At the end of February, our 7yo and I made a pilgrimage together to The Bear Woods in eastern Oklahoma.
The official name of the spot is most certainly not “The Bear Woods.” The name has been coined by our friend, Sara, and generally refers to any woods in which she happens to be exploring for Ursus Americanus, otherwise known as, black bears.
I wrote about what Sara and her team does here, when our now-10yo and I made our pilgrimage. This time was very different. Different boy, different emotions. Ewan is a quiet and thorough observer, unlike Holden, who drank in his experience with big gulps. Ewan danced around the edge, soaking in things in his own, personal way, and then needing to privately process and review. It’s so interesting when I’m reminded of how very different the boys are. Where Holden and I were prepared for nothing in our experience – which made everything so visceral, Ewan seemed very prepared and gentle, yet matter-of-fact.
First, Ewan loves to travel. He loves the airport. A car gets you there, a train takes you to your terminal, a moving walkway takes you to your gate, and an airplane takes you to your destination. Travel days are hard to beat.
We wound our way from Oklahoma City across the state to a spot very near the Arkansas border, down a dirt road, through a gate, and into the Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge, where we spent the night (courtesy of Sara). The next morning, we geared up for our drive and hike into a 6,500-acre private property to watch the team work the bear den.
The property was absolutely incredible; coyote, cattle, bald eagles, migratory birds, bear, you name it. And somewhere deep within, down a ravine, lay Hummingbird the momma bear and her bear cub, Herman (named aptly for the man who owned this property), tucked snugly into the back of a small cave made when a big oak tree fell over. I wonder…how many times have we each walked right by an amazing wild animal den and never known it?
It’s the way nature intended.
Sara’s work is to track bear, monitor health and mortality rates geographically, and work the dens to check momma bear’s health condition and do a general health workup, DNA profile, and chip any cubs within the dens. There’s more about that here.
For us, we (meaning landowners and other guests of Sara/the team/Oklahoma State University) have this profound opportunity to watch part of that process, hold the cubs while the team works the momma bear, and witness them in their territory. All of this work is done in the field; none are in captivity or clinics.
Here’s our morning.
First, the hike in, setup of sedation meds, and readying equipment.
Since the temperature was chilly, they wrapped the syringe with a warming pad in order to keep the meds from crystallizing.
Then the short descent down the ravine to the den. There’s always a great deal of care and discussion about the momma bear’s body position within the den and access to good spots for injection. Even though she’s hibernating, she is still fully aware and awake (more on hibernation here). In fact, while shooting from my vantage point, I saw her eyes reflect and blink a couple of times, which was more than just a little alarming. It was a good reminder to be careful and quiet and above all, aware.
They got into position and between them held flashlights, gear, and meds so that they could sedate mom quickly and carefully.
Colby felt mom’s shoulder shift as he contacted her, which required them to time the sedation period and recheck her in order to make sure she received enough to go under for the time they needed.
When time was up, Sara went in to check mom, telling Colby to stay close and grab her feet to pull her out if she needed him. WHAT?!
This is the last I saw of Sara…
Since it was chilly and this bear cub was so young, she tucked him into her jacket until he could be put in a warmer wrap. When we could, we kept him tucked inside a blanket inside of our jackets to add an extra layer.
Ewan waited patiently on a felled tree until it was his turn to hold the baby. Sara’s husband (and my husband’s best friend), Kelly, showed Ewan how to hold him and keep him warm.
You guys. I mean really.
So choked up.
Photo cred on these below goes to Kelly. Thank you friend. I’ll cherish these forever. <3
This little baby was making little grunting and whiny noises that just sounded so sweetly sad. I couldn’t help empathizing for a minute.
After the team had checked the health of Hummingbird (the momma bear), they came up the ravine a little bit to weigh, measure, and chip Herman (the cub). They also took a hair sample (for DNA). After his workup, we held him one last time and Ewan looked inside the den at Hummingbird before they placed Herman back on her to nurse.
Just a couple pics of the team and Sara’s interns, and it was time to go.
As always, Sara, you have my deepest gratitude for this amazing experience. You guys are a stellar group of biologists, and our little family is blessed by you beyond measure! Thank you!!