Marcia Roepke
Trail Time

Trail Time – The Joys of Winter & Black Bears

Snow came last week to the Gunflint Trail. It fell off and on for a few days, sometimes mixed with rain and sleet. The first snow that stayed happened at the close of day. Night comes so quickly this time of year. The big fat snowflakes fell slowly as the sky darkened all around us. It was windless and quiet and utterly picturesque. It’s moments like this that make me think, “This. This is the reason I love winter.” As winter approaches, I’ve had many other moments like that. The weather forecast has been predicting gloomy gray days but each day has had its own beauty and the sun has peeked out, sometimes in a golden dawn or a rosy sunset; or sometimes in a full blown blue sky. Now, there’s a moment! Walking through an aspen grove, the slender trees newly leafless and almost as white as the birches, I lift my face to the sun that beamed out of a cobalt sky; a raven dark as ink flies over, and wow… white trees, blue sky, black raven. And I think again, “This.” This beauty makes all the struggle of winter worth it. And here’s a secret: It’s only going to get more beautiful as the winter deepens, as the ground turns hard as stone, and as the snow accumulates.

Once we’re ready for winter, we feel like we can relax for a while. Summer is so busy — it’s stays light at this latitude for 16 to 17 hours a day at the summer solstice. I’m convinced that all that sunlight fuels a mad sort of energy. We have about nine hours of daylight currently, meaning long hours of darkness, so my celestial orb of choice has been the moon. Now it is in its waning phase. Moon viewing was spectacular this past week. One morning I was up early enough to see the moon set as the sun rose behind me. This is the time for moose to rut, for foxes to morph into their fluffy winter coats and for black bears to hibernate.

 Black bears in northeastern Minnesota hibernate from sometime in late September and October to late March or April. The period before hibernation is known as hyperphagia, which is a time of non-stop eating and drinking for bears so they fatten up. Some will return to their old dens to hibernate, but some don’t. They’ll make a new one under a fallen tree or under a cavity formed by boulders. I was talking to Peg Robertson, who recently retired as a wildlife biologist for the Superior National Forest in Tofte. She told me that bears have different personalities, but all of them follow their noses when looking for food. They have an even keener sense of smell than dogs do. They make mental maps of food sources, and return to places where they’ve had success. This is one reason it is SO important not to let bears get garbage or bird seed or dog food from cabins. The bears will return. Heck, they’re made to return!

 Black bears have a summer home range but in early fall, during their ravenous eating phase or hyperphagia, they roam more broadly. This year’s new cubs stay with mama bear. They will hibernate with her. Papa bears are basically loners except for the summer mating season from May to July. They den alone. While hibernating, bears will not eat, drink, urinate or defecate. They do this without losing much muscle mass or strength. Everything slows: their metabolic rate is reduced to 25%; they breathe every 15-45 seconds; their heart rate drops. If there has been a successful mating, and the mama bear has gained enough weight to support a pregnancy, the fertilized eggs implant in the uterus during November. The tiny cubs are born in January, nearly hairless and totally blind and weighing less than 8 ounces. The mother bear rouses when they are born, feeds them and responds to their cries and comfort sounds (cubs hum when they are happily feeding). A mother bear may lose a third of her weight — mainly from fat reserves. Papa bear just sleeps.

 I wonder if bears know how big they’re getting during that eating phase. Do bears have a self-image?

One fall day, I was driving slowly down a dirt road. Sitting just off the road, barely screened from view by green-leafed saplings, sat a black bear. He was hiding, though not very successfully; his face was hidden behind the tree but he bulged out hugely on both sides of the trunk. I sat there quietly in the car, watching him as he peeked from behind the tree, first one side, then the other; each time ducking back behind the tree, hiding his eyes, reminding me of a toddler playing peek-a-boo. That bear had almost certainly fattened up enough for his long sleep in the deep dark winter. Soon it would be time to hide for real in his new cozy den until spring.


— Marcia Roepke