Warm, moist air rises from the winter den of a black bear on New Year’s Day in the Bigelow Preserve on Maine Public Lands in western Maine. (Photo by C. Parrish)
Warm, moist air rises from the winter den of a black bear on New Year’s Day in the Bigelow Preserve on Maine Public Lands in western Maine. (Photo by C. Parrish)
On New Year’s morning, we broke trail through ten inches of freshly fallen snow on the way to Flagstaff Lake at the foot of the Bigelow Mountains. It was 25 degrees, clear, with no wind, and silence stretched across the forest, making every shush of the snowshoes ridiculously loud. No snowmobiles were on the lake — it was not yet frozen — and the logging  crews were taking the holiday off. 

We crossed a deer track, then a calligraphy of mouse tracks in the snow and the scattered remains of a red squirrel’s breakfast of spruce cones beside the hurried tracks of the departing squirrel. In the distance, a gregarious flock of evening grosbeaks chattered like sparrows, and the tinkling of golden-crowned kinglets passed through the spruce and hemlock and was gone. At our feet, snowshoe hare tracks crisscrossed the unbroken trail, leading into blue shadows beneath snow-covered boughs in a young spruce and fir stand that had grown up in a recent clearcut, like a crowd of Christmas trees huddled close. 

After passing into taller timber on the Bigelow Preserve, I stopped to look for weasel tracks when I saw a small hole in the snow on a slight high spot in an otherwise low and wet woodland. There were no tracks nearby; instead, the edge of the hole was icy and a slight odor of wildness rose out of it. I pulled off my glove and reached out to feel moist heat rising from the opening. It was the breathing hole of a winter bear den.

Black bears are secretive in spite of their size and numbers. Maine has an estimated 24,000 to 36,000 of them, mostly in the less populated northern and eastern forests, but they are rarely seen. Male bears in Maine can weigh up to 600 pounds and stretch six feet, nose to tail, though many are smaller. Females are half that. I had never come across a winter den. My companion, who has spent the last three decades working in the Maine woods, has only seen three.

I do not know if the bear had suddenly become sleepy and curled up against the most suitable brush pile for a five-month nap just before the first snow or if there was time to scrape a nest together. Certainly, the six-foot diameter mound looked cozy enough for a curled-up bear in a winter coat.

If it was an adult female — and, for an inexplicable reason, I assumed it was — she would give birth this month or next to between one and four cubs, all likely from different fathers. During a year with a lean beech-nut or berry crop, she would spontaneously reject her fertilized eggs if she lacked the fat to bring the cubs to term or nurse them until they came out of the den in late spring. This was a fat berry year. She would cub.

Bears only go into a deep sleep. Their heart rate slows, but their body temperature does not drop like that of true hibernators. Could she smell us, with her keen nose? Could she wake? I peered in the breathing hole, but there was nothing to see, just snow fallen on a dark pelt and moist warm air rising and then, a very slight scratching sound. We backed away, leaving the bear to her winter dreams and sending me to the bear research for answers.

Christine Parrish formerly worked as biological field technician at Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, near Calais.