2017-03-04 / Outdoors

INSIDE THE OUTDOORS

Tracking denizen of ‘bear nest’

I pressed through the mountain laurel, struggling with every step to stay on my feet. I felt like the laurel patch was trying to prevent me from entering the terrain that lay ahead, almost like it had a secret that it didn’t want me to uncover.

With each step, it grabbed at my legs with its bony arms, at times hitting me so hard in the shins that I was sure I would be nursing bruises by the end of the day.

We were in the middle of a drive on the second day of bear-hunting season and hopes were high. The drive wouldn’t be a long one, but it was full of good cover. It was good bear terrain that would have been overlooked by hunters on the opening day.

This area was all but impossible to hunt outside of an organized drive. I had volunteered to be the bottom driver. At times, I could glimpse orange upslope from me, worn by my cousin Sam. But even when not in sight, I kept in line with Sam and the other two drivers through periodic hoots.

Putting every ounce of my body into my effort, I bulldozed through the laurel. Up ahead was an area of scattered mature hemlock trees with 10-foot-high hemlock saplings occupying every niche left open by the mountain laurel.

As I came up on the first clump of small hemlocks, I saw it. There on the surface of the frozen ground was a bear bed, or “bear nest” as our crew likes to call them.

A bear had recently camped out in this location. He had broken off branches of mountain laurel and hemlock bows and placed them on the ground, leaving a 2’ by 4’ mat about an inch thick. I had seen similar sights a dozen times before, sometimes in the snow, sometimes on bare ground.

The motive behind these bear nests is obvious. It is not that the bears desire a soft, comfortable mattress. They are trying to insulate their bodies against the cold surface underneath.

Every bear nest that I have stumbled across has been in heavy cover, either mountain laurel patches or thickets of young hemlocks. Black bears are also known to den on top of the ground during winter.

The perfect spot for a bear that is denning on the ground is in the top of a tree that was blown over during the summer and still has its leaves attached. However, a bear that is denning on top of the ground puts a little more effort into building his den, bringing in more material for insulation, especially leaves and dry grasses where available.

A bear that is building a temporary bed doesn’t put that much effort in to it. He just grabs whatever is nearby.

I paused to look around. I examined a mountain laurel bush that had some of its branches broken off. There was a three-inch-long strand of brown hair caught on a stub of a branch. That was all the forensic evidence I needed to conclude that a bear that engineered the bed.

I would have liked to have stayed longer to appreciate what I had just found, but I had to keep moving to stay in line with the rest of the drivers. We had bears to hunt.

We finished the drive ten minutes later without pushing any bears out of the laurel patch. I relayed my findings to the rest of the crew as we joined up after the push to plan our next move.

Other drivers had seen bear droppings. It was all a fresh sign, leading us to believe that a bear had been in the area we had just driven, probably sometime during the past few days. Now he was gone. Where he was now was anyone’s guess.

Bears are interesting animals. The more I spend time in bear woods and see signs of their curious behaviors, the more I grow to respect them as a quarry. This bear season experience was no exception.

Did it matter that this magnificent animal and others of his kind escaped us? Not at all.

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