs sauntering down the road toward us.  My partner stopped the truck, we both jumped out and treed the cubs, one in a jack pine tree on one side of the road, and the other in a large poplar on the other side of the road.  I was going back and forth between the two trees to keep both cubs in place while my associate went back to get the gear.  Now, if you’ve never seen a black bear cub go up a tree, they don’t climb as much as run up the tree, and they come down even faster.  The cub in the jack pine decided to make a break for it, and although I did chase after the little bugger, never caught up.  That left the other one.

Now this poplar tree was, without exaggeration, at least 50 feet (15m) high.  At this point M. proclaimed a fear of heights, so that left me.  I mixed up a syringe with some anaesthetizing drugs and put it in my pocket, stuck a jab stick through my belt, and started climbing.  Of course, as soon as I started climbing the cub started climbing too.

So there we were, fifty feet up in this poplar tree, swaying back and forth in the rather stiff breeze.  For anyone who hasn’t had a close encounter with a bear, bears don’t ‘growl’ when they’re feeling threatened.  Rather they’ll look at you kinda sideways, and make a huffing noise by breathing quickly in and out.  This is followed by a repetitive snapping of the jaws.  In its own way it’s an action similar to a rattlesnake rattling its tail and says, “You’re too close and I’m afraid of you.  Back off, or else.”  Well, this little cub was on the very top-most branch of this poplar tree with his bum in the air, huffing and snapping at me.  I on the other hand was doing my best to get us both down safely.  I removed the syringe from my pocket, affixed it to the jab stick, reached up… and with the wind the syringe hit a branch and fell fifty feet to the ground.

I climbed back down, put another syringe in my pocket, and climbed back up.  The cub hadn’t moved.  Affixed the syringe to the stick, poked the cub in the butt, and climbed back down.

Now usually when the cubs feel groggy they start to climb down on their own.  On one occasion a cub climbed down faster than the technician who had given him the anaesthetic and climbed (successfully I might add) right down the technician’s back as he clung to the tree.  In this case we waited about five minutes but the cub was still up in this tree. I knew I got him… and then we noticed his back feet were hanging.  I tied a good thick rope to my belt and climbed back up, and there he was, hung up by the elbows in the fork of a branch, fast asleep.  I got as close as I could without breaking any of the branches, tied the other end of the rope around his ankles, then undid my belt buckle and belted myself to the tree.  I pulled out my folding knife and cut away at the branch holding the bear cub in place, and we got him down to the ground.  A 22-lb bundle of black fur.  We took his measurements and samples and laid him out beside his mother, who was just starting to wake up.

The joys of being a biologist type person.  If you work in the field you’ll understand that.

Mike.

P.S.  One other occasion on that same project I went to visit my parents during one of my ‘weekends’.  My mother asked me if I’d go in and pay her car insurance for her, so I took the money and the papers down to the insurance desk.  The paperwork complete, the agent owed me about a dollar change, but rather than giving it to me she set everything aside and started talking to me about life insurance.  “You’re a young man, you should be thinking about your future…”  Then she asked me what I did for a living.  “I trap bears.” I replied.  Without another word exchanged she gave me my paperwork and my change and sent me on my way.

P.S. II, the sequel.  Every year more and more people enter into the woods, and often they have no knowledge of or experience with what they might encounter.  Also, every year more homes are built in rural or suburban areas, often in areas that were previously prime habitat for other species.  Take some time before you go to familiarize yourself with the area in which you’ll be traveling and what precautions you need to take.  If you’re living or traveling in bear country, for example, be ‘bear aware’.  Check with your government’s website or park station for information.  One very good site on bear awareness is BC’s ‘Bear Aware‘ site, put up by the British Columbia Conservation Foundation.  Being informed and taking simple precautions are much better for you AND the bears.

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