Sometimes I love my job.
Then we have days like today, which kind of make me want to crawl in a hole and cry.
For the farmers’ sake, I’m glad that we’re getting as much rain as we are. For my sake, I kind of wish it would quit. I’m not just complaining about my two wheel drive again. Okay, that’s part of it. But mostly, the rain just cramps our style. It is dangerous to be out tracking with lightning: you’re sticking an antenna in the air, waiting for lightning to find you. It’s probably dangerous to be out checking hair sites in a thunderstorm: you’re playing with barbed wired wrapped around trees, all of which conducts electricity. It’s dangerous to drive in lowlands during a rainstorm: your way out might become a new creek quickly.
But we march on, in our rubber boots and rain jackets, doing what we can to keep our equipment dry and our tires un-mired.
I suppose we could wait it out, under the canopy, amidst falling branches and natural lightning rods. But today I had to make a decision: mosquitoes or rain. I chose rain. Yeah, it was awful to trudge along under the break in the canopy, but it sure beat getting eaten alive by mosquitoes in the forest.
I just ducked my head, whistled “Into the Woods,” and kept on.
Two days ago was my first night bear. There have been other night bears, but I’ve always been somewhere else: either cavorting in Athens or working on something else. At any rate, it was an experience.
Hooker got stuck on West Lake (the road the “yahoos” frequent when it rains) in his 4wd, so Casey and I went to check her traps and his. Halfway to Hooker’s first trap…the black clouds of summer thunderstorm doom rolled in over our heads. Hooker called us and told us to haul it, because we had a solid red line coming for us on the radar. We parked the 2wd, started walking downhill in the mud toward the low forest in which Hooker had just set a trap. We turn around and see a sheet of rain coming for the truck, so Casey sprinted uphill to get everything important out of the bed, and I sprinted downhill into the dark forest to make sure that trap was empty. Thankfully, it was, so I ran-trudged back to the truck:
“We have a bear.” “What?” “Hooker’s got a bear in the Tarversville Plantation trap. Yeah, I’m serious.” “Cool, Hooker and I had talked about how we hadn’t had a bear in the rain yet.” “Oh, so it’s your fault.” “Yup. At least we have a bear?” “True.”
Turns out Hooker had pulled himself out of his high-centered stuck situation, and had gotten to his last trap before we could. We indeed had a bear. He drove back to the cabin to get a collar and supplies and food for the hungry people, Casey and I took off toward the bear after the rain lessened. We bop on up to get a look at the size of the bear in the trap…and there are three bears.
Now, only one was caught (mom), but there were two yearlings (born last winter, or January-ish 2012) with
her. We backed off really quickly, estimated her for 150-180lbs and waited for Hooker. When he got there, there was banter about how Casey and I got dumped on, and the storm literally went around him, then we told him the yearling situation. Things got serious quickly. We prepared three darts, the plan being: Casey is to dart the mom, with Hooker standing by prepared to free-dart the two yearlings if they come too close or present a danger to us or their mother. I was to record.
We walked up to the trap, but I hung back to stay out of the way and attempt to lower the stress on mom. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I saw the sign for “toe-caught,” which is where the snare doesn’t catch around the wrist, but catches a few toes instead. Typically, this isn’t a good situation because the bear can pull out of it. There was fiddling with the mom’s dart, already in Casey’s blow pipe, then she handed it to Hooker who darted the bear without incident. Turns out she was solidly caught…by two toes. She’d torn the snare almost to threads, which is impressive because it’s metal.
We began our work up, keeping an eye out for the adorable and curious yearlings, who hung out about 30-40m away. Not too close, not too far, and eventually they left. Everything went smoothly, and we finished as the sun went down around 2100. We gave her a reversal (the drug we used to tranquilize her has a reversal drug that makes the recovery time quicker) and waited for it to take effect.
We waited until 0130. The yearlings never came back: my bet is they treed and fell asleep, or ambled into a bed and fell asleep…where Casey and I desperately wanted to be. We snoozed in the truck and checked on mom every 20 minutes, pulling her legs, flicking her ears, encouraging her to wake up so we could sleep.
It’s tough, sometimes, to overcome your body’s cries for bed and sleep and rest and no work, but at the end of the day, we have to realize we’re not the most important thing here. The bears are. We have a responsibility to do right by them, to take care of them and make sure they are okay before we run off to our air conditioned cabin, our pillows, our running water, and our beds. If we don’t: if we slack off and are lazy, if the bears suffer because of our lackadaisical behavior…well, you can imagine what kind of guilt that would put on a person. So you don’t. You do jumping jacks or take 5 minute naps or have late night talks or whatever you have to do to keep watch over your bears, to finish the drill at 100%.